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You've Got Mail

by Hope Sears about a year ago in movie
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An origin story

The public domain movie poster of The Shop Around the Corner 1940

You’ve Got Mail is one of my favorite romantic comedies. However, I doubt most fans of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan know its origins.

You’ve Got Mail is based on the 1940 movie The Shop Around the Corner. That is why in the 1998 incarnation the bookstore is called The Shop Around the Corner as an homage. The original version starred Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sulllavan. The movie came about all because of Ernst Lubitsch. Lubitsch was a director so famous at one time, Hollywood called his particular way of directing “the Lubitsch touch”, it was even used in trailers.

The reason to focus on Lubitsch is The Shop Around the Corner was not a script dreamed up by Hollywood. But it would likely never have been made without him. No, The Shop Around the Corner was a Hungarian play. Ernst Lubitsch was an immigrant from nearby Germany.

The play, Parfumerie, was written by Miklós László, who sold the rights to Ernst Lubitsch. Ernst Lubitsch signed onto MGM under the condition that he got to direct the play into a movie. It was different from his other films in that it was not lavish. Most of the production happened on one set.

Lubitsch waited to make the movie since he wanted Jimmy Stewart to be the leading man and he was busy with another picture. Lubitsch then turned to make what the head of the studio wanted him to make Ninotchka, an anti-communist movie starring Greta Garbo. It was critically acclaimed but not nearly as popular as Shop Around the Corner. The studio head did not think the small production scale love story would be a success.

Boy, was he wrong! The Shop Around the Corner inspired several reincarnations. It became In the Good Old Summertime, which starred Van Johnson and Judy Garland, not to mention the very first appearance of Liza Minnelli. This time set in a music store and there was no suicide attempt. Then it inspired the Broadway musical She Loves Me in the 60s, reprised in the 70s, and done once again in 2016. The movie everyone now knows this story by its 1998 incarnation You’ve Got Mail starring Hollywood nice guy Tom Hanks and leading lady Meg Ryan. Noted director, Nora Ephron helped bring the movie into the new age with email replacing snail mail. Another update is the story demonstrates how small shops like the kind the original movie portrayed, are dying.

Even more recently, there was a production of the original play in that the descendent of the playwright László, translated into English for a California performance. While it is essentially the same, the side characters get more play this time around. The love story of two people who don’t know they are in love in real life just has its allure to be its own story. But when you watch Shop Around the Corner, you cannot help but wonder more about the vulgar dealings of Mr. Vadas, Mr. Matuschek, the other women at the store, and the whole company.

Part of why Lubitsch liked the story so much was that it demonstrated the commonality in small stores across the world. His parents were small shopkeepers. He liked that it showcased employees’ relationships with their boss and with each other. Being an immigrant, he found this feeling was the same across the world. The only place where the movie lacks is in this element of intimacy that develops between workmates which the original play explored. However, Lubitsch did a stupendous job of creating a love story that has transcended the ages and its charm won its way to #28 in AFI’s 100 years 100 passions list.

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About the author

Hope Sears

Used to write for TV news, now I hope to write myself into a new story.

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