Once again, we’re back for another round of “Original Vs. Remake!” This time around, we’re featuring the films The Shop Around The Corner (1940) and In The Good Old Summertime (1949) for some holiday fun (I know that there’s also the 1998 film You’ve Got Mail, but from the bits and pieces I’ve seen of it, it pales in comparison to either of the earlier films). So, let’s get started with the plot synopses (borrowed, of course, from the original reviews for both films)!
The Shop Around The Corner (1940): In Budapest, Hungary, we find Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) working as the head clerk at Matuschek And Company, which, as the shop’s name implies, is run by Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan). One time, while they were waiting for Mr. Matuschek to open up the shop, Alfred tells his friend and co-worker Pirovitch (Felix Bressart) that he answered a personal ad from the newspaper, and is now writing letters anonymously to somebody else. That same day, Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) comes in looking for a job. Alfred tries to tell her they have no opening, but when she manages to sell a cigarette box that plays “Ochi Tchornya” when opened (something that Mr. Matuschek wanted to sell in the shop but Alfred thought wasn’t for them), she is hired. Fast forward to the Christmas shopping season, and a number of things have changed. For one thing, Alfred and his pen pal have become more serious, and are trying to plan when to meet. In the shop, Alfred and Klara continue to bicker and fight, and, for some reason, Mr. Matuschek is having issues with Alfred as well, resulting in him being fired one day(of course, it would be the day he hoped to meet his pen pal). Alfred’s friend Pirovitch takes him to the meeting place at a restaurant as his moral support, where they both see that his pen pal is none other than Klara! Alfred decides not to go in at first, but later comes back alone. He doesn’t reveal his identity to Klara, but instead stops to talk with her (and it’s not long before they start bickering again). Later that night, Alfred learns from the shop’s errand boy, Pepi Katona (William Tracy), that their boss, Mr. Matuschek, had tried to commit suicide (but Pepi stopped him from going through with it). The reason? Mr. Matuschek had found out his wife was having an affair with someone! He had suspected Alfred (which is why he fired him), but it turns out it was another employee, Ferencz Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut). In the hospital, Mr. Matuschek rehires Alfred, and makes him the store manager (since he himself will be away from work while he recuperates). Almost all of Alfred’s co-workers are happy to see him back (and in a new position), but Alfred quickly finds an excuse to fire the flattering Vadas (like Mr. Matuschek wanted him to do). Klara, however, wasn’t feeling well, and so doesn’t come in. Alfred checks up on her after work, and sees her perk up when she receives another letter from her unknown pen pal. With Alfred now genuinely falling for Klara, will he be able to tell her the truth, or will they continue to stay apart?
In The Good Old Summertime (1949): Andrew “Andy” Larkin (Van Johnson) is the top salesman at Oberkugen’s Music Company in Chicago. He has recently begun corresponding with a lady when he answered a personal ad in the paper (but neither pen pal knows who the other is). Andy runs into trouble at work when his boss, Mr. Otto Oberkugen (S. Z. Sakall), orders one hundred harps, as Andy believes that they won’t sell due to the lack of market (which, of course, angers Mr. Oberkugen, since he likes them). In comes Veronica Fisher (Judy Garland), who is looking for a job. Andy and Mr. Oberkugen try to tell her that there isn’t any opening at the store currently, but Mr. Oberkugen hires her when she manages to sell one of the harps successfully (which, of course, gets her on the wrong side of Andy). Andy continues to write to his pen pal (with the two of them slowly falling for each other), but doesn’t get along with Veronica at work. The remaining ninety-nine harps continue to stay on the shelves (even with Mr. Oberkugen frequently trying to discount them), which causes friction between him and his bookkeeper/longtime girlfriend, Nellie Burke (Spring Byington). One day, when she is so frustrated that she decides not to go out with him that evening (claiming she has a date with another man), Mr. Oberkugen’s jealousy gets the better of him, and he orders all his employees to stay after work for inventory (which really bothers everybody). When Nellie decides to apologize to Mr. Oberkugen, he realizes how unjust he was being, and lets everyone go. Andy had arranged to meet his pen pal at a restaurant that night, but when he and his co-worker/friend Rudy Hansen (Clinton Sundberg) arrive at the restaurant, they find out that his pen pal is none other than Veronica! Disappointed, Andy leaves, but comes back later and tries to talk with Veronica (who gets very annoyed with him for disturbing her while she waits for her friend). When she finally gives up and leaves, she finds a carnation outside (which Andy was supposed to wear to help identify himself as her friend). She believes that her friend had seen the two of them together and left, which depresses her enough that she calls in sick the next day. Andy comes to visit her on his lunch break, and sees how much she perks up when she receives her next letter from her friend. The next day, Mr. Oberkugen and Nellie have a party to celebrate their engagement, but, much to Andy’s chagrin, Mr. Oberkugen asks him to sneak in his prized Stradivarius violin (which he plays at work when he is low, except he does it poorly, much to the dismay of his employees). Unsure what to do, Andy ends up loaning it to his friend Louise Parkson (Marcia Van Dyke) for an audition that night. When he arrives at the party, Andy is unable to tell Mr. Oberkugen that he loaned it out, pretending that he just couldn’t bear to bring it and left it at home. When Mr. Oberkugen vehemently insists that Andy bring the violin, Andy borrows Louise’s violin, which Hickey (Buster Keaton), Mr. Oberkugen’s nephew (and one of his employees), accidentally breaks when he goes to give it to his uncle. Andy is fired, but he gets the Stradivarius back after Louise’s audition goes well. With him out of a job now, will he reveal himself as Veronica’s pen pal, or will they continue to stay apart?
Of course, with the two films being based on the same story (the 1936 play Perfumerie by Nikolaus László), there are bound to be similarities, 😉 so we should obviously start by looking at the various differences. Some changes are more superficial than others. Location (Budapest, Hungary in Shop and the U.S. city of Chicago, Illinois in Summertime). Type of store (knick-knacks in Shop versus musical instruments, sheet music, etc. in Summertime). Character names (no doubt a reflection on the change in locations). That type of stuff.
One fairly big change is the number of employees at the store. In Shop, Frank Morgan’s Hugo Matuschek employs up to seven people at a time (after Klara is hired), whereas, in Summertime, S. Z. Sakall’s Otto Oberkugen has up to five people working for him. As a result, this difference changes up the employee dynamic a bit (and which characters fulfill what roles). Shop gives us a married Matuschek, which is where the trouble between him and James Stewart’s Kralik comes from, since he suspects Kralik of being the man that his wife is cheating on him with (when, in reality, it is Joseph Schildkraut’s Ferencz Vadas who is the culprit). Summertime gives us a single Oberkugen, who is in love with his cashier/bookkeeper Nellie Burke (as played by Spring Byington). Apart from her romance with Mr. Oberkugen, Nellie essentially replaces two minor characters from the previous film (saleswoman Ilona Novotny as played by Inez Courtney and clerk Flora Kaczek as played by Sara Haden), although her presence in the story is much greater. The role of delivery boy Pepi Katona (William Tracy) from Shop is pretty much eliminated from Summertime. The role of Kralik’s friend, Pirovitch (Felix Bressart) is essentially divided between Clinton Sundberg’s Rudy Hansen and Buster Keaton’s Hickey (mostly, Rudy has the lion’s share of the character, with Hickey taking on the aspect of being the one that his boss picks on and calls names). Joseph Schildkraut’s Ferencz Vadas is also more or less gone from Summertime, with the main remnants being Hickey trying to appease his uncle (although in this case, it’s mainly because he is such a klutz and needs job reassurance with his uncle by listening to his uncle’s awful violin playing, as opposed to trying to get everybody else in trouble).
And finally, we also have the films’ central relationship and its various changes. In Shop, the central couple first meet when Margaret Sullavan’s Klara comes into the store to look for a job, whereas in Summertime, they meet (and rather clumsily at that) when they run into each other at the post office before work (which gives just one more reason why Judy Garland’s Victoria is off to a rotten start in her relationship with Van Johnson’s Andrew). And realistically, the revelation (at least, to us anyway) that the two are writing to each other comes at different points in the films, as (in Shop) we don’t really know for sure that Klara is writing to James Stewart’s Alfred until they are supposed to meet at the restaurant (although there are some hints beforehand that are more readily noticeable to those who either knew the story from a different version of the tale or have seen the film multiple times) whereas in Summertime, we find out that Victoria is the pen pal when she goes to talk to her Aunt Addie right after she gets the job at Oberkugen’s. The circumstances of when the pen pals are supposed to meet change, as Kralik’s reluctance to go in to the restaurant in Shop has to do with him being fired beforehand (and not really wanting to deal with anybody), as opposed to Andrew just being nervous about the meeting in Summertime. The other main difference is that, in Summertime, they do have romantic “rivals” (to be fair, they’re not really rivals, as Andrew is not really interested in Marcia Van Dyke’s Louise Parkson, nor Veronica in Hickey), whereas there is nobody else in Shop.
As to which film is the better film? That certainly depends. When you get down to it, the cast certainly helps make the movie. If I want to compare James Stewart versus Van Johnson, in my book, Jimmy wins out, as his Kralik is far more likeable, and Van Johnson is a little too cynical for me. As to the leading ladies? Judy Garland EASILY wins out for me against Margaret Sullavan. For me, she is the better actress and she is funnier (not to mention it’s nice to listen to her sing, as well). The only other characters worth comparing are the bosses. That’s where these films are more evenly matched, in my opinion. Frank Morgan I think does the better job of acting (mostly because of the material), but I also find S. Z. Sakall to be just pure fun and hard to dislike. When you get down to it, I would say that Shop is actually the better film since, as I mentioned in my review of Summertime, I think Buster Keaton’s Hickey is underutilized, particularly making the character less of a romantic “threat” (except in his own eyes). However, I’m still more of a musical fan, and with the combination of Judy, Sakall, and a few fun songs, Summertime wins out for me. Regardless, one nice thing about enjoying both films is that I can potentially alternate years in which I watch these films, thereby allowing me to enjoy the story every year, but get a different version, helping keep them fresh (or, I can forgo that and watch both)! They’re both fun Christmas films, and I have no problem in recommending either film!
Both movies are available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive Collection.
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The Shop Around The Corner (1940)
Film Length: 1 hour, 39 minutes
My Rating: 10/10
In The Good Old Summertime (1949)
Film Length: 1 hour, 43 minutes
My Rating: 10/10
The Winner (in my opinion): In The Good Old Summertime (1949) (By a VERY slim margin)