Playing the kindly friend, Pirovitch, to James Stewart's lovesick Alfred Kralik, there is something very real and sweet about Felix Bressart in The Shop Around the Corner. I remember seeing this wonderful film most memorably at the National Film Theatre in London on a big screen and in a new print. We forget how much impact old films can have when we only ever see them on television in the corner of distracting sitting rooms. It was a Lubitsch season and I also saw Ninotchka then, another favourite, another great comic performance by Bressart, as one of three Russian communists succumbing to the charms of Paris. He doesn't grand stand. He just quietly steals the scenes he's in, or at least matches his stars because frankly who steals from Stewart? Recently I saw To Be or Not To Be (more Lubitsch) in which Bressart plays the Jewish actor, Greenberg, in a company of Polish actors, with one wonderful moment near the end where he is given the chance to play Shylock to an audience of Nazi captors in the corridor of the theatre. Even with the bowdlerization to remove the references to Shylock's being a Jew (?!), it's an emotional moment in an otherwise bonkers black comedy.
I suppose he typifies what I mean by a great supporting player. He was never going to be the star with those looks or his strong Eastern European accent - he was born in East Prussia, now Russia. But his commitment to his parts is complete and his characters are so full of warmth, so wry and modest. He almost throws his lines away but he's unforgettable.
Here he is in a pivotal scene in The Shop Around the Corner, finding out the true identity of Stewart's secret correspondent. And yes, this was remade as You Got Mail much more recently. A film which I have seen and which is frankly a travesty next to this masterpiece.
The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
To Be or Not To Be (1942)