Miklós László’s 1937 play, Parfumerie, has been adapted into films three separate times. First, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner in 1940, starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan; Next, In the Good Old Summertime in 1949, starring Judy Garland and Van Johnson; and, most recently, Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail in 1998, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. As I’m writing this, You’ve Got Mail is celebrating its 25th anniversary, and The Shop Around the Corner has long been a seasonal classic as the whole story builds to a climax on Christmas Eve. There is one of these stories that I think works much better than the others, but we’ll get to that.
A lot of the plot details shift between the various versions of the story, but the core is the same for all of them: there is a man and woman who have been anonymously corresponding with one another, and they are each starting to realize that they are falling in love with their pen pal. Unbeknownst to either of them, it turns out they already do know each other in real life, and they can’t stand one another. At one point the man discovers his pen pal is the very same woman who became his kind of nemesis, and he spends the remainder of the story trying to get her to feel as warm towards him in real life as she seems in her letters.
There’s something classic about the structure of this story. It’s not a perfect analogy, but Beatrice and Benedict from Much Ado About Nothing make this kind of transition from enemies to lovers with just a little bit of dishonest nudging from their friends. In their case, rather than finding out it’s their enemy they were unknowingly in love with, Beatrice and Benedict are each told that it’s their enemy that has secretly been in love with them, and this ‘discovery’ gradually softens them towards one another until genuine affection begins to develop.
Beatrice and Benedict’s relationship is founded on a deception, but importantly the deception doesn’t originate from either one of them. They are both sincere throughout, both in their initial antipathy towards one another, and in their later affection. The relationships in the adaptations of Parfumerie aren’t quite the same. In each case, after the man learns the true identity of his pen pal, he engages in some degree of deception to get her to think of him in real life the way she does in her letters, but the degree of deception differs in scale with each of the adaptations.
The least regarded of these three films is In the Good Old Summertime. Released only 9 years after The Shop Around the Corner, it does come across as a weaker version of that earlier film. One where some of the more transgressive edges to the original story have been sanded down, and where a few musical numbers have been shoehorned in. It’s still worth being discussed alongside the other two more beloved adaptations, as Judy Garland is truly a joy here in one of the rare instances of a happy film production for her. And, since this adaptation is so directly centered on her character, she may actually get to play the richest version of the female love interest out of the three films.
In this version, Garland plays Veronica Fisher, a young woman who comes to Otto Oberkugen’s music store looking for a job. The virtue of this setting is that, in addition to instruments, the store also sells sheet music that the staff is expected to be able to perform for customers upon request, providing us with multiple opportunities to hear Garland sing. Her antagonist in the shop is the lead salesman, Mr Andrew Delby Larkin (Van Johnson); and the source of their conflict is that, when Miss Fisher first came in looking for a job, Mr. Larkin didn’t think the store could afford another salesperson during the slow season. Miss Fisher was able to go over Mr. Larkin’s head to convince the store owner to hire her anyway. The mutual bitterness between them over this leads to that kind of “merry war” that initially existed between Beatrice and Benedict. The difference in this case was that, unbeknownst to either of them, Miss Fisher and Mr Larkin had each replied to the same ad with a dating service, and had already been anonymously and affectionately corresponding with one another for weeks before their first meeting.
In every version of the story, we see the same contrast. In this case, when they are face to face, Miss Fisher and Mr Larkin can’t help but needle one another at every opportunity. Having gotten off on the wrong foot to start, they now bring out the worst in each other. Yet, all the while, they’re still engaged in a correspondence that brings out the very best in each other. Within the safety of their letters, they’re able to be poetic and bold in a way that few of us are encouraged to in our daily lives. They don’t just love the person they’re writing to, but also the person they get to be when they’re writing to them.
In every version we also see the story turn on the same key scene. In this case, Mr Larkin has agreed to meet his pen pal at a restaurant. She will know him by a flower in his lapel, and he will know her by the book of poetry she’ll have on her table with a flower in it. Larkin has a friend come with him to the restaurant for moral support and he nervously asks his friend to look through the restaurant window first. Larkin’s friend spies the woman, recognizing who it is right away. He tries to break the news to Larkin gently and in stages. Yes, the woman is pretty. Very pretty. “I would say she looks like…she has something of the coloring of Miss Fisher…” Larkin is bewildered why his friend would be bringing up Miss Fisher at a time like this, to which his friend replies, with the line that every adaptation retains from the play, “I can tell you right now, if you don’t like Miss Fisher, you won’t like this girl.”
It’s a funny kind of line because it happens to stay true even as their relationship changes throughout the story. At that moment, we know that Miss Fisher and ‘this girl’ are the same person, so it has the form of a logical truth. But also, from Larkin’s point of view, he thinks these are two different people. And his view of one will come to determine his view of the other. It turns out that as soon as he finds out that Miss Fisher, who he hates, and ‘this girl’, who he is ready to propose to, are the same person, all his feelings for ‘this girl’ briefly vanish, temporarily replaced by his feelings of antipathy towards Miss Fisher. His disdain for his coworker supersedes any image he had of his pen pal, and he leaves the restaurant without going inside.
Mr. Larkin’s curiosity gets the better of him, though, and he returns to the restaurant just a little later that same night. Pretending he just happened to wander in, he attempts to strike up what is clearly an unwelcome conversation with Miss Fisher. Mr. Larkin has started softening a bit towards Miss Fisher, his affection for his pen pal gradually overtaking his antipathy. Still, Miss Fisher has had no reason for her opinion of Mr Larkin to have changed, and she is especially anxious to see him go away because she’s still expecting to meet her pen pal any minute. This makes her unusually savage towards Mr. Larkin. So much so that, after making the start of a real effort to build some kind of rapport between them, he gives up and goes home without ever letting on to Miss Fisher that he is, in fact, the man she has been waiting for.
Larkin finds that he can’t just go back to hating Miss Fisher, though. If he loves his pen pal, he must also love Miss Fisher. He begins a project to try to win her over, but without telling her that he knows her true identity. He stops fighting back when she needles him at work, which in turn, does begin to thaw her towards him as well. It’s in this third act that In the Good Old Summertime starts to fall apart because of how convoluted the story becomes. In this version, Larkin isn’t just deceiving Miss Fisher, but also his boss, Mr. Oberkugen, and a violinist friend of his, all to set up a farcical finale for the film. In the end, Mr. Larkin and Miss Fisher do wind up together, but Mr Larkin has proved to be a person so comfortable lying, that it can be a little unclear how happy an ending for Miss Fisher this should actually be.
In Nora Ephron’s adaptation of the story, she modernizes things for the then-new, computer age, by replacing the couple’s letters to one another with email. Ephron also scales up the characters from retail clerks by making them rival bookstore owners, instead. Meg Ryan plays Kathleen Kelly, the second-generation owner of a famed Children’s bookstore in NYC, The Shop Around the Corner. Tom Hanks plays Joe Fox, the third-generation owner, along with his father and grandfather, of the bookstore chain, Fox Books - a stand-in of the real-life chain, Barnes & Noble. At the time, this was the third romantic comedy pairing of Hanks and Ryan, following Joe Versus the Volcano and Sleepless in Seattle, and probably the film that cemented their place in the romantic comedy hall of fame. Their chemistry here is unreal, which is important because it helps paper over a number of the more peculiar elements of the story.
Notably, unlike the other adaptations, Joe and Kathleen both have partners they’re living with when they stumble into their online relationship. At the outset of the film, they’re each already to the point in their correspondence of waiting for their partner to leave for the day to check their email in private. Before any of the events of the film unfold, both of our romantic leads are sneaking about because they each know what they are doing is something out of bounds for their current relationship. Both Joe and Kathleen will eventually break up amicably - weirdly amicably - with their partners before their relationship with one another really takes off, but it does change the dynamic of the story that they’re not two lonely hearts looking for connection, but rather just two people in largely happy relationships that want something different and new.
It’s also hard to overstate how big an effect Ephron’s change to the characters’ social status has on the story. In the older adaptations, part of the antipathy between the two leads is how deeply they both need their jobs, while it turns out there are hardly any stakes at all to the David and Goliath battle between Joe and Kathleen. Joe and Fox Books are in no danger from The Shop Around the Corner, and they barely benefit in any measurable way when the smaller store closes. And Kathleen it turns out has her pick of fulfilling jobs when the store closes. It’s genuinely impressive how elegantly Ephron can keep the audience from hating Joe for putting Kathleen’s small family-owned store out of business, and it’s equally impressive how thoroughly Ephron is able to get the audience to forgive Joe his even more prolonged and deliberate deception of Kathleen in the final act of the film.
Joe orchestrates numerous, seemingly happenstance, encounters with Kathleen, at least five quasi-platonic dates, in which he coaches her on her relationship with the pen pal he’s gotten her to admit to having. At the same time, he’s similarly masterminding things in his role as that pen pal, organizing their final in-person meetup. If you really unpack what Joe is doing, it does start to seem a little icky, but Hanks is just so charming that it’s hard not to forgive him everything if it gets us the happy ending we want. You can’t help but feel happy to see Joe and Lathleen wind up together, even if it’s not entirely clear if Joe is all that decent a guy.
All this said, I think the best version of this story is the first one, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner. If this film has any shortcomings, it’s that Margaret Sullivan can’t really compete with Meg Ryan or Judy Garland as the female lead. She’s perfectly fine as Klara Novak, but she’s written a little one note, while Jimmy Stewart gets a much wider variety of notes to play as Alfred Kralik. As much as You’ve Got Mail works because of Tom Hanks’s charm, Jimmy Stewart carries this film with ease, having none of the same character or plot shortcomings to overcome.
In The Shop Around the Corner, Jimmy Stewart is the lead salesman at a leather goods shop in Budapest owned by Mr. Matuschek. Margaret Sullivan’s Miss Novak manages to get herself hired as a salesperson by Mr. Matuschek over the objection of Mr. Karlic. Otherwise, their story unfolds the same as the other versions. The two of them resent each other and quarrel at work, all while unknowingly writing each other the most lovely letters. They have the same encounter at the restaurant, where the pen pals are about to meet for the first time, but Mr. Kralik realizes it’s Miss Novak he’s meeting before she sees him. Here though, Stewart seems to manage something that neither Hanks nor Johnson can. He goes in like the others, also pretending he just wandered in, but Stewart’s Mr. Kralik feels like he’s trying to build up to telling Miss Novak who he really is, but keeps being stopped by her understandable irritation towards him for continuing to interrupt her date.
This is what this version of the story does better than all the rest, even if it comes a bit at the expense of Miss Novak as a character. Mr. Kralik isn’t exactly straightforward with Miss Novak, but when he is dishonest, it is mostly for her benefit. Where the men in the other films come off as more overtly manipulative, Stewart’s Mr. Kralik is usually just trying to spare Miss Novak’s feelings. He does write her one final letter to apologize for standing her up and to new plans to meet up on the next night for Christmas Eve. In that letter, he doesn’t admit who he is or confess to knowing who she is, but I think that can be forgiven since that’s what he intends to do as soon as they are alone together the next evening.
This is the key difference for me from the other stories and the reason why this version works better than the others. Mr. Kralik’s and Miss Novak’s eventual relationship feels more satisfying and credible because Mr. Kralik is never trying to manipulatively deceive Miss Novak. The only thing he is trying to orchestrate in the end is a private moment to tell her who he is and how he really feels about her. In this sense, Mr. Kralik and Miss Novak feel the most like Beatrice and Benedict because their relationship doesn’t feel defined by deception, but rather confession. Like the letters they wrote to one another, you can believe that theirs is a relationship that will bring out the best versions of one another, which doesn’t feel as true of the other adaptations. Theirs is the relationship that feels the most like the one I want for myself.
Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th-Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.