You've Got Mail and the Other Adaptations of Parfumerie

One of the hallmarks of romantic comedies is the story of the squabbling lovers. We love to see tales of two people who bicker and argue for a long time, and eventually, they learn to see that deep down they actually love one another. It harkens to the childhood notion of a crush, where people will often say that someone is picking on a particular person because they like them and don't know how to express it. Is that a particularly healthy or productive way to form a relationship? Absolutely not, but seeing the clearly definable growth of the romantic leads satisfies our dramatic wants perfectly. This relationship dynamic was ripe for plucking in the age of the screwball comedies of old Hollywood, in pictures like Twentieth Century and It Happened One Night and remained a central tenet of the genre ever since. One story, in particular, Hollywood has returned to several times over the years stands as arguably the archetypical ideal of this story structure, and that is the play Parfumerie by Hungarian playwright Miklós László.

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While that title may not be familiar to you, maybe a little description of what the play is about will jog your memory. Parfumerie, set in 1937 Budapest, follows the lives of a few people working in a parfumerie. Most notably, there is the senior clerk named George Horvath and his contentious daily battles with new employee Amalia Balash. Little do each of them know, they have been falling in love by corresponding through anonymous letters after connecting through a lonely hearts advertisement. Probably sounds a bit more familiar now. László's play has been adapted by Hollywood three times for the screen: Ernst Lubitsch's 1940 film The Shop Around the Corner, the 1949 quasi-musical In the Good Old Summertime starring Judy Garland, and most recently in 1998 by Nora Ephron in the AOL-centric You've Got Mail. Nearly sixty years separate the first and last adaptations of Parfumerie, but that core conflict of unknown love still resonates throughout the decades, each mining the conceit to find new ways to make the story timeless.

The Shop Around the Corner certainly is the most faithful of the adaptations of László's work, though for some strange reason it changes all the character names. It undoubtedly is the most swooning of the three. James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan star as the central combative lovers, and no matter how much they snipe at one another, which actually isn't all that much, they both have such an inherent warmth that every barb feels like a performance than genuine animosity. The key turn in the story is always the man learning before the woman that they have been writing to one another, and Stewart's take on the character does not ever feel like he is holding onto that information in bad faith. That warmth extends out to every character in the film, particularly for the parfumerie's owner Mr. Matuschek (Frank Morgan), a character much more central in the original play and whose attempted suicide is still quite shocking in a film of the era. The only true derision in the film is aimed squarely at the employee having an affair with the boss's wife, a classic person who needs to be punished in old Hollywood. Lubitsch's goal with The Shop Around the Corner in 1940 is to make a classical, feel-good romance with likable people saying and doing funny things.

Just nine years later, MGM transplanted the story from a 1930s Budapest parfumerie to a turn of the 20th Century Chicago music shop for In the Good Old Summertime (though ironically, S.Z. Sakall is the only Hungarian in these casts and is in the American version). The story remains pretty much the same as the previous film, just replacing perfumes and lotions for pianos and harps for what they sell and swapping out an affair with the boss's wife for the boss's destroyed violin (which is a dumb change that removes a lot of weight from the story). One huge wrinkle this film throws into its central romance is the total imbalance of its stars. James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan came up together in the system, with their stars peaking at a somewhat simultaneous time. The Shop Around the Corner was already their third film playing opposite one another.

Judy Garland, one of the biggest stars in the world, and Van Johnson, a fine actor for the time, could not be more out of sync. In every movie Garland is in, she becomes the central force of gravity that everything orbits around, and unless you pair her with someone with an equal amount of star power, her co-star will always feel negligible and replaceable. Johnson, while charming enough, gets totally subsumed by Garland's persona, not just because he looks like an afterthought next to Garland, but also he never gets musical numbers to define his charisma as she does. Consequently, the central romance never comes across as authentic.

What the imbalance does help is amping up the resentment between the two tremendously. For Johnson's character, his envy of her being able to sell musical instruments better than him because of her singing voice really cuts through, making him a very recognizable jealous, petulant man who cannot handle a woman who is good at her job. That character's potential cruelty shows itself much more in this film, as he indulges a bit more in hanging what he knows over her head. Though only nine years later, In the Good Old Summertime comes at a time in Hollywood where the formulas had been so well-worn that the problematic aspects in the material were unknowingly ramped up to be "normal," and because its toxicity goes unexamined, the film does not go down nearly as smoothly as it did back when it was released.

You've Got Mail makes one big narrative change to the material (beyond updating letter writing to e-mail and AIM chat), having Tom Hanks' Joe and Meg Ryan's Kathleen not be coworkers but instead business rivals. Joe heads the Barnes & Noble-esque bookstore chain Fox Books, and Kathleen runs a small, independent book shop literally called The Shop Around the Corner. Out of the three, You've Got Mail ramps up the animosity between the two to new heights, as their quarrel could cause Kathleen to actually go out of business and lose her livelihood. While each subsequent film is less concerned with the supporting cast of fellow workers, each film has a greater emphasis on gendered dynamics in the workplace, where here Kathleen's little bookshop isn't taken seriously in the slightest by Joe for its more quaint, feminine touch. Also brought up to match that level is Joe's that cruelty, who relishes greatly in toying with her emotions after he finds out she is his e-mail companion. Nora Ephron, however, perfectly casts two gigantic movie stars with whom she had worked previously who almost make you forget every problematic thing in the material, which become all the more evident in a more modern setting. She also smartly does not let Joe off the hook and allows the real dramatic pain of his meddling to take hold.

Even today, all three of these films, especially The Shop Around the Corner and You've Got Mail, have ardent fans. Of course, the key conceit of anonymously connecting with someone romantically has become an even more common occurrence in day-to-day life. Thanks to the Internet, finding love through these means is more attainable than ever, and indulging in the most idealized versions of that scenario makes those of us who have been on dating apps and websites think it really is possible to find that love. Also, plenty of us have the fantasy of the one we are meant to be with being right next to us, and we do not even know it. Parfumerie, in a lot of ways, is just begging to be remade yet again to mine 21st Century online dating for its story, not to mention attacking its more challenging aspects with more modern gender views.

Miklós László, while writing Parfumerie in Hungary, obviously had no idea that his story would become an indelible part of Hollywood romantic comedies, yet his story taps in on some potent universal themes of love and work that truly make it an evergreen tale. Beyond the screen, the composer and lyricist team of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, best known for the music to Fiddler on the Roof, and book writer Joe Masteroff adapted the play into the beloved 1963 musical She Loves Me to seemingly satisfy the craving for this story between In the Good Old Summertime and You've Got Mail. No matter the decade, no matter the setting, Parfumerie manages to feel totally specific to that time and place. While it may seem like a contradiction, specificity makes something universal, which is why every new interpretation of László's play connects with so many people.

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Mike Shutt (28 Articles Published)

Mike Shutt is a Writer for Collider. He is the former co-host of the No Excuses podcast and has been writing about film online since 2014, from news to film festival coverage. You can typically find Mike watching a movie, listening to a musical, or planning his next theme park trip.

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