Thursday, January 21, 2010

#384: The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Cast: James Stewart & Margaret Sullavan

Alfred Kralik, the assistant to the manager of a gift shop right around the corner from the main boulevard in Budapest, is hesitant to hire the young and talented Klara Novak from the start. Throughout her time at the store, the two can’t stand to be near each other. What they don’t realize is that they have each fallen in love with each other through their anonymous pen pal letters to each other.

Does this premise ring a bell? Of course it does. The film (based on a play by Miklós László) was the inspiration for Nora Ephron’s
You’ve Got Mail (1998). Due to this fact, this post will be more of a comparative study (although, let’s face it, not much of a study) rather than my usual standard review.

There are two vast improvements made by
You’ve Got Mail. First off, the location. I understand that the play was written and took place in Hungary. However, this doesn’t seem to be a good enough reason to set it there. Normally I’m all for keeping the original locale, but it has nothing to do with the story. If they at least decided to have non-American accents used, it would be a step up. But when the main characters are clearly American in a set that doesn’t look particularly Hungarian, you might as well set it in the States.

Next, the female lead and her relationship with Kralik. Klara is often rude to Kralik for his insincere reception. Klara comes across as bitter, but at first I let it slide; he was rude to her as well. But once Kralik discovers that she is his pen pal, he is very kind to her – even romantic. However, she continues her streak of insults without apology. Nora Ephron brilliantly fixed this up in two ways. First, she made Klara’s character (renamed Kathleen Kelly) extremely likable, and when she blurts out an insult, Kathleen immediately feels horrible about it. Second, the female lead’s position in society is brought up to date. Kathleen Kelly is not just a salesgirl; she’s the owner of a small store that is fighting against the large corporation that’s taking her business, which is owned by her e-mail pal Joe Fox. Kathleen Kelly has a much more meaningful reason to detest Joe Fox than Klara Novak’s hatred of Alfred Kralik. The relationship didn’t resonate nearly as brilliantly as Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks.

Speaking of Tom Hanks, I was amazed at how similar he is to James Stewart in both performance and appearance. I think I can go as far as saying that I believe Tom Hanks to be the James Stewart of our age.

I don’t mean to bash this film; it absolutely has a charm to it, and though it was outdated, it certainly had a je-ne-sais-quoi that led Ephron to bring it to this day and age. James Stewart was clearly the backbone of the film, and his wit and charm certainly influenced Tom Hanks’ role of Joe Fox. Some scenes in
You’ve Got Mail were taken almost directly from The Shop Around the Corner, most notably the scene when the male lead discovers that he has been writing to his business foe. If I had to guess, the similarities between these two scenes were intended to support the humorous side of the male lead and his good nature, which was pulled off flawlessly on both accounts.

Outdated, but a lovely lighthearted film.

Fun Trivia (Stolen from IMDB):

  • According to Bright Lights Film Journal website, when Kralik mentions "You read Zola's Madame Bovary," Klara immediately corrects him: "Madame Bovary is not by Zola," she snipes. The joke here is that though Klara knows who wrote Madame Bovary, she doesn't understand that she herself is living exclusively in Emma Bovary's world of impossible ideals.
  • The play, "Perfumerie" (also known as "Illatszertár"), was copyrighted 10 November 1936.
  • To make sure his film was stripped of the glamor usually associated with him, Lubitsch went to such lengths as ordering that a dress Sullavan had purchased off the rack for $1.98 be left in the sun to bleach and altered to fit poorly.
  • According to the Book "Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise", ‘The Shop Around the Corner’ is the most meaningful tribute possible to the owner and employees of the long vanished Berlin clothing firm of S. Lubitsch.

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