Friday, January 11, 2008

The Shop Around The Corner/The Good Ole Summertime/You've Got Mail

Ernst Lubitsch directed James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan in the 1940 classic The Shop Around The Corner, a charming story of two people who fall in love as pen pals but can't stand each other in real life. They sort of one-up each other, until Stewart realizes that Sullavan is the girl he loves (on paper), giving him the freedom to torment Sullavan on the one-hand, but the difficulty of making her not hate him on the other.

The Shop Around The Corner has an additional peculiar charm because it takes place in Budapest, though everything is in plain American English. Stewart is Alfred Kralik and Frank Morgan is Hugo Matuschek. They didn't feel any need to relocate the movie to Dubuque or Albuquerque, or change the character names.

Like a lot of the great romantic-comedies of the era, and particularly Lubitsch's stuff, there's a lightness of touch which is both funny, endearing and completely impossible to recreate in modern films. (I can't even conceive of a modern version of Heaven Can Wait with Don Ameche and Gene Tierney's flawed, sweet relationship.)

Lubitsch's women are strong without being shrewish, aware of their mate's flaws while being tolerant (to a point). The men adore their women without being submissive. His movies are still a joy to watch and, as I say, totally unreproducible.

Which isn't to say people don't try.

The first attempt to redo Shop was the oddly named In The Good Ole Summertime. Still charming, with Van Johnson channeling James Stewart, and Judy Garland at her--well, not best, but when was she ever bad?

Actually, as someone who fell in love with Judy Garland out of college (not having seen her n anything other than Wizard of Oz at that point), it's a little hard to watch her in this film and realize she's only 26 years old. She shows a lot more age. And she was pretty much at the end of her movie career.

Director Robert Z. Leonard had probably seen better times, too.

This movie is a late entry in those '40s films that looked nostalgically back at the Gilded Age, with little remarks like Van Johnson being thrilled that he has a job that pays...Oh, I forget now, $15/week? (We don't seem to make nostalgic movies much these days, probably because the demographic is too young to remember an earlier time.)

Although Judy sings a number of songs, it's not really a musical: The songs are all performances within the context of the movie, which takes place in a music store (versus the sort-of general wares type store of the original).

The whole thing is buoyed by some great physical comedy choreographed and sometimes performed by Buster Keaton, who had long realized he never should've sold his studio.

Even so, it's a shadow of the original.

Nora Ephron tried again to remake this, though I suppose you'd call it a "reimagining", as You've Got Mail. It was, indeed, a brilliant idea to transpose the film to modern technology, and the movie captures, at least, the originals' plot point of the man (Tom Hanks) using his knowledge of the situation to torment the woman (Meg Ryan). The ending is kind of nice, too, when she realizes the truth.

But otherwise, it doesn't really work because, I think, Meg Ryan's character is a basket case. You can't even imagine Sullavan or Garland's character being basket cases (and Garland was actually sort of a basket case at the time). And this is true of a lot of modern RomComs: Where the old ones were rough-and-tumble, and sexist in the sense of insisting on the differences between men and women, the new ones are fragile, with women both demanding homogeneity while falling apart at the drop of a hat

The new one has Meg Ryan's character running a bookstore that is destroyed by Tom Hanks' family's mega-book-mart. It's actually not bad metaphorically (the movie itself is an updating of an old classic, and some things have to be torn down, right?) but I think it messes with the dynamic. Where earlier versions of the female character go around the leading man to be successful (both Garland and Sullavan get their jobs over Johnson and Stewart's objections), this one has her inevitably destroyed by him.

I don't know. If we've come so far in the past 70 years, why do female characters seem so weak?

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