You've Got Mail Around the Corner
It's always fascinating to discover the original after the remake. Even the experience of watching a film like Angels With Dirty Faces at this point is informed by The Departed. And so, having seen Nora Ephon's You've Got Mail more than once (that comes with having two sisters and no brothers to override the vote), I approached The Shop Around the Corner.
Blogger's Note: I have seen The Shop Around the Corner and Trouble in Paradise, but no other Ernst Lubitsch films. Any comments I make concerning Lubitsch is only with the knowledge of those two films. I'm sorry. I'm working on it.
Of course there are notable differences between these two films. You've Got Mail puts a considerable anti-corporate spin to its story, missing the irony in its release by Warner Brothers. However, there are more important differences in dissecting the films' quality. And no, I hope this won't end as merely bashing Nora Ephron and raising Lubitsch to the heavens. I found The Shop Around the Corner to be lacking, especially when compared with Trouble in Paradise.
The Shop Around the Corner focuses on a relationship built on anonymous letters. The letters are barely read, but their snippets are eloquent. Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) is too smart for his job, and so sprinkles his letters with literary quotes (only Victor Hugo is read aloud). This relative mystery leaves our characters as idealisms of their genders. They are smart, witty, and charming, as most people would like to appear on paper. This, along with the fact that the film is set in Hungary, lends an air of fantasy to the whole thing; a good movie is a time away from our boring lives and with the people we wish were with us.
You've Got Mail is entirely of its time. Modern enough to have the internet, yet old enough to be naive about it, the film treads a careful line that couldn't be followed today. Anonymous chats online are now much more in turn with the dark side and obvious potential for false identities, ala Perfect Stranger (no I haven't seen it, but the trailer told me more than I needed to know). This sort of innocence creates its own fantasy. Unfortunately, this film lets us into its characters' heads. We get to see much more of the conversations, and they are decidedly lesser than those in The Shop Around the Corner. Godfather references are supposed to come across as an insight into the minds of men, but it just sounds like an embarrassing generalization of the opposite sex. Of course, it's a welcome change from the traditional reverse, but that doesn't excuse the cliches.
Next is the characters themselves. One of the defining moments of The Shop Around the Corner, at least for me, is the introduction of Klara Novak (Margaret Sullivan). She is introduced both through her credentials and her impressive skill as a saleswoman. She is clearly someone who deserves our respect for her intelligence and charm. Kralik, though not nearly as charming, has the courage to stand up to his boss and the innate ability to know what is right in any given situation. Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) is defined by her job and the conflict of her small shop versus the big bad corporation. Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) is given more, but that's only because of his position in life. Joe is in a relationship with a superficial bimbo (Parker Posey), and he comes from a long line of rich old men who have children in their 70s. He gets to realize that his life is bizarre in all the wrong ways. Kathleen gets to fight the inevitable closing of her small, personal shop.
It's the usual dichotomy. He gets the humor and she gets the pathos. Both actors are well suited for their roles, and I will give credit to the film for nailing the way that Starbucks has consumed so many people. Of course, obvious product placement like that is a problem in and of itself, but it almost feels justified here. The Starbucks monologues are actually well thought out and insightful, unlike tired Godfather generalizations. However, You've Got Mail still lacks the otherworldly fantasy that The Shop Around the Corner achieves. I'm still unsure if this is a good thing or not. It is certainly indicative of the era.
Neither film simply relies on cliches to describe their main characters, though both have an overreliance on cliches to define the rest of the cast. It's easy to knock Greg Kinnear for playing Greg Kinnear, but the problem is that the criticism is, for the most part, true. Most of his roles are very similar, and only recently has he begun expanding, with roles in The Bad News Bears. Parker Posey always creates interesting characters, but her character acting leaves little room to get to know her Patricia. Similarly, Joseph Schildkraut is deliciously slimy, but we never really get any motivation. Each character, outside of the main couple, can be easily summarized in a sentence or two, but maybe that's the point.
We don't want Dabney Coleman to steal too many scenes or to give William Tracy too much screen time (he really does steal every scene he's in). These are ultimately stories about couples. Each character stands out from their surroundings yet can easily fit in when needed. Kralik, when necessary, can become the yes-man that Hugo Matuscheck Frank Morgan), but he always strives for more. Novak is smart enough to read Tolstoy, yet she funnels her brilliance into her job and her letters. Joe Fox, though he accepts the trappings of his lifestyle, would still rather go to Kathleen's shop than his own chain. Kathleen tries to control her emotions, to fit in with the heartless society around her, but she cannot. Her emotions make her recognizably human, especially when she goes to Fox's bookstore. She goes to Starbucks, but she doesn't want to be defined by her latte. It's understandable.
Each of these films works within the realms of romantic fantasy, but You've Got Mail has much tighter boundaries. Instead of pre-War Hungary, we get New York City. Instead of two closet know-it-alls, we get two semi-ordinary people from different classes. The modern film must be grounded in some sort of reality in order to connect with us. The Shop Around the Corner is free to fantasize. Its audience expected it. Before film noir and WWII darkened the mood of film, the medium was more about transportation. What girl wouldn't want to end up with Jimmy Stewart? Every guy wants a girl who's smart but still needs some protection. With The Shop Around the Corner, you can imagine yourself there. With You've Got Mail, you're already there. These people are you. It takes some of the fun out of it.