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Viewer Guide: “Tucker: The Man and His Dream” and “The Shop Around the Corner”

November 16, 2022 | Richard Peña


Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988).

This week’s double feature begins with Tucker: The Man and His Dream, the 1988 biopic directed by Francis Ford Coppola. 

Jeff Bridges stars as Preston Tucker, the pioneering automotive entrepreneur who dared to take on the Detroit car industry to pursue his lifelong dream of building “the car of tomorrow” for postwar America.  After his wartime work building a combat car that was deemed to be “too fast” by the US Army, Tucker decides to focus his boundless enthusiasm on a much bigger project—a new, completely redesigned breed of car packed with innovative safety features, including a rear engine, swiveling headlights, seat belts and pop-out shatterproof windows.  Working out of the barn next door to his home in Ypsilanti, Michigan, Tucker relies on the support of his sprawling family, headed by his wife Vera, played by Joan Allen, and his eldest son Preston, Jr., played by Christian Slater, as well as his longtime engineer Eddie Dean, played by Frederic Forrest.  But to make his dream a reality, Tucker needs much more than family and friends to pull it off; he enlists the help of Abe Karatz, a New York City businessman played by Martin Landau who initially doubts that Tucker’s ambitious schemes stand a chance.  But after masterminding a promotional magazine article about his fantasy car, Tucker’s publicity stunt proves to be an unprecedented success, overwhelming his embryonic car manufacturing enterprise with enthusiastic interest.  Now that the public’s imagination has been captured, might there really enough room in Detroit for a visionary new competitor? 

Also featured in supporting roles are Elias Koteas as Tucker’s one-man design department, Jeff Bridge’s father Lloyd Bridges in an uncredited role as a hostile state senator, and Dean Stockwell in a cameo appearance as the reclusive tycoon Howard Hughes, who offers Tucker a welcome engineering tip. 

Director Francis Ford Coppola had dreamed of doing a film about Preston Tucker’s revolutionary car of the future ever since seeing one as a boy with his father Carmine at a 1947 car show.  Originally intending to do the film following The Godfather Part 2 with Marlon Brando starring as Tucker, Coppola at first conceived the movie as a dark experimental musical, and briefly enlisted Leonard Bernstein along with Betty Comden and Adolph Green to write the music and lyrics.  Delayed for several years by other films, Coppola was encouraged to resume work on the project by his old friend George Lucas—while convincing Coppola to drop his musical approach.  With all the major studios balking at the $24 million dollar budget following Coppola’s box-office failures One from the Heart and The Cotton Club, George Lucas stepped in as executive producer to guarantee the production himself.  At the time of production, 47 of the 51 originally manufactured Tucker cars were still roadworthy; 21 cars were rented for the film—with Coppola and Lucas each owning two.  The racetrack accident sequence involved three Tucker facsimiles utilizing fiberglass exterior shells placed over of other cars.  Despite glossing over legitimate questions about Tucker’s financial dealings, the film received positive critical reaction and garnered three Oscar nominations including a Best Supporting Actor nod for Martin Landau. 


The Shop Around the Corner (1940).

This week’s double feature continues with The Shop Around the Corner, a 1940 romantic comedy starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, and directed by Ernst Lubitsch. 

Based on the 1937 Hungarian play Parfumerie by Miklós László, The Shop Around the Corner stars James Stewart as Alfred Kralik, the most trusted employee as well as the top salesman in a leather goods store.  However, despite his success and many years at the shop, Alfred finds himself increasingly at odds with his boss Mr. Matuschek, played by Frank Morgan.  To make matters worse, Alfred suddenly has competition: Klara Novak, played by the luminous Margaret Sullavan, gets hired as a new shop clerk after impressing Mr. Matuschek with her skillful salesmanship.  Soon, Alfred and Klara’s interaction evolves from cold stares to constant bickering.  Meanwhile, Alfred confides in another co-worker that he’s begun a correspondence with a most charming young woman he discovered through a personal ad in the newspaper; nervous that he may not live up to his mystery woman’s expectations—and that she may not live up to his—Alfred repeatedly postpones an in-person meeting, but finally he has no choice but to make a date.  But when the big day finally arrives, Mr. Matuschek insists that everyone stay late to redecorate the shop for Christmas, throwing a monkey wrench into Alfred’s plan—but curiously, Klara seems just as upset as he is. 

All the intricate machinery of this handsomely produced MGM classic work smoothly and elegantly under the watchful eye and sophisticated direction of the great Ernst Lubitsch, who instinctively knew how best to balance the elements of comedy, drama, irony and pathos that make up The Shop Around the Corner.  The film also stars Joseph Schildkraut as the shop’s resident ladies’ man, Felix Bressart and Inez Courtney as Alfred’s fellow clerks, and William Tracy as an ambitious delivery boy. 

Cases of unknown or mistaken identity are enduring plot devices in storytelling ranging from ancient epics to You’ve Got Mail.  For Lubitsch, Alfred and Klara could not have really met and gotten together when they first started corresponding: they had to learn much more about themselves before they could really open up to someone else.  In 1949, the original story was musicalized and transferred to America for In the Good Old Summertime starring Judy Garland and Van Johnson.  Another version of the story has been a success on Broadway:  the musical She Loves Me, recently revived by the Roundabout Theatre Company in a critically acclaimed production at Studio 54. 

Richard Peña is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema.  

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