The Shop Around the Corner vs. You've Got Mail

Comparing Shop Around the Corner to You Have Mail is pretty instructive.

You got James Stewart, an likeable man, versus Tom Hanks, another likeable man; you've got Margaret Sullavan, a charming actress (who's strangely not as well known today as some other actresses of her time) against Meg Ryan, who strangely was popular at one point in her career (but has since subsided, thankfully); finally you've got director Ernst Lubitsch against director Nora Ephron.

That's the basis of a whole article right there, actually.
But to throw in a few points on, say, Stewart (other than the obvious one that Hanks will never even come close to approaching his performance in Vertigo), the man can actually drop his well-known schtick and perform a role straight, no chaser, as in this picture. There's very little aw-shucking and stammering in Shop, actually; Stewart embodies the competent middle manager who finds his position in the company slipping a little--he backbites as well as anyone else, fences and ripostes with barbed remarks, plays a fish on hook as cruelly as any comic actor I know (if someone says "but comedy isn't cruel," I gotta say "then it's not comedy").

Hanks is never cruel. Well, he was cruel once, in Punchline, but I'm starting to think that's an anomaly; even when he's putting it to Meg Ryan there's a warm glow to his combativeness, as if his insults were in furry parentheses. He's all huggy-bear charm in You've Got Mail, and the camera lingers on his soulfulness a beat too long, as if to allow the women in the audience to sigh and gaze at him longingly. Lubitsch would never allow for such sentiment.

Sullavan--Sullavan's a special flavor; she's not conventionally pretty, though I love her dearly, and she can be spikily defensive; armed with Lubitsch as a director and Miklos Laszlo's lines, she's wonderfully sharp, able to cut Stewart's hapless manager down to size in a few quick remarks (he gets his revenge several times over, though, in the process). Meg Ryan's actually prettier than Sullavan, and she's done roles where you can see she's been comparitively vulnerable, but I can't see her playing complex, unhappy women, or any role, without that inane goofiness. Okay, she's done it once or twice--Flesh and Bone comes to mind (have not seen In the Cut), but she doesn't even try to lose the goofiness here, and it would have helped a big deal, maybe saved the whole thing.

As for Ephron--eh. I just can't muster enthusiasm for anything she's done. Give me Kathryn Bigelow anytime.

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