In the Remake Rumble, I’ll throw one (or more) versions of the same film into the ring and let them fight it out. I’ll discuss the good and the bad, and end with the ultimate judgement of the best version. Judgements can be appealed through well-reasoned arguments in the comments section.
Looking for more films to stoke that Christmas spirit? Check out these reviews from the archives:
For this week’s remake rumble, we begin in 1940 with The Shop Around the Corner, the Ernst Lubitsch directed romantic comedy starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as Alfred Kralik and Klara Novak, a manager and sales clerk at Matuschek and Company in Budapest.
There’s no love lost between the two—Klara dismisses Alfred as a bowlegged dolt; he resents the way she wormed her way into a job on false pretenses.
Alfred answers an advertisement in a newspaper to correspond with an unknown woman about literature and the arts. By mutual agreement, they eschew the mundane in their letters, forgoing the humdrum details of occupation and hobbies to discuss Tolstoy and Shakespeare. Alfred is the best version of himself in his letters—articulate, empathetic, and kind. His pen pal is the same, and soon he is besotted by a woman he’s never met.
Eventually the two decide to meet, and even if you haven’t seen the film (or You’ve Got Mail), I don’t have to tell you who he finds when he arrives at the restaurant: Klara Novak, the shopgirl he detests.
The film takes an interesting direction after his discovery—Alfred doesn’t reveal himself to Klara, and she is devastated at being stood up by the man she loves. Yet because Alfred knows that Klara is the one writing the letters he so treasures, he sees her in a new light. As he softens towards her, she sees a new side of him.
Soon, Klara finds herself torn between real-life Alfred and the mystery man of her letters, not realizing they are one in the same. When Alfred finally confesses, it is a wonderful relief to Klara, and we fade out on the lovers embracing on the floor of the shop in the quiet after the Christmas Eve rush.
The message is clear—the love of your life might be standing next to you in an elevator. He or she might be annoying you half to death.
Such lovely ideals are the scaffolding on which all romantic comedies are built.
James Stewart is at home as Alfred, playing one of the polite nice guy roles that propelled his fifty year career. We never doubt the sincerity of Alfred’s growing affection for Klara. He’s not concealing the truth as a joke at her expense, but trying to work out a way to win her love in the world off the page.
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch, who had a deft touch with comedies, including Ninotchka (Garbo’s first comedy), To Be or Not to Be (Carole Lombardi’s final film), and Heaven Can Wait, The Shop Around the Corner should be on everyone’s holiday wish list.
In 1998, Nora Ephron remade The Shop Around the Corner as You’ve Got Mail, now a classic romantic comedy in its own right. Budapest is swapped out for New York, and Alfred and Klara are replaced by Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) and Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan), rival booksellers.
Kathleen Kelly owns the local children’s bookstore The Shop Around the Corner (the name a nod to the original) opened by her deceased mother. Joe Fox owns the massive chain Fox Books that threatens to put Kathleen out of business.
Instead of exchanging letters in a post office box, Kathleen and Joe meet in an internet chat room and correspond via e-mail.
You’ve Got Mail feels more dated than The Shop Around the Corner—perhaps because the way we interact online has changed so dramatically in the past two decades. In a world where everyone has a dating site headshot and pictures of their last vacation online, the idea that two people could exchange anonymous emails and not realize they know one another IRL is unfathomable in a way that old time letter writing is not.
Ephron remained surprisingly faithful to The Shop Around the Corner. Just as in the original, when Joe realizes that his pen pal is also his professional nemesis, he stands her up and tries to figure out a way to bridge the real-life divide between them.
So how to choose a winner between these set-at-Christmas-but-not-quite-Christmas-movie romantic comedy juggernauts? Let’s break it down:
Lead Actor – I’m not the first to point out that Tom Hanks is the modern-day James Stewart, but it bears repeating. They both bring a tenderness to the male lead and show his evolving change of heart. Winner: TIE.
Lead Actress – With no disrespect to Margaret Sullavan, there is no more charming person than Meg Ryan in the nineties. Winner: You’ve Got Mail
Director—When it comes to the romantic comedy, Nora Ephron stands alone. Winner: You’ve Got Mail
Ending—You’ve Got Mail wraps things up too quickly—it’s not quite believable that Kathleen would be unequivocally thrilled that the man she’s in love with destroyed her mother’s business. Winner: The Shop Around the Corner.
Since the breakdown is too close to call, I’m going with my gut. Ephron’s classic does a better job of hammering home the point that we have a face that we show to the world, and a face that we wear when we’ve opened our heart. While a comedy, You’ve Got Mail has some deeply emotional moments—as when Kathleen, who longs for a cutting comeback in conversation, finally comes up with one and feels guilty when she genuinely wounds Joe. Or after the last day at her shop when she tells Joe (via email, not realizing it’s him) that closing the shop for good felt like her mother dying all over again.
There’s a nice push and pull between holding onto the good of the past and embracing the new that shines through in You’ve Got Mail, and that raises it above its outdated technology.
You’ve Got Mail emerges the winner in this week’s rumble, but do yourself a favor this holiday season and make it a double feature with the timeless The Shop Around the Corner.
Want more? Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.