By Ty Burr
Updated May 07, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

The Shop Around the Corner

  • Movie

This one’s for Mark. Well, that’s not his real name because it’s bad form to slag on a friend in print. Here’s what happened, though: Just before You’ve Got Mail was released to theaters last December, Mark read somewhere that the new Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan romance had been loosely adapted by director-cowriter Nora Ephron from Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 film The Shop Around the Corner, in which James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan play bickering salesclerks who don’t know they’re also anonymous pen pals. Curious, my friend went out and rented the original. Several days later, I asked him what he thought. He mulled for a moment, and then allowed that it was ”okay. For a fossil.”

Fossil? FOSSIL?! That’s all he could say about a film that may be the wisest romance ever put on celluloid?! A movie that I and thousands of others hold in our hearts as one of the best things to come out of Hollywood? The finest of the four films Stewart made with screen soul mate Sullavan; a felicitous peak in the career of master director Lubitsch; the date movie to end all date movies? A fossil?

Oh. I forgot. The Shop Around the Corner is in black and white. It’s six decades old. Nobody gets naked in it, or threatens to. By default, that means it’s irrelevant to life as we know it in 1999.

To which I say, Feh. Literally; that’s what I said to Mark, as part of a torrent of wounded-film-snob invective. But as I listened to him protest that he found Shop ”dull,” ”slow,” ”a creaker,” I was freshly struck by the notion that there are people — and they’re in the majority — to whom old movies simply do not speak. And that this is why Hollywood can, does — and must, I suppose — remake its classics.

You’ve Got Mail hits video this week. The Shop Around the Corner‘s been available for ages. Might I suggest that the adventurous reader rent them both? Not to decide which is ”better”; Mail is a perfectly enjoyable star vehicle that does exactly what it sets out to do, and Shop — well, you know what I think about Shop. Rather, this is a double bill to let you gauge your own feelings about new versus old.

What makes Shop timeless, ironically, is the specificity of its setting: a small department store in Budapest at the end of the global Depression. The folks who work at Matuschek and Company are lucky to have jobs, and they know it; it’s that nagging insecurity that makes Alfred Kralik (Stewart) and Klara Novak (Sullavan) so brutal to each other at work and so unbuttoned in their letters to each other. In fact, Shop is one of the most perceptive movies ever made about the workplace: It sees employees as members of a fractious family and acknowledges that each has a story worth telling (the focus on two potential lovers seems mere happy accident).

You’ve Got Mail lacks that dark lining; its joys, consequently, aren’t quite as hard-won. Book-chain mogul Joe Fox (Hanks) and indie bookstore owner Kathleen Kelly (Ryan) are each attached when the film opens — he to a career shrew (Parker Posey), she to an egotistical journalist (Greg Kinnear) — and both mates are easily sloughed off. The film’s view of e-mail love shies nervously away from the weirdness that actually attends such stuff: the lies, the posturing, the lousy grammar. But Ephron’s vision of New York’s Upper West Side as a planet unto itself almost matches Shop‘s shop for allegory, and Hanks and Ryan both do loneliness with honest, if soft-centered urgency. And the ending, with those veils of anonymity falling, retains the power to moist a viewer up.

So maybe preferring one film to the other is just a matter of taste. And then again, maybe not. I prize Tom Hanks as much as the next guy, but one look at Shop does make you forget all those Jimmy Stewart comparisons. Hanks in Mail is lovable, engaging, deeply sympathetic. In short, he’s not a heck of a lot more complex than his golden retriever. Stewart in Shop is bitter and hopeful, a jerk and a mensch, scared and serene — all the things a smart, struggling young guy on the cusp of love would be. It’s not a question of an old movie being superior. It’s a question of one movie running deeper. You’ve got Mail, Mark? That’s fine. Me, I’ll stick with Shop.
You’ve Got Mail: B
The Shop Around the Corner: A+

The Shop Around the Corner

  • Movie
  • 99 minutes
  • Ernst Lubitsch