Archive for December, 2017
Title The Shop Around the Corner
Starring James Stewart, Margaret Sullavan, and Frank Morgan
Director Ernst Lubitsch
Writer(s) Samson Raphaelson and Miklós László
Genre Romance | Comedy | Drama
Release Date January 12, 1940
Filming Location Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Culver City, California, USA
Parental Guidance TV-G
IMDB Rating 8.1
Synopsis: Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) is the First Salesman at the Matuschek & Co. boutique store, which has allowed him a rather comfortable bachelor’s living thus far. Sure, his relationship with the store’s owner Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan) is more-often-than-not contentious given that, whenever invited to share an opinion, he ends up challenging the old man’s decisions for the benefit of the store; nevertheless, he also knows that his longstanding tenure with the company and faithful efforts towards its success is appreciated by the big guy, albeit grudgingly. Besides, with a wonderful staff under his supervision, Alfred wouldn’t change a thing about his life. That is, until a steady mail correspondence with an anonymous woman has him wondering about married life and he decides, come Christmas, he will ask Matuschek for a raise. Just around the same time, a woman walks into the store and tries to cheekily talk Alfred into giving her a job by applying to his optimism regarding the upcoming Christmas sale that is likely to demand additional help. Alfred is less than approving of having his gullibility played upon by this Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) and refuses her a position. However, Klara, with her salesmanship, manages to impress Matuschek into hiring her and what follows is weeks of resentful verbal combat between Alfred and Klara where neither is aware that the other is the secret pen pal each has been gradually falling in love with. With just a week to go before Christmas, the epistolary lovers decide to finally meet and Alfred gets ready to ask Matuschek for a raise. Alas! His recent exchanges with the boss, who himself has been rather preoccupied with marital problems, is rockier than usual and Alfred ends up getting fired instead of being promoted. When Alfred decides to keep his date anyway, he discovers his mystery girlfriend is, in fact, Klara and there ensues a disastrous evening for both. Meanwhile, other events bring on unforeseen twists of fate for Matuschek that does not bode well for anyone related to their “shop around the corner”.
Title You’ve Got Mail
Starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan
Director Nora Ephron
Writer(s) Nora Ephron, Delia Ephron, and Miklós László (play)
Genre Romance | Comedy | Drama
Release Date December 18, 1998
Filming Location Manhattan, NY, USA
Parental Guidance PG
IMDB Rating 6.6
Synopsis: Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) is the owner of an independent children’s bookstore in Manhattan, NY. It was whimsically named The Shop Around the Corner by her late mother, who had founded the enterprise as the local creative resource for children, from everyday reading requirements to the most unusual literary undertaking – a responsibility that Kathleen was only too happy to inherit and now upholds with relish. All this, and her reflections on the mundane topics that interest her, she relates to a mystery man she met in a chat room many moons ago and with whom she has since been keeping up a steady e-mail correspondence. Though neither reveals any particulars about their lives that may compromise their identity to the other, it is clear that their online relationship gradually takes precedence over their individual longtime love affairs. Enter Joe Fox (Tom Hanks), the heir to the mass book retail chain Fox Books, who has been entrusted to expand the family business nationwide and whose current project is ready to commence operation, literally, just around the corner from Kathleen’s store. Kathleen’s fellow storekeepers are wary of this major corporation, which they feel should be considered a formidable adversary, intending to seduce readers away with its cutthroat discounts and designer coffee. Kathleen, however, feels Fox Books’s impersonal salespeople and overstocked shelves are no threat to the knowledgeable service and rare book collection that The Shop Around the Corner provides. At first, it seems that Kathleen’s predictions will ring true, as the community rallies around her store. Even Joe, who harbors something akin to survivor’s guilt over all the independent establishments he has put out of business, becomes enchanted by Kathleen’s naturally gracious disposition towards her patrons and genuine desire to help young readers connect with the world of books – though he cunningly hides his identity from her. However, when Fox Books begins operation, sales at The Shop Around the Corner begins to decline. And when Kathleen discovers Joe’s deception about his professional identity during a later chance encounter, she vehemently condemns him as a spy and the two cross words. Yet, each continues to remain unaware that the other is their online confidant. So while on cyberspace, Joe guides Kathleen to “go to war” with her rival, in the business world, a bitter struggle for survival ensues between the two that forces each to discover a previously dormant side to their natures – and maybe learn to accept the other for their better sides in the process.
Experience: THIS is what watching romantic comedy is all about – discovering the many ways people overcome everyday challenges to learn about their individual weaknesses and strengths to converge as a unit that is better for being a whole. I don’t know how many times I have seen You’ve Got Mail. My DVD experienced its share of wear over the years before I finally laid it to rest when online streaming became the norm. Therefore, it’s funny that it took me so long to get around to seeing The Shop Around the Corner, the original movie from which the famous Hanks-Ryan feature was remade. What did I discover? Well, despite the much higher rating on IMDB for the old B&W classic, I think Nora Ephron made a vast improvement. So much so that it deserves discussing.
You know how sometimes you hear actresses complaining that Hollywood greatly prefers telling stories about male rather than female characters, that there are more hero-centric movies than heroine-centric? If you watch The Shop Around the Corner and You’ve Got Mail back-to-back, you will realize that it ain’t all wack. The original screenplay was filmed entirely from the perspective of James Stewart’s character Alfred Kralik even though the plot aimed to show how a pair of mystery correspondents who, despite acting as foils to one another in their physical realm, unbeknownst to them, may fall in love over anonymous letters. It is a meeting of the minds that transcends all other superficial qualities one regularly seeks in one’s mate. It is the realization that even daily interactions with a person may only reveal so much about them to form an honest verdict of their character. Indeed it is a story that deserved to be told from both sides of the veil since something must’ve made Klara Novak fall in love with a man she knew not in person as much as Alfred did with her but alas! Luckily, Stewart is a talented actor and the story does not suffer from his singular presence on the screen. Also, the steady earnest gaze of his soulful long-lashed eyes is dreamy beyond comparison.
Mercifully, some six decades later, women finally gained greater access to the rein in Hollywood and thus could endeavor to do better. Ephron put on her hard hat and rewrote the screenplay to tell the story how it should have been told. By adding just twenty minutes to the plot, we are presented deeper insights into both the main characters’ backstories, discovering who they are as individuals and not just the superficial perception that each form about the other. I love how, this time, the screen presence is equally divided between Kathleen Kelly and Joe Fox. I love how both the lead characters are allowed time away from one another that demonstrate their actual individual lives and responsibilities. We no longer witness who they are just over a series of arguments. They are given ample room to breathe as separate entities so that when they come together, we can savor the full-bodied texture of their romantic endeavor.
And I’m grateful that we can have more of those letters read to us – letters that were the key component to the main characters falling in love. With The Shop Around the Corner, by the time I reached the end, I couldn’t see why Alfred and Klara finally choose to be together – not after all we initially see is how horrible each is to the other when they personally interact. It almost seemed that when it finally came for the curtain to fall, the two couldn’t walk away from each other simply because they had held fast for so long to the idea that the person writing the letters was the love of their lives that admitting they were wrong would be too great a blow. I did not see love but resignation. Comparatively, in You’ve Got Mail, whatever compromise each character makes with their ego is more believable – in fact, it seems like no great sacrifice. When Joe and Kathleen first begin to fall in love, we can see why those letters compel them to emotionally stray from their respective lovers despite the uncertainty that lurks in their minds regarding the moment they should really meet lurks. When they finally fall in love, it is a person with whom they know they can genuinely share the mundane realities of life – that they once only discussed over letters – without becoming bored. It’s also love that blossoms because two people allowed themselves to wait around long enough to be proven wrong about the lacking of the other’s real self to see how great the other person truly is. The months of war becomes only a prelude to a love that is irrevocable and a friendship that is enduring.
Which brings me to the main gripe I have towards the makers of the original movie. It’s not so much as the lack of focus on the female lead character – Margaret Sullavan did receive first billing in the credits, so there’s that at least – but the fact that Klara is never given the opportunity to rise in our esteem. In fact, if I ever re-watch The Shop Around the Corner, it will only be because Alfred managed to impress me with his integrity and resilience; and should I turn myself away from the opportunity to re-watch it, it will be because Klara managed to annoy me with her myriad of character flaws. Klara is self-serving, whether she is talking a customer into purchasing an unnecessary and trivial cigarette box by pawning it off as a candy box or suddenly complimenting the supervisor she despises to get out of working late on a night she has a date. Klara is manipulative in a way where she repeatedly tries to lead others in conversations so that they would give her what she wants but think it was their own idea. But most of all, Klara is spiteful; she demonstrates a natural tendency to say hateful things, attacking Alfred with a certain regularity and feels no remorse for the hurt they cause unless it has a chance of coming back to bite her in the ass. In comparison, we see genuine guilt etched in Kathleen’s face when she witnesses the hurt her words cause Joe; it is immediate and it is sincere even though she is reluctant to admit that she is at fault. And even though when she does get around to apologizing she also slips in a compliment to herself by professing it is uncharacteristic of her to not be a nice person, we also can be sure she truly is sorry to have caused hurt and that she knows that she has no right to do so. And since there is no self-interest in her apologies other than to rectify a misbehavior, the apologies are not hollow. While Kathleen’s personality just takes a wrong turn every time she comes into close proximity of Joe Fox the corporate big shot, we can’t be as sure that Klara is not self-promoting and mean. So when Klara claims she had found Alfred attractive, it rings abrupt and false, but when Kathleen cries she had hoped her mystery man would be Joe, we have to believe her. Frankly, I feel that, once the novelty wears off, marriage between Kathleen and Joe has much higher chances of survival than Alfred and Klara.
Recommendation: Giving a final recommendation at this point seems superfluous, but unless you wish to do a comparative analysis of the two features, spare yourself from watching The Shop Around the Corner. Contrarily, my heartiest wishes to you for watching You’ve Got Mail; they rarely make sensible romance movies like that anymore.
Title Holiday Affair
Starring Robert Mitchum, Janet Leigh, and Wendell Corey
Director Don Hartman
Writer(s) Isobel Lennart and John D. Weaver (story “Christmas Gift”)
Genre Romance | Comedy | Drama
Release Date December 24, 1949
Filming Location Paramount Studios, Hollywood, California, USA
Parental Guidance TV-G
IMDB Rating 7.2
Synopsis: Mrs. Connie Ennis (Janet Leigh) is a young widow with a precocious six-year-old son Timmy (Gordon Gebert). Though Timmy is too conscientious of the daily challenges his mother must face to ever ask for anything that might hurt her dignities in being unable to provide, Connie slogs away at her job as a comparison shopper to make a comfortable living. An indubitable friendship exists between the mother-son duo that prevents her longtime boyfriend Carl Davis (Wendell Corey) from gaining an official entry into their family. Though he is a fairly successful lawyer, cares for Timmy dearly, and an all-around nice guy who promises to provide a safe loving home for Connie and her son, she repeatedly turns down his marriage proposals, assuring him that when her heart is fully recovered from the loss of her army husband, she will ask him for his hand. But then Connie meets Steve Mason (Robert Mitchum), a children’s section salesman at the department store where she purchases a train set on Christmas sale for her client. When Connie returns the toy the day after her purchase, Steve calls her out on her deception but, instead of passing her on to the store authorities, he takes pity on her and writes her a refund. As a result, Steve loses his job and spends the day assisting Connie in her professional shopping. Through a series of mishaps, Connie and Steve are separated and then he eventually ends up on her doorstep, much to Carl’s consternation. What follows are days of confusions in which Connie proposes to Carl even as she is drawn to Steve for his forthright manners, Timmy has his first temper tantrum, and a mysterious Christmas present arrives from “Santa”. Oh, and yes, someone ends up in jail.
Experience: Traditionally, December is the month when one would find me immersed in Christmas jollies. I sing, watch, and read all things red, green, and snowy. Since it’s been a month since my post-surgery recovery began, keeping me from any physical activity beyond eating, rolling over in bed, and making the obligatory trips to the loo, my winter binge began early this year whence it progressed uninterrupted. And though there is a bounty of Christmas entertainments out there, I eventually had to play roulette on what to watch next. And sometimes when you toss it up to fate, you end up catching a big one. I have to say, Holiday Affair was an unexpectedly heartwarming and sensible romantic comedy that just about made my season.
While I love B&W cinemas to bits, the element in midcentury romantic comedies that, I always felt, there could have been less of are the comedic devices used. The farce, the puns, the slapsticks, the double entendre, the frequent cases of mistaken identity – there was just so much of it back in the days. Yes, I fully appreciate how much writers and directors of the time relied upon such ruses to reward the audience with some much-needed relief from the mounting romantic conflict but I have often found them just as unnecessary to the plot as not and their impacts somewhat forced. I admit there are actors who managed to efficiently portray these “funny accidents” in a believable way, but the accidents themselves are distracting nevertheless – and not altogether relatable. Or rather, if you miss such a scene, you haven’t missed anything momentous to the story arc. I was happy to see that Holiday Affair kept these parlor tricks under tight wraps and rather focused more on satire and situations, observations and even self-derision to generate humor, often delivered with deadpan sobriety. This produced an effect much more in keeping with the struggles that surrounded the young family of a fallen soldier and those who come into intimate contact with them. Even the little plot twist involving the jail scene, though surreal and absurd, managed to amplify the consistency of each major character, helping them forward with their respective character arcs.
No, instead of slapstick comedy, this movie presented some truly insightful scenes that endeared it to me. I loved Steve’s direct approach towards nailing Connie’s issues with love and romance. He does not apologize for his feelings for her but he can also understand that she needs to make her own decisions and would not settle for scraps. I love how Carl does not blind himself to what is happening, his character is consistently loyal to Connie’s happiness but he also knows that his own happiness cannot be achieved by ingratiating himself to another. But most of all, I love how even little Timmy is so self-aware and willing to be taught and guided onto the right path, even when he is having a hard time adjusting to the surmounting changes in his life. He can appreciate the reasons behind the actions of the adults around him and truly is a responsible little man even as his soul is uncorrupted by self-interest.
In fact, it is the sincerity and generosity of each major character that onsets the conflicts in this movie. Connie is falling in love with Steve but doesn’t want to cheat Carl out of the conclusion to their relationship that he has been awaiting so long. Carl is pleased that Connie is finally ready to marry him but is unsure what brought on this change of heart and doesn’t want her to sacrifice herself. Steve is forthright about his feelings but, though often lacking tact, he is insightful and tries to help everybody. And little Timmy, a child with such a generous heart that he would sacrifice a deeply coveted toy by first hiding his desire from his mother and then by returning the gift to help a friend out with the refund, inadvertently brings on some terrifying crisis. It seems that everyone’s self-dilemmas get in the way of everyone else’s happiness. But even when one character accidentally acts as the foil to another’s wishes, you can’t blame them for it. Generosity of spirit is the making and breaking of all conflicts in this movie and that’s what makes it a great Christmas story.
Finally, a note for Gordon Gebert, the child actor playing Timmy. Bravo! According to his records, Holiday Affair was his first credited role on screen but to see him act, you would not believe it. As the saying goes, the kid had a calling. Yet, for some reason, the character Timmy was considered a small role by Hollywood standards, which I feel is a total failure to recognize talent – since he had as many dialogues and scenes as the lead actor, which he performed with great gravitas. Gebert went on to perform in other roles in tinsel town though not in anything well-recognized. An utter underutilization of human capital, if I saw any. Not for little Gordon though; he went on to become an architect.
Recommendation: I really really liked this movie. To reiterate, it was rationally hilarious and had intelligent characters that benefited from the honest efforts of the actors who portrayed them. And most of all, it touched all the right notes that call out to the bounty of Christmas.