January 19, 2011 by abbyo
In addition to watching lots and lots of movies, another hobby I have is cooking. I have a bunch of recipe books, but the one I use more than any other is the America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook. I like this cookbook because it’s mostly made up of the kind of recipes I like best: the ones that take something simple that I already know I like (for instance, apple pie or macaroni and cheese), and change it, ever so slightly, to make it even better. Everything I liked about the original dish is still there, but it’s been enhanced all because of a few simple changes.
Sometimes, a good remake is like food made with the America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook. The original movie is great, a beloved classic. But then the remake comes along, takes everything you loved about the original, and changes it to fit a newer era. In this case, the original film is the 1940 Ernst Lubitsch picture “The Shop Around the Corner” and the remake is Nora Ephron’s 1998 update, “You’ve Got Mail.” Both are comfort food movies, the kind you watch on a cold afternoon or evening on the couch with popcorn and hot chocolate. They are very similar movies, but each is different enough to be good in its own right. It’s a credit to Ephron that she was able to retain the classic, cozy and lovable feel of the original movie while creating a film that still feels very much of its time.
I should note here that my actual reaction to these two films is a bit backwards. I had not seen “The Shop Around the Corner” until very recently, while I remember watching “You’ve Got Mail” in a movie theater with my parents the year it came out (in other words, it’s a long time favorite). However, in watching Lubitsch’s movie, it was clear to me that Ephron had been immensely respectful and creative in re-writing the script, which I found impressive. In fact, several scenes from the original film are preserved practically line for line, with a few small differences. But Ephron goes beyond the clever dialogue and well-staged scenes of Lubitsch’s movie to create characters with fully-fledged personal lives, surrounded by friends and family members who are every bit as interesting as they are.
In “The Shop Around the Corner,” Jimmy Stewart plays Alfred, a salesman at a leather goods store. He’s worked at the store a long time, is a good worker and honest and smart to boot. We find out that he’s been corresponding with a young woman by letter after answering an ad she put in the paper for a male pen pal (note to self: must try that sometime…), and he’s fairly sure he’s in love. Klara (Margaret Sullavan) is Stewart’s new co-worker. They don’t get along, but unbeknownst to both of them, she’s the woman Stewart’s been writing to. Hijinks ensue.
“You’ve Got Mail” uses this same basic setup, but puts the characters in different-yet-intersecting professional circles. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan’s characters correspond by e-mail, neither of them knowing that they are business competitors. Hanks helps run a Barnes & Noble-style bookstore chain owned by his family. Ryan also operates a family business—a small children’s bookstore (called “The Shop Around the Corner”) first operated by her late mother, a shop whose future is endangered by the opening of Hanks’ new bookstore a few blocks away. In public, they’re enemies. But in letters, they are each other’s anonymous confidante.
While this separation of the two romantic leads makes the dynamic a little different, it allows for Ephron to create a richer inner life for the characters than Stewart or Sullavan has in “The Shop Around the Corner.” Whereas all we saw in “Shop” were the store employees, in “Mail” we have Ryan and Hanks’ family and friends to give the film a little more variety. Ryan’s boyfriend (Greg Kinnear) and Hanks’ girlfriend (Parker Posey) are both really entertaining characters, and the couples’ conversations are a lot of fun to watch—very typical of Ephron’s pithy, realistic style. There are plenty of scenes where Hanks and Ryan aren’t even together onscreen, but that’s fine, since these scenes help us get to know the characters better individually. It also helps that the audience actually gets to hear the content of Hanks and Ryan’s letters to each other, another element that isn’t in “Shop.”
But while “The Shop Around the Corner” is a simpler film, there’s still a lot that’s wonderful about it—the original recipe that begets variations. Take the leads, for example. Jimmy Stewart is, of course, Jimmy Stewart. It’s hard to find a more universally likeable leading man. And I hadn’t been aware of Margaret Sullavan before watching “Shop,” but she’s hugely appealing. She may not be a bombshell, but her peformance rivals Ryan’s in “Mail” for cute-as-a-button-ness. There’s also the script, adapted from a play by Miklos Laszlo, which feels very theatrical, but still holds up strong cinematically. It’s not terribly ambitious, but it’s good solid writing, funny and poignant. William Tracy as Pepi the Delivery Boy probably gets the best lines—I could easily see how he’d steal scenes onstage.
It’s easy to see why a filmmaker like Nora Ephron—someone who’s made a career out of creating clever, widely accessible romantic comedies—would want to remake “The Shop Around the Corner.” It’s a pretty basic movie, but very satisfying, and with the potential to explore the characters and relationships to a richer degree. It’s the same reason I like to toy around with my favorite recipes: to see if I can make a good thing even better. And while it’s easy to overdo it, and make the thing you like so over-the-top that you no longer like it (see the other remake of “Shop,” 1949’s “In the Good Old Summertime”), with the right balance of deference and creativity, you get an America’s Test Kitchen recipe—something that’s new and exciting, but comfy and familiar all at the same time.