Shop Talk

A behind-the-scenes peek at the delivery of You've Got Mail

Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner is just about the perfect romantic comedy. For those unfortunate among you who have never seen it, it's the story of two combative co-workers, played by James Stewart and the enchanting Margaret Sullavan, unaware that they are also pen pals who have fallen in love through their correspondence. Eventually the Stewart character discovers the truth, gains a new appreciation for Sullavan, and uses what he's learned in her letters to win her over before revealing himself. Set in a small department store in Budapest, it's funny, romantic, sophisticated and pure Lubitsch. Indeed, along with Ninotchka, it's the film people usually mean when they cite "the Lubitsch touch."

In the new version, You've Got Mail, the reluctant lovers are played by Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, who meet on-line and correspond through E-mail. What they don't know is that they're business rivals; he's the owner of a megabookstore trying to put her small children's bookshop out of business.

Why remake a film that Pauline Kael called "close to perfection"? I suppose if anybody should have to answer this question, it should be me, because it was my idea. Though you won't see my name in the credits, I was the one who originally brought the idea for an E-mail remake to the producers.

This sounds like a pretty obvious choice now, but four years ago -- an eon in cybertime, when AOL stock was in single digits and Prodigy (remember them?) was the leading on-line service provider -- it was a pretty cutting-edge idea. In fact, some studio executives shied away from it because they thought the general public wouldn't know what E-mail was.

So what was going on in my head? Why remake a film that was so good the first time around?

Let me start at the beginning.

It's said that you shouldn't inquire what goes into sausages -- that if you know how they're made, you'll never want to eat them again. For 14 years, I've been watching what goes into movies, and it's almost been enough to make me stop watching them. Sometimes I long for the time when all I did was buy a ticket, eat popcorn in the dark and happily lose myself in a movie.

Occasionally this still happens. Some small, beautiful film comes along, like The Sweet Hereafter or Red, or even a studio film like Good Will Hunting, that gets me excited and reminds me why I wanted to start making movies in the first place.

The Shop Around the Corner was one of the first movies to affect me this way. I was only about 12 or so when I first saw it, on the old Bijou Picture Show on what was then KMOX-TV. If Parker Wheatley didn't put you to sleep with Eye on St. Louis, you were rewarded with at least two late-late movies every night.

A lot of what makes Shop so special is the chemistry between Stewart and Sullavan, who are perfectly matched. As Leah Rozen noted in her recent tribute to the film in the New York Times, they brought out the best in each other; he's more direct, and her quirkiness seems attractive rather than potentially neurotic as it does in her other films. The two were old friends; she at one time was married to his old roommate, Hank Fonda, and Stewart may have harbored a longstanding crush on her. (They made several other films together, including The Mortal Storm, another film that kept me up late in my adolescence.)

But in addition to the performances and Lubitsch's sparkling direction, Shop owes much of its success to its screenwriter, Samson Raphaelson. Raphaelson was a playwright known mostly for The Jazz Singer, and his extensive film credits also include Hitchcock's Suspicion. But his best work was for Lubitsch, for whom he wrote the musicals One Hour with You and The Merry Widow as well as the wonderful Trouble in Paradise and Heaven Can Wait (the Don Ameche, not Warren Beatty, version).

Shop was based on a Hungarian play Parfumerie by Nikolaus Laszlo. It's a dark story whose message is the antithesis of what Shop would become. The hero never musters the courage to reveal himself to the girl, and with good reason -- she's not very likable. So he keeps his secret, and the two remain enemies.

In the hands of Raphaelson, however, the play became a sparkling romantic comedy with a wonderful message -- that the self people present to the world isn't always the full picture; that if your hidden waters run deep, there are other people in the world like you, and someday you'll meet someone who appreciates you for what you are.

This message still speaks to me just as it spoke to that adolescent boy addicted to old movies. Watching Shop for the first time, I thought, this is what I want to do. I want to make something like that -- that romantic, that honest, that funny, that emotional, that smart.

A word or two about romantic comedies in general: The man and woman should never, of course, get together until the end. This goes back to the earliest days of filmmaking, when D.W. Griffith stated the rule, "There is no drama like that of delayed coitus." In the '30s, the height of American romantic comedy, it was the sexual constraints (and sometimes class restrictions, as in Our Man Godfrey) that kept the lovers "delayed"; after all, they couldn't fall into bed until they got married, and that could only come after a long, preferably conflicted and entertaining romance.

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