Tuesday 7 February 2017

Shop, Summertime and Mail

In the beginning there was Miklós László's Illatszertár (Parfumerie), which only my blogpal Will seems to have seen a production of (obviously not near to the time of the premiere), and to which the half-cock musical She Loves Me adheres most faithfully. Seeing that well done, if it had to be done at all, at the Menier Chocolate Factory, made me nostalgic for the first film version, The Shop Around the Corner of 1940, which I hadn't seen for decades, starring a dreamy Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan.

Then another blogpal, Elizabeth, reminded me of two other treatments. In the Good Old Summertime with Judy Garland and Van Johnson

and, most recently, You've Got Mail, a romcom vehicle for Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. After Budapest, the settings are Chicago and New York, so to greater or lesser degrees these are also hymns to three fine cities.

Note that all three scenes above are more or less identical, taken from the central point where the male lead realises that his opposite number, with whom he's been sparring, is the unseen 'Dear Friend' with whom he's been corresponding. It may have been because I felt most comfortable with the wonderful and familiar dialogue in that scene that I liked it best of anything in You've Got Mail, which otherwise plays fast and loose with the plot, and is generally less funny as a result, despite some good observational scenes from writer/director Nora Ephron.

Our hero is a big business bookseller bullying a sweet little independent shop, not a fellow worker on the shop floor. Kudos to Ephron, all the same, for keeping it light and fluffy as a souffle - not easy in comedy. 

The subtlety rather goes out of the window with Garland and Johnson in olde Chicago as seen through the lens of 1949 Technicolor. Very instructive, in fact, to compare all three cafe-meeting scenes. Garland is a quivering, palpitating wreck, which is one way to play it, but Sullavan's coolness is, I think, better. We get infinitely better songs than in the musical, though none further the plot and all except the one poor one, the mawkish 'Merry Christmas', are situational - in other words, like 'La donna e mobile', they are delivered as songs. Judy manages to sport a surprising proto-50s numbers at a lively engagement party.

This shop sells sheet music and instruments, not leather goods as in The Shop Around the Corner, and has some amusing gags as a result - the lovable grump of a boss, excellently played by S Z Sakall, a Hungarian-born character actor, goes off to his office and plays the violin with excruciating portamenti, and the music box which plays 'Ochi chorniye' in TSAtC becomes a miniature harp which Garland vaguely impersonates playing. There's a superb cameo from an underused Buster Keaton as a melancholy assistant, whose engagement becomes clear in a crucial pratfall, and a famous screen debut by Liza Minnelli in the final scene.

I'm glad I saw both films. There's no gainsaying the superiority of Lubitsch's original, though. It keeps the element of the dark side in the subplot involving a philandering assistant and the boss's wife (never seen); in 1949, everything, it seems, had to be kept bright and gay. And of course I just melt at Jimmy Stewart's adorable delivery. Composition and ensemble scenes are so deft, too: what a master Lubitsch was (except in Ninotchka, which I can't stand).

If it weren't that our Jimmy excelled himself in Capra's Mr Smith Goes to Washington and that we get a triple whammy in The Philadelphia Story where the other lead players are Kate Hepburn and Cary Grant, this would be on my top ten list. It's certainly one of the great underrateds from the golden age of Hollywood.


Howard Lane said...

I like to think Buster Keaton couldn't be anything less than superb even when underused, as I expect he often was once the talkies took away much of his usp. Like his typically deadpan and put-upon cameo in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which to paraphrase Pontius Pilate ranks extremely highly in our home, although we seem to have misplaced the damn DVD!

So many great Jimmy Stewart films, I can't really think of one that doesn't top some sort of favourites list. Funnily I've often thought of Tom Hanks as a letter day Stewart, although his range is wider, but both have kept up a consistently high level of performances and mostly high quality films, as well as friendly or sympathetic characters. Although I can't see Jimmy Stewart carrying off more left field roles that Hanks was brilliant at, like Big or Forrest Gump.

David said...

I gift the Suthren-Lanes my copy of A Funny Thing... as I've only watched it twice and can't imagine doing so again in the near future, fun though it is (the National Theatre production was genius).

I'm more or less immune to Tom Hanks's charm, though I don't deny he's a good actor. And I can think of some stinkers in which Jimmy Stewart appeared. Even Harvey isn't as good as it should be. I find him so lovely when young.

David Damant said...

David - I continue to be astonished at the breath of your cultural interests.....by comparison I feel that my interests are unduly narrow and that I am missing several aspects of the human predicament. Still, at the age of 80 too late to change now I fear. Is there a proper analysis of the pretty tremendous American achievement in films and musicals?

David said...

I can see you being absolutely charmed by The Shop Around the Corner (it would be hard to love anyone who wasn't). As for the analysis, I recently read and reviewed a book by Ethan Morrden on the relationship between Broadway and Hollywood - lively, opinionated, knowledgeable. He's written quite a few books on the American musical. I guess he's the one to read. Sondheim in his two books including all his lyrics has penetrating insights on other American lyricists. Of course what's great in that genre I love to bits, but hit a reef with lesser works (like She Loves Me, for instance).

Anonymous said...

Well, Linkedin does not work as well as one would hope. I thought that I would be advised of your blog posts in a more timely fashion, as well getting to see your off-blog writing. I still want to respond to this one, however late. So pleased that you enjoyed the two additional interpretations of the original. It is an intriguing theme, and it works just as well in all time periods. I had felt more confident in suggesting In The Good Old Summertime, simply because it's viewed as more important, starring the revered Judy Garland. I feared that You've Got Mail might be too fluffy, and glad that you could find something to enjoy about both. No doubt, you have seen more Jimmy Stewart movies than I. I hope that, as a fan, you have, or will at some point, see both the films he made with Kim Novak - Vertigo and the completely different Bell, Book and Candle. They could make an interesting double feature, though probably not on the same night. -- Elizabeth

David said...

I love the young Jimmy Stewart, so adorable in The Philadelphia Story and of course his finest performance is as filibustering scout champion in Capra's Mr Smith Goes to Washington, hope you've seen that one. Vertigo is probably my favourite Hitchcock, though I find Kim Nowak bland in the extreme.