The Thrice-Told Tale of “You’ve Got Mail”

I am always on the search for musicals.  I keep hoping that I will discover another production that I enjoy as much as Singin’ in the Rain or The Music Man.  Naturally, when I heard the words “Judy Garland” and “MGM”, I had hope.  I sat down to watch In the Good Old Summertime.

Of course, I felt required to watch the introductory video telling me about the trivia surrounding the film.  I am glad that I did.  It was then that I learned that the movie was an update of The Shop Around the Corner.  That movie was later remade into You’ve Got Mail.  With both those movies in my collection, I decided to watch the series.  They are all based on the same play.  And they all have their own unique styles.

The Plot

Shop focuses on the store and its employees.  There is the quirky delivery boy that rises through the ranks.  The dandy of a salesman who works in the luxury section.  The lady behind the cash register, the young girl who cannot resist buying the newest fur, and the middle-aged man who tries to keep his head down as he earns a paycheck to support his family.  The patriarch of the store is just short of elderly; prone to fits of stuttering and frustrations.  Then of course, there are the two young employees.  They start off friendly enough.  He oversees her, even if she has her own mind about things, and they mostly try to let each other be in a small work environment.

Shop takes place in a very small Macy’s-like store.  It is a small space, but it carries everything from wallets to luggage to cigar cases.  Summertime changes one facet of this.  They place it in a music store.  That way, the actors can start singing a popular song or show off their piano skills and it all makes sense to the plot.  (And, if as some suggest, a musical has to further the plot and have characters burst into song without realizing they are changing the tone, then Summertime may not technically be a musical.  All the songs are performed with the fellow diners or customers acting as their willing audience.)  As soon as you see someone pick up a violin, you know that another musical number has been written into the script.

It is odd watching Summertime right after Shop.  For one thing, Summertime takes places during winter months.  Christmas features heavily in all three movies.  For another, Summertime seems like a more forced version of Shop.  In Shop, Stewart has deep moments of introspection.  In Summertime, Garland winks and mugs for the camera as she performs her songs in perfect makeup.

(I know it’s not a high-quality video. But the shorter trailer is more fun.)

Mail shirks the Shop storyline the most.  The two are not coworkers.  They are rivals.  Shop tells five or six storylines involving much of the store employees.  Summertime narrows it down to maybe four, but the emphasis is on the couple.  With Mail, it is all about the couple.  Everyone else is there to add color to their lives or inject humor.

The Actors

It is funny to see Jimmy Stewart’s name pop up second.  Back in 1940, this was his second film.  It was only helped that he had the Wizard of Oz to play off of.  Stewart gets to be enchanted by letters, irritated by coworkers, and disappointed by his boss.  He has the most to work with and he rises to the challenge.

Judy Garland’s name had to have first billing on Summertime.  It is her show to steal.  The singing moments in the store are all well and good.  The performances at the dinner are where she earns her paycheck.  Whoever heard of back-to-back musical numbers?  The same performers and the same set piece?  Well, gotta get that singing in there somehow.  The red dress.  The voice.  Whether working with a quarter or the band, Garland is captivating.  Her presence demands one’s attention.  The male lead sings fine.  But Garland is the star.

Mail is the only one of the three to give the male first-billing.  But c’mon.  It is Tom Hanks.  Even with the movie being made in Ryan’s heyday, Hanks has to come first.  His humor is on full display.  The tiniest gesture or wiggle is planned out.  His overreacting to news without ever going big.  The way he reacts to Ryan’s zings.  Perfect.  And this is all while being supported by ‘90s fixtures like Parker Posey, Greg Kinnear, and Dave Chappelle.  Oh, Chappelle.  Terribly underused, Mark Twain Award winner, better than this role, Chappelle. 

The Quirks

Shop is based in Bulgaria.  Why?  Because the play was.  None of the actors make any attempt to change their accents.  The action rarely takes place outside the store.  We are simply to accept that all this is in Bulgaria.  Sure.  Why not. 

The scene with the owner and his wife’s actions comes across as overly dark.  The treachery.  The attempted gun-use.  It surprises and makes everything much more serious.  That is when you know the story is about all the folks in the store, not only the smitten couple.

Summertime had Groucho Marx as a consultant.  That is why when the two characters meet, the male accidentally tears clothing off of the female.  It is supposed to be a meet-cute.  They wanted it to play like big comedy.  It feels weird.  “Remember that time I ruined your day and your fanciest dress?  Didn’t it make you want to fall in love with me and have a romance that lasted about ninety minutes with me, then end with us having a small child as the credits roll?  Whad’ya say?” 

Also, the final scene with the all-of-a-sudden lovers is creepy.  Male stands behind woman.  He uses his deep voice at a low level to convey his feelings about his pen pal.  Woman stands there and listens, not knowing that he is talking about her.  Then, without her showing him the slightest affection the entire movie, they embrace passionately. 

Meanwhile, there has been a beautiful woman who the man gets along with fabulously.  They talk music.  They see each other multiple times a week.  They care about each other.  Yet it is decided that this believable pairing is only a way to show that the guy can be nice to another woman.  Odd.

Okay, I do not like Sleepless in Seattle because it is essentially a stalker-movieMail is somewhat less guilty of being inappropriate.  The first half of the film is spent with the couple having long term relationships of their own.  Hanks lives with Posey.  Ryan comments that she feels like she is living with Kinnear.  Yet, they get too excited when they receive a new message from someone who is, “no one” or “just a friend.”  They actively make sure that their significant other is at work.  They check to see that the coast is clear.  Only then do they start chatting.  They have one foot out the door.  They are emotionally cheating.  At least they make a clean break with their partners when they realize that fact.

Even though Mail is the most recent of the three, it also has the potential to feel the most dated.  The AOL Time Warner logo.  The beige and gray colors that appear in many scenes.  The khakis.  The dial-up modems.  You do have to give it credit for being one of the first movies to perfectly comment on Starbuck’s place in society.  This movie is locked in the ‘90s.

The Restaurant

This scene is almost identical in all three movies.  It has to be.  The scene was perfect the first time and it remains the crux of the movies.  Man and coworker stand outside restaurant.  Man makes coworker look.  Coworker has an obstacle blocking his view, sees a beautiful woman that is not her, then says that the woman the main character is looking for looks just like the infamous woman they know.  Coworker leaves and man threatens to do the same.

Switch to woman in restaurant.  She has a different flower in each movie and a different book, but the scene is the same.  Staff asks to take a chair.  Woman protests.  Man shows up.  Woman compares him to inanimate, uncaring objects.  They quarrel.  Woman zings man.  He is wounded.  Exits.  I was always taken by the exchange that is, “a perfect mix of poetry and meanness” when I saw Mail.  Yet it is in all three.  It has to be. 

There is the guy.  He realizes that he has to rethink everything he knows about this gal.  He wants to walk away.  He wants to hurt her.  But he now knows there is more to her than the fights they have had.  There is possibility.  So he has to go in.  He has to try to peak under the veneer.  Quarreling is what they have always done and that is the pattern they fall into.  Then she calls him heartless.  (Mail does it the best.)  He knows that if he explains to her who he is, she would end it.  He walks away defeated. 

The Result

Shop is by far the best ensemble piece.  The actions of one employee affect the others.  Each has their own unique persona.  As Stewart faces trials, the others all react.  All the relationships play out differently.  And Stewart is a fine centerpiece.

Summertime is… well, it is a Technicolor production, so that has to count for something?  If I had seen Shop nine years earlier and walked into this remake, I would have felt cheated.  The mini-plots are tolerable.  The only part that requires viewing is the Garland performances at the dinner.  As a romance, one never really buys it.

Especially not when compared to Hanks and Ryan.  I keep re-watching them.  Those two Mail actors had enough chemistry to fill three movies.  They are simply too charming to disregard.  Hanks if funny.  Ryan is quirky.  (I am not sure what kind of walk she is doing in those pajamas when Kinnear leaves.  I have never seen a person walk like that in real life.  We will be charitable and all it quirky.)  Throw in lots and lots of New York skyscrapers, maybe a scene or two with cute kids and a dog?  Bingo.  You’ve Got Romance.

About Cosand

He's a simple enough fellow. He likes movies, comics, radio shows from the 40's, and books. He likes to write and wishes his cat wouldn't shed on his laptop.
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3 Responses to The Thrice-Told Tale of “You’ve Got Mail”

  1. I think She Loves Me, a musical recently on Broadway follows this same plot too.

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  2. Pingback: Broken Arrows Snapped All Over the Screen | …Of Course, this Could All Go Horribly Awry

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