Saw for some reason The Shop Around the Corner again, few nights ago, and it's as enchanting as ever. We've talked to death how good Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart (in his non-stuttering mode) are, but this time around, I've got to say something about Frank Morgan. His Mr. Matuschek is your classic portrait of a benign tyrant who without explanation becomes less benign and more unstable as the story progresses, and Morgan shows us this change in character with remarkable understatement, so quietly and naturally you accept it at the same time you're upset by it, especially when it begins to have a terrible impact on his employees.
His relationship with his people is complex--he's not one to put himself on equal footing with them, but there is an unspoken affection between them, an acceptance by them of him as a father figure, and when he betrays this, especially in relation with Stewart (at one point Stewart reminds him of this out loud), you feel the betrayal keenly.
When the plot turns, it turns quickly, one revelation following another; suddenly peoples' status are overturned, and Matuschek is left like a fifth wheel outside his shop looking in, watching his people make their biggest sale ever. The scene where, after he hands out the bonuses and scrounges around for a companion for Christmas dinner is heartbreaking, all the more so because Morgan refuses to ask for any sympathy; we just gradually realize what he's doing, and the pathos of his situation is lightly and delicately played. I'll bet it's the finest scene Morgan's ever played as well.
The film is based on a play by Miklos Laszlo, and I think I understand why Lubitsch would insist on setting it in Budapest--there's something about Eastern Europe, its acceptance of workplace politics and of petty hierarchies that's unique to the culture. Well, maybe not--I've worked in a bank some ten years, and some of the backbiting and ass-covering almost seems to have been taken verbatim from some of what I hear in the picture (I'd call it one of the most damningly accurate depictions of a workplace ever filmed). But the flavor of the bickering seems distinctly of the place.