Thursday, January 7, 2010

Don't you love New York in the fall? It makes me want to buy school supplies.

Today for my post on Old Hollywood and New Hollywood I want to talk about influences. Namely, which is better: replicating an old classic or modernizing one? I'll add a poll about it.

There are arguments to be made for each. To make immediate examples: Usher performed a tribute to Gene Kelly's "Singin' in the Rain." Now, on the one hand, it's pretty incredible that Usher learned all of the choreography and did the exact same blocking and everything. However, one could argue (and I've heard one do it), what's the point of replicating something that's already amazing? On the other side, inspiration can be a tricky line to toe as in Katie Holmes's rendition of Judy Garland's "Get Happy." On the one hand, Katie Holmes modernizes an old number and lends it her own spice of individuality and personality; on the other, she changed a classic!

Now, to take this debate to films, I'm going to discuss one of my favorite contemporary films: You've Got Mail (1998) which is a film based on The Shop Around the Corner (1940). (Warning, I have a few spoilers in here.) The modern version covers the same story: two penpals who despise each other even though they have unknowingly fallen in love through correspondence. You've Got Mail changes the story, however, when the guy and girl are not coworkers but competitive bookstore owners. The shift from written mail to email is an easy transition with the growth of technology, but I find that the change in relationship makes a significant difference to the storyline. Their animosity is a good deal more understandable: he's putting her out of business - of course she hates him! And she says nasty things about him in public - of course he hates her! Joe Fox's later wooing of Kathleen Kelly is a little more gently done, as well, as he doesn't manipulate her as much as Kralik manipulates Klara. He suggests that her penpal is fat, married, and many other things but it's mostly done as a joking matter - she never feels crushed by the loss of an ideal. Now, don't get me wrong: I just rewatched The Shop Around the Corner and I love it! I think James Stewart is incredible in it and Margaret Sullavan is adorable. But I found myself feeling sorry for Kralik (and also getting incredibly mad at him at the end) and sort of disliking Klara, whose meanness isn't explained until the final scene of the film. In You've Got Mail, I like both of the characters and I understand each's frustration. Joe Fox does not elicit the same kind of sympathy that Kralik does, but then the characters are completely different. Kralik is a clerk who loses his job just as he is about to propose, and we see his vulnerability peek out as he reads his recommendation letter. Joe Fox, on the other hand, is a multimillionaire who loses very little throughout the film. The basic plot is the same and there are many entertainingly replicated bits of dialogue, but I find that the overall feeling of the film, the characters and their relationship are very different. It seems as if the writers of You've Got Mail loved The Shop Around the Corner and wanted to pay tribute, and improve upon it at the same time. Which brings up some controversy.

Now, looking at the other form of flattery, you have the musical rendition, In The Good Old Summertime (1949), which is essentially The Shop Around the Corner with musical numbers thrown in. What's the difference? Do we watch the musical because we like Judy Garland and Van Johnson more than James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan - or vice versa? Do we watch one or the other because we prefer musicals or straight comedies? Or do we watch both because we love the story and the dialogue and the characters so much that we can't get enough of them? This is something I've wondered with a lot of the musical remakes - High Society (1956), Easy to Wed (1946), Silk Stockings (1957), to name just a few. There are so many of them and I can't decide how I feel about them. In some cases, it's nice to see a change in casting and if the music is great then, hey! Why not? But sometimes I wonder why they couldn't leave well enough alone and let some of those good non-musical films stand on their own feet. It's a tough call to make.

What do you think about the issue? Should we replicate the things that we love or change them to fit the changing times? Or should we just leave movies that we love alone and leave it at that?


  1. First of all, I totally agree with you regarding "You've Got Mail" - I find it much more gently done and a bit lighter.

    In answer to your question, I think that drawing inspiration from a past film is a fine thing (though I'd argue that there may be too many films done as remakes in the first place. Original ideas, anyone?) but I completely oppose imitation. If the original is wonderful, then how can you improve? If the original is terrible, why even revisit it?
    I even feel that way about musical covers - if you're doing a song the exact way it's always been done, what are you adding to the creative world?

  2. I find sometimes that "tribute" is a pretty word for not having an orignal thought. However, how many different ideas can one come up with? Have we not been re-doing storylines since the beginning of time? It's a slippery slope. I watched The Shop Around the Corner over the holiday knowing it was the original form of You've Got Mail and I agree that YGM was a lot more lighthearted and I thought the exact same things you did about Kralik and Klara.

  3. It is an interesting question you posed....imitation or point of fact, we would be hard pressed if we NEVER did anything done before in sad! But even when it is an imitation, as with your Usher comparison, we cannot help infusing it with our own personality and perspective…I say let’s have it all!!

  4. I tend to favor modernization over imitation, but there are exceptions. For example I love both Love Affair (1939) and An Affair To Remember (1957) even though they have the same story, the same director, more or less the same dialogue and even some of the same shots/blocking because I enjoy the different inter plays between Irene Dunne/Charles Boyer and Cary Grant/Deborah Kerr. There is something to be said for just giving different actors a shot at a role.

  5. Sometimes it seems like there is not one new idea coming out of Hollywood. Using something as inspiration is one thing, but tribute too often crosses the line into imitation. Modernization can be done well, providing a fresh look at an old story.

    It's interesting that you chose You've Got Mail and Shop Around the Corner to compare. I love both films and think it's a great example of how updating can be done. In the Good Old Summertime, however, I find rather bland.

    I think it just comes down to quality and personal preference -- how well the remake is done and what actors/performances a person likes better.

  6. I see The Shop Around The Corner and YGM as two very different movies.

    I like The Shop Around The Corner, it's a very nice film -- although probably not one of my Jimmy Stewart favourites.

    I do love You've Got Mail though.


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