(director: Ernst Lubitsch; screenwriters: Samson Raphaelson/from the play Parfumerie by Nikolaus Laszlo; cinematographer: William Daniels; editor: Gene Ruggiero; music: Walter R. Heymann; cast: Margaret Sullavan (Klara Novak), James Stewart (Alfred Kralik), Frank Morgan (Hugo Matuschek), Joseph Schildkraut (Ferencz Vadas), Sara Haden (Flora Katcuck), Felix Bressart (Pirovitch), William Tracy (Pepi Katona ), Inez Courtney (Ilona), Charles Smith (Rudy); Runtime: 99; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Ernst Lubitsch; MGM; 1940)

Wonderful period low-budget light romantic comedy taking place during the Depression among a few underpaid neurotics surviving in the workforce of a small notions store.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Wonderful period low-budget light romantic comedy taking place during the Depression among a few underpaid neurotics surviving in the workforce of a small notions store, while under-appreciated and under pressure to perform by their overbearing boss. It’s also an amusing story of lonely-heart pen-pal correspondents meeting after making a letter connection. German ex-pat director Ernst Lubitsch (“Ninotchka”/”Heaven Can Wait”/”Trouble in Paradise”)gives it the “Lubitsch Touch,” which lovingly speaks for the director’s noted charming signature style in creating a lyrical human interest story out of everyday matters. It was put to music and to sleep In The Good Old Summertime (1949), played on Broadway as She Loves Me, and had all the Lubitsch charm drained out of it in the awful remake of You’ve Got Mail. It’s based on the 1937 Depression-era Hungarian play Parfumerie by Nikolaus Laszlo, and is superbly written bySamson Raphaelson.

Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) is a serious-minded young bachelor bookish clerk for the last nine years in Matuschek’s (Frank Morgan) small notion shop in Budapest. Matuschek employs six clerks that include the competent senior head clerk Kralick, the spinster still living at home cashier Flora (Sara Haden), the nondescript clerk Ilona (Inez Courtney), the insincere loud-mouth womanizer sharpie clerk Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut), the decent family man clerk Pirovitch (Felix Bressart) and the newly hired pushy clerk Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan). Running errands is the snippy Pepi Katona (William Tracy).

The running gag throughout is that the boss ordered for sale a cigarette box that plays when opened ‘Ochi Tchornya,’ a festive Russian song whose title translates to Blue Eyes. Kralick’s honest opinion, offered when asked by the boss, is that it’s a tacky item whose tune will soon wear out its welcome, the cheap imitation leather will not hold-up for long, and the music part of the device is so cheaply made that it will soon break. When Kralick’s opinion displeases the insecure boss, Klara Novak gets her job by impressively selling the junk item as a candy box. For six months Kralick and Klara despise each other and constantly bicker over their different opinions, not knowing they are writing under pseudonyms to each other high-brow literary letters promoted through a newspaper ad and have fallen in love sight unseen. It takes until the final act for them to meet and realize that they are the romantic unseen pen-pal writers. It’s a shoddy contrivance that only works so well because Lubitsch knows how to make such a cutesie banality tasty, while Stewart and Sullavan have great chemistry together and bring credibility to their sympathetic roles. There have been many romantic comedies following the same predictable arc but, as far as I’m concerned, none pull it off better or in a more pleasant way than it’s done here.