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.