Thursday, 11 February 2016

The Shop Around the Corner vs You've Got Mail

In the spirit of Valentine's Day this weekend, this is as close as I get to talking about the day. I'm not a huge fan of the day as it's really aimed at couples and makes single people feel bad which isn't great. It's a day that likes to exclude people. But if people celebrate it then they celebrate it. At the very least, I thought that a post about a brilliant classic film and a rom-com from the 90's would be in keeping with the spirit of the day.

The two films I'm talking about are the 1940 film directed by Ernst Lubitsch, The Shop Around the Corner and Nora Ephron's 1998 version, You've Got Mail.

I used to despise You've Got Mail with a passion. But recently, I've found a new connection to 90s rom-coms. If you compare them to some of the drival that has been released this side of the millennium, you start to see the quality that was lost. After seeing You've Got Mail again after years, I can see its virtues as well as it's flaws. As for The Shop Around the Corner, I saw it for the first time just before Christmas. I took my friend (who also loves classic films) as part of a Christmas present. I loved the film and of course I noticed instant similarities to You've Got Mail but enjoyed them more, this may because I still love, what is now known as, the art of letter writing, rather than email. I actually ended up renting The Shop Around the Corner again off itunes just to relive the experience. But nothing quite compares to sitting in those comfy chairs at BFI.

The Shop Around the Corner, based in the Hungarian play, Parfumerie, by Miklos Laszlo, is about two shop assistants, Alfred and Klara (James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan), who despise each other at work but have unknowly fallen in love with each other through annoymous letters. It's a simple enough story that also includes a group of other sales assistants all weird and wonderful, as well as manager who tries to keep up with all his demanding wife's (off screen) requests that are mainly for money. He later finds out she is having an affair and suspects that it is with his longest serving and most loyal employee, Alfred. But this is just not true

As the film is adapted from a play, the shop plays a large part of the story as the central location. The potential lovers meet, argue, bond, declare their love in the shop, Matuschek and Company. They meet after Klara asks for a job, but Alfred who thinks she's looking to buy gets annoyed and tries to turn her away. After she lands an impossible sale, she is given a job and made to work under Alfred. This is the start of the love-hate relationship. It's a classic meet queue that many rom-com's use now. I've always loved stories that start off in this way, when characters hate each other so much there must be something else simmering just beneath the surface.

What sets The Shop Around the Corner apart from the 90's counterpart is the use of a few devices mixed together. Love/hate at first sight, love is blind and the art of letter writing. Before we had internet dating, social media and phones, letter writing was a very powerful thing, in terms of affection, emotion and truths. I know there are phones in the film but they weren't used to woo anyone. Through letters Klara and Alfred fell in love after only wishing to correspond with someone who was intelligent and cultured, they created a connection and in a way created a close proximity. Letter writing is also linked with romance, it isn't just a way to communicate. If you want to make a message personal, it seems more meaningful when handwritten.

 I'll always remember what a friend told me, her opinion of what love is, time and proximity. I thought this was spot on, especially concerning Klara and Alfred. Over the course of the story they start out just talking about intellectual subjects then move on to literature and eventually to their feelings for each other. While in the shop, they bicker and argue, mostly in the stock room. When Alfred finds out Klara is the woman in the letters, instead of confronting her he mocks her and pretends her 'date' hasn't shown up. All his feelings are hindered because he knows who she is. But, after they insult each other to a breaking point, he changes and starts to see what he's done and falls in love with her all over again. She, not knowing his identity seeks out his friendship and help, confiding in him about the letters. As they work together, now as friends, Klara starts to doubt her connection with her pen pal and grow closer to Alfred. Over time writing letters and working with one another in close proximity, their love grows and leads up to a declaration, and of course, it takes place on the shop floor.

The 90's rom-com doesn't credit The Shop Around the Corner, it credit's Parfumerie by Miklos Laszlo. There is the obvious reference though as Kathleen's bookshop is named about the 1940 film. Despite this, both 40s and 90s films are rather similar. Changing the setting to New York and having the lovers become rivals, a independant children's bookshop owner and a mega chain bookstore owner.

Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) owns the children's bookstore which was owned by her mother before her. She and her group of kooky sales assistants are a part of the community. They hold events, signings and as well as having the knowledge of children's books, they also know all their loyal customers by name. Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) is also part of family run business, except his is a gigantic chainstore, Fox Books (similar to Waterstones and Boarders before it shut down). He is in charge of a new store opening in Kathleen's neighbourhood and has the potential to force her to close down. While all this is happening, Joe and Kathleen have already met using screen names in an online chat room, unknown by their partners. They have been emailing back and fourth, nothing romantic, yet. Bit by bit they open up to each other. Things start to shift when they meet in person, still blissfully unaware of their online connection and blossoming romance. Even then they 'hit it off' as it were. But as soon as they know each others names, which they find out at a literature folk gathering, they hate each other instantly. They fight in person and online confide in each other again, bringing them closer together.

The film goes a similar way as its predecessor, they plan to meet but Joe finds out who she is and stands Kathleen up and attempts to interupt her meeting. They say things they regret and part ways. Kathleen is forced to close her store and retreats. But Joe misses her and continues to talk to her online, hoping in some way that she'll fall in love him as Joe Fox and not as NY152 (his screen name). He makes friends with her and then 'accidentally' bumps into her on a frequent basis. Eventually, she agrees to meet her online love and is delighted that its Joe.

There are two elements that are in this film that are not present in The Shop Around the Corner, they are books and email. The romance, I believe, in The Shop Around the Corner is stemmed from the closeness the characters share and from their letters. In You've Got Mail, all communication is done through email, which feels colder and less romantic. This was obviously applied to update the story and fit with the times. Back in 1998, the internet and email were still in the early stages, chat rooms were also quite new. I've heard people refer to this film as a rom-com for the AOL generation and I think this is true. So, in order to retain the romance, books play a huge part of the story. Books, again, I think, are just romantic in general and beautifully crafted. They are also seen as nostalgic, especially with Kathleen as she runs a children's bookstore which in turn holds memories of her mother and the past. Joe sees his bookstores as the future, the larger store where people can feel like they're at home. Of course, for this generation, we need to enjoy this while we can as too many bookstores are disappearing. Books are what brings Kathleen and Joe together in person and what creates the closeness. They already have a connection, having both been involved in family run businesses, even if they are at different levels. The time and proximity theory can also be applied to You've Got Mail in a similar way that it applies to The Shop Around the Corner. Kathleen and Joe work in the same business and are forced to see and interact with each other due to their rivalry and then via email they slowly fall in love. Joe then endears himself to Kathleen, first becoming her friend and then by seeing her so often, the connection they so obviously have online spills out to real life.

Overall, the running theme throughout both versions, as they are both adapted from Parfumerie by Miklos Laszlo, is that love is blind. Both couples are blinded by they're dislike of one another in person that they cannot open up until they believe they are talking to a perfect stranger and share their true feelings. The love/hate relationship in both films are structured and played out well but unlike Kathleen, Klara admits to being attracted to and a little bit in love from the very start in person. Kathleen only starts to fall in love with Joe in person near the end of the film. Joe, also only realises that he wants something more in his life when he's trapped in a lift with his annoying girlfriend, only then does he pursue Kathleen. Alfred doesn't do this. He changes his mind about Klara not long after the doomed date in the cafe. Later on he actively tries to deter Klara away from the writing companion in the hopes that she still feels the same way as she did when they first met. There is more hope and heart and charm in The Shop Around the Corner. The simplicity of the story and how Klara and Alfred's relationship plays out feels more romantic. Where as You've Got Mail has more of a comedic vibe that it tries to shake off too far into the film. There is something to be said for letter writing as here it wins the day and wins my heart. A more personal touch than clicking a button on a screen, so for me, The Shop Around the Corner would wins this round.


  1. Love this! I saw The Shop Around the Corner fist, when I was little, and it is still a favorite and regular Christmas movie for me:) I do like You've Got Mail too especially for all the 90s nostalgia, just not as much.

  2. I wish I had seen it earlier but I only found out about it a few years back. I wasn't sure if it was the original of You've Got Mail or not. I think I like You've Got Mail more now because of how great TSATC is.

  3. You've Got Mail is adequate but missing so many of the components that make Shop Around the Corner so memorable. I agree that the email device removes a great deal of the intimacy of the story as does the lead pair not working together so the daily irritations are removed. But a large part is the loss of the surrounding story that's in Shop, the extremely moving Frank Morgan storyline is gone replaced by meaningless filler. It's not just that Morgan was great, how he didn't end up nominated is a puzzler, but it added dimension to the entirety of both Alfred and Klara's interactions. In Mail they seem to operate in a vacuum but in Shop the other employees all are recognizable people with quirks and failings.

    I have to point out one of my favorite scenes that doesn't involve either Stewart of Sullavan. Near the end when Frank Morgan is leaving the shop on Christmas Eve alone and lonely and he tries subtly to reach out to everyone as they are leaving hinting he'd like company and he discovers that the new young clerk is equally alone and takes him under his wing. It's just so sweet and moving with that underlying pathos.

    I like both Hanks and Ryan as performers and I know their chemistry is good but Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan's connection was stronger. Part of that was that they were old friends, they had started out together in summer stock and he was Henry Fonda's roommate before Fonda's brief marriage to Maggie Sullavan. Stewart also admitted that he was platonically in love with her all her life and I think that shows through in his gentle reactions to her throughout the picture. The more dramatic tone, mixed with comic elements, of Shop also gives more heft to the love story.

    Jimmy and Maggie did make three other films together, The Mortal Storm-a heavy drama about the spread of Nazism, The Shopworn Angel-where Sullavan is a worldly woman and Stewart a young soldier smitten with her and Next Time We Love which I haven't seen unfortunately. Shop Around the Corner is the best of the quartet but the others that I've seen are well worth checking out...their chemistry is just as strong in each.

  4. These all sound like great films! I need to check these out (hopefully find them on itunes). You're right they are such a strong pair. And the back story, which I didn't know about, does shine through and make all the difference.

    The added story of the store manager was needed to build the story of the shop and plays nicely along the two letter writing lovers. I have to say, when watching the film with my friend, I said that's the guy from The Wizard of OZ and I'm so pleased I spotted this. I didn't know the actor's name until after.