Meg Ryan faces a tough decision. Image: Welcome to Ladyville

One of the movies we watch Every. Single. Year. is You’ve Got Mail (1998), directed by Nora Ephron, starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks.

You’ve Got Mail has funny lines, amusing characters and books crammed into every corner. We’ve seen it so often, we can quote entire scenes by heart.

The film is about a children’s bookstore proprietor (Ryan) who battles a book superstore threatening to muscle her out of business. Ryan tries to frame her opposition as a societal issue, i.e. the Individual vs. the Corporation, and she takes her fight to the media.

It’s a tough campaign. As you know, big box bookstores are exciting, with their custom-made lattes, large discount sections, and acres of shelves. It’s like Disneyland!

Hanks is one of the owners of the large chain bookstore; a wealthy man with a secret. Unbeknownst to his girlfriend, he’s corresponding with an anonymous woman in an online chat room. Get this: Unbeknownst to him, the woman he’s been chatting with is Ryan.

At first, Businessman Hanks bears no animosity towards Businesswoman Ryan and her crusade. She’s merely a bump to be squashed in his quest to Dominate the Book Industry.

As for Ryan, the fight to keep her store open is exhausting. She grows to loathe Hanks who, in turn, resents her for tarnishing his company’s image.

Their animosity has the same intensity as the original* film, The Shop Around the Corner (1940), starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan.

Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart. Image: The Hollywood Canteen

The 1940 film was was based on the popular 1936 play, Parfumerie, by Hungarian playwright Nikolaus (Miklos) Laszlo. The film, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, takes place in a Budapest boutique.

Sullavan and Stewart play co-workers who dislike each other. However, they are – you guessed it! – conducting an anonymous romantic correspondence via mail. Like Ryan and Hanks, they do not divulge personal details in their writings.

This covert letter-writing operation begins when Sullavan places an ad in the newspaper: “Modern Girl wishes to correspond on cultural subjects anonymously with intelligent, sympathetic young man.”

This correspondence leads to romance, and Lubitsch gives us a time of it, with the pair arguing during the day in the store, then corresponding after hours.

It’s a charming film, though not as laugh-out-loud funny as You’ve Got Mail. But all the special qualities of the original film have been transplanted in this clever remake; even Ryan’s shop is named “The Shop Around the Corner”.

The 1998 version updates the story with “modern” (1998) technology and uses very similar scenes. As an example, let’s compare the café scenes where Sullavan and Ryan wait to meet their Secret Admirer:

Or the scene where they receive an unlikely visitor:

Image: Ravepad

Image: Pinterest

Now, you may think both these movies have an unlikely premise, and that may be. But with the right director and screenwriter, we can easily suspend disbelief.

Casting the female lead is equally important. You need an actress with wit and vulnerability, someone who’s tough enough to stand against a male character who sometimes skews towards self-importance.

Margaret Sullavan (left) and Meg Ryan (right).

Although Sullavan’s character isn’t written to dominate the 1940 film, she has the talent to make her role appear much larger than it is.

As for the 1998 version, the female lead must carry the story. Ryan immediately makes us sympathize with her character and the difficulties she’s facing: a possible closure of her store, a distracted boyfriend, and an existential crisis. Yet, at her core, Ryan’s character is an optimist, and her buoyancy – even when forced – keeps the film from sinking into melodrama.

Some are critical of Ryan’s acting, but we feel she has depth. Look at the scene where she closes her store for the last time, the way she wistfully runs her hand over the wooden counter. It’s depressing, yet Ryan squares her shoulders and marches into her future.

The Shop Around the Corner and You’ve Got Mail make for a wonderful double-header. You’ll notice many parallels between the two films – far more than we’ve mentioned here.

Watching both films will also make you cheer for bookstores, Margaret Sullavan and the charismatic Meg Ryan.

Notes

  • *The Shop Around the Corner was remade in 1949 as In the Good Old Summertime. Even though it stars Judy Garland and Van Johnson, let’s pretend we’ve never heard of it.
  • This post is part of the MEG RYAN BIRTHDAY BLOGATHON hosted by Pfeiffer Pfilms and Meg Movies.

Happily blogging about old movies and using the royal "We".

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