On June 26, Nora Ephron passed away. With her passing, we lost one of the last great scribes of witty light romantic comedy. In case Nora was not on your radar, she was the writer of such movies as WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, and SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE. It's sad to reflect that, today, when we think of romantic comedy, the term most often used is “Rom-Com” or, God help us, “Chick Flick.” Movies of this type often involve cringe worthy clichés, such as the girl and boy meeting and initialing hating each other for some extremely lame reason (even though they're clearly meant for each other), then being thrown together (sometimes chained together �" see THE BOUNTY HUNTER), and ultimately realizing they are one another's soul mates. And, if the movie stars Kate Hudson or Katherine Heigl and Matthew McConaughey or Gerard Butler, you pretty much know what you're in for.
To Nora and her creations!
Nora Ephron's best movies were not “Chick Flicks.” They were more in the line of HIS GIRL FRIDAY or THE LADY EVE, those great, rapid-fire, rapier witted classics of the 1930's and 1940's. I recently foisted WHEN HARRY MET SALLY on my long-suffering boyfriend, who avoids “chick flick' as though they carried the Ebola virus, and he was very pleasantly surprised. It has, truly, one of the funniest scripts ever set to film. Miraculously, in terms of recent “rom-coms,” no one is thrown into a pool or stream, no one wrecks a wedding, no one has an amusing animal with digestive or aggression problems. Yeah, there is a faked orgasm scene, but that's a classic in itself. Nora was up there with Preston Sturges in the ability to write crackling dialogue between a man and a woman.
So in honor of Nora Ephron, I want to discuss the history and pedigree of one of her movies, YOU'VE GOT MAIL.
Disclaimer time. I'm not a raging fan of this movie, although I have friends who think it's second only to the Bible (or fill in your Holy Book of choice) and the Works of Shakespeare for earth-shattering brilliance. And they're not quite convinced about Shakespeare. But however underwhelmed I personally may be by the script, I acknowledge its plot has become one of the go-to standards of the entertainment world and the template has been used by several movies and plays and, I believe, although I can't think of any off-hand, television episodes. In that way, it's a spiritual mate to CAMILLE, which is a plot I actively loathe, but which is remade and reinterpreted every
couple of years. (Note to self �" future column on CAMILLE and its progeny. You've been warned.)
YOU'VE GOT MAIL (1998) tells the story of Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan), the owner of small, local children's bookstore on Manhattan's Upper West Side, whose business is threatened by the opening of a mega-bookstore, a la Barnes and Noble, owned by the Fox family, in the neighborhood. The main force behind the competitor is Joe Fox (Tom Hanks), a ruthless businessman. Their first meeting is pleasant enough, but, realizing that they are soon to be in competition, Joe avoids telling Kathleen his full name. However, they eventually meet at a party and she reviles him and he is just fine with reciprocating the sentiment, at least at first. The hook of the story, however, is that Kathleen and Joe have been corresponding via email (hence the name of the movie and the constant use of the now all but forgotten AOL brands and sounds). Not only that but they're falling in love, in spite of both being in highly dysfunctional relationships and in spite of neither one knowing more than the other's screen name.
The movie's pedigree is revealed by the name of Kathleen's bookstore, The Shop Around the Corner. (Ephron admitted that THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER was a film from 1940 with James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan. (Ephron admitted that her screenplay owed that movie and Austen's Pride and Prejudice for her inspiration.) That movie was taken from an Hungarian play called Parfumerie, by Miklos Laszlo. While the play was apparently a hit when it played in Europe in 1937, it was not translated to the American stage (its American English language/ non-musical premiere was apparently only in 2010), but rather translated for the movies, to be directed by Ernest Lubitsch. It is interesting that the location of the story retained its original Budapest locale instead of being moved to a recognizable American city, particularly when a quintessential American actor like Stewart was in the lead role, even though they changed the characters names and the type of shop involved. In this movie, Stewart plays Alfred, the manager of a leather goods shop, who is involved in an anonymous, but increasingly romantic, correspondence with a woman. They refer to each other as “Dear Friend,” but know nothing of one another's identities. I presume this was the turn of the century equivalent of eHarmony. Into his shop one day comes Klara, who is looking for work
and does get hired by the owner of the shop, but she and Alfred (surprise, surprise!) take an instant dislike to one another. You see where this is heading, right?
The story reaches its dramatic crescendo (such as it is) during the week before Christmas, when, on the same day Alfred has his first real date with his “Dear Friend,” he is fired by his boss, who suspects Alfred is having an affair with his wife. (As it turns out, she's actually having an affair with another clerk in the shop. Who in their right mind would actually suspect Jimmy Stewart of schtupping Mrs. Boss? He's George Bailey, for Chrissake!) Dejected, he goes to the restaurant to meet his Dear Friend and finds Klara, his work nemesis, waiting with a copy of Anna Karenina, which is the sign by which the correspondents were to identify each other. (Using Anna Karenina as a sign to begin a love affair does not make a lot of sense to me, but, hey, some people must really like trains!) Instead of fessing up, he goes in and annoys her some and she leaves in a snit. That same night, he finds out his boss learned the truth about his wife's affair and attempted suicide, but failed and was taken to the hospital. He goes to visit and is reinstated in his job.
Klara, on the other hand, was so distraught by being, as she sees it, stood up by her Dear Friend, she falls into some form of romantic flu and stays home from work the next day. Alfred, back at the job, is guilty about being mean to Klara, so he visits her and between her disappointment and his understanding of the situation, they begin to become friendly. Ultimately, on Christmas Eve, Alfred reveals that he is, in fact, the “Dear Friend” and they kiss. Presumably, because they are both desperate and lonely, this is the start of a happy ending… Yeah, I don't do romance too well.
So, in my opinion, the plot is a little lame, but between the charming atmosphere and good leads and a host of marvelous supporting players (the dopey boss is played by none other than the Wizard of Oz himself, Frank Morgan!), the resulting movie is rather lovely and quite sweet. Lovely and sweet enough, that in 1949, the scene was changed to turn of the century Chicago, the shop became a music store, musical numbers were added and it became IN THE GOOD OLD SUMMERTIME, with Judy Garland and Van Johnson. The plot is pretty much spot on to THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER, but there are a couple of interesting historical notes
about the movie. First, it was Buster Keaton's first film with MGM since they fired him in 1933 and he added a couple of comic shticks that are memorable, including a bit with a violin. Second, it marks Liza Minnelli's screen debut. At the very end of the film, the happy couple, here called Veronica and Andrew, are seen out walking with their daughter, played by Minnelli appearing dyspeptic, while the title song plays.
In addition, the story became a radio play that was aired with different casts three times in the 1940's and a 1963 Broadway musical called She Loves Me, which starred Barbara Cook but was, at best, only a moderate hit.
Which brings us back to YOU'VE GOT MAIL.
The Ephron version has a couple of problems that the original movie avoided. First, the Ryan character truly loathes the Hanks' character at first, and with good reason. His business destroys her business, which was inherited from her beloved mother and harbored memories of her childhood. So her ultimate and rather sudden change of heart, so they can fall in love at the end, feels forced, explained only by Hanks' adorability factor and his character's insane wealth. Second, both characters start out in relationships with attractive and successful people (although wildly annoying and very odd, but they're in New York City, so eccentrics are standard fare). Therefore, the fascination with anonymous people on the Internet doesn't have the sweet desperation of the lonely-hearts in old Budapest. However, as with many of the great Ephron films, like WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, much is saved by gorgeous New York street scenes that capture the changing seasons, terrific scores which invariably include at least one Louis Armstrong song and a pitch perfect supporting cast, here, significantly, Jean Stapleton as one of Kathleen's employees and Dave Chappelle as one of Joe's. And, of course, the dialogue. So if you turn off your cynical side and go along for the ride, not a bad little ride it is.
Sadly, Nora's last few movies were not up with her best, although JULIE AND JULIA had its moments. Still, Nora gave us several gems and made female screenwriters something of recognized force for a while, at least with comedies. She was also a fascinating woman in her own right, political (she interned in the JFK White House and was married to Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame) as well as artistic. So here's to Nora �" and to classic movie motifs like THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER.
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Jul 26, 2012 9:46 AM
|Great column, Summer. The classic boy-meets-girl comedy-romances of the '40s were captured by Ephron and infused with warmth and wit. She wasn't afraid to approach taboo subjects and have her characters actually discuss them. We suffer today from too many stupid films that confuse dumb with funny. Thanks,|
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|A Musing in Movieland|
Every other Sunday
One woman's attempt to find meaning in movies, from movies, and between movies and to figure out why movies should matter to us, all while trying to find a laugh in the whole, screwy business."
I'm still cautiously optimistic that there really is a pattern to our lives and am striving to find mine, although I secretly suspect that life is really just about a Big, Space Baby. Which would be disappointing. And confusing. But, hey, you gotta have a sense of humor about it all, right? Philosophical stuff aside, I am an attorney, an artist and a performer and, if I could figure out a way to make the last two pay the bills, I'd dump the first one tomorrow.|
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