One a great masterpiece of cinema, the other a cultural icon of its day, we compare and contrast Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner with Nora Ephron’s technologically updated remake, You’ve Got Mail. We discuss how each film treats its conceit of two people who dislike each other unwittingly falling in love over anonymous correspondence, the former film’s couple hating each other less vitriolically, the latter giving us more insight into the details of their messages; the latter making their story the entire focus, the former handling it as the main part of a range of stories that take place amongst its characters.
We consider whether James Stewart’s Alfred and Tom Hanks’s Joe are nice people, and what the films’ endings have to say about them and the women they fall for. José focuses on the films’ approach to class and power, praising The Shop Around the Corner‘s portrayal of working people and decrying You’ve Got Mail for barely even seeming to notice its uncritical acceptance of corporate power. And we consider more besides, including how Lubitsch’s camera makes a static setting evocative and expressive, that Godfather bit, and the similarities and differences in Hanks and Stewart’s often-compared personas.
On the 29th of October 1929, James Stanton Emerson loses everything in the Wall Street Crash. He returns to his Manhattan penthouse apartment to see his wife with her new lover throwing a party even as the husband of one of the guests has already committed suicide. He excuses himself to go to his study to do the same but discovers a thick letter. As he reads it, the film flashes back to the story of Mary Lane (Margaret Sullavan), how she fell in love with him, had his child and said nothing. We also get to see how, though he’d forgotten who she was much less what he did with and to her, there were several instances where he was once more drawn to her, once more tried seducing her, even though he’d forgotten he’d done it before and forever altered her life. In the end, Mary dies, all too young. But James Stanton Emerson, played by John Boles with all the stuffiness the name suggests, finds a new reason for living in recognising as his the son he never know he had.
It’s melodrama, typical of the ‘Fallen Woman’ cycle of the early thirties. But it’s one of the better exemplars. Tom Milne compares director John M. Stahl’s filmmaking in Only Yesterday to Bresson. George Morris compares it in Back Streetto Dryer. I can understand the comparisons but the three things that struck me most watching Only Yesterday were as follows:
1) whilst the film is ostensibly based on a novel by Frederick Lewis Allen, the plot is directly lifted from Stefan Zweig’s Letter from an Unknown Woman, the 1922 novella that Ophuls would turn into a masterpiece of a film in 1948 with Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan.
2) I was also very excited to see the clip I’ve extracted below, another Pangborn pansy, but this time accompanied by what is clearly coded as a boyfriend. I thought I was discovering something new but I see that in the imdb entry, under ‘Trivia’, we’re told, ‘This movie, made shortly before the tightening of the Production Code is the only one in which “screen queen” Franklin Pangborn had a boyfriend’.
‘That heavenly blue against that mauve curtain. Doesn’t it excite you? It does something to me’.
3) The feminism of Aunt Julia played by Billie Burke. I’m often surprised to see it so clearly and problematically asserted in ‘Pre-Code’ cinema. Another example of this is Bette Davis in Ex-Lady. Here Aunt Julia tells her niece Mary (Margaret Sullavan) ‘Women have cut more than their hair. That’s just a symbol. We’ve cut a lot of the old silly nonsense. We can get good jobs now. We’re not dependent any longer. What’s more we’ve kicked the bottom out of that old bucket called the double standard’.
Tom Milne in the Monthly Film Bulletin wrote that the feminism of Aunt Julia ‘is considerably undercut by the fact that she is engaged in a dithery romance which follows the conventions it seemingly denies.’ I don’t agree. It’s true that she ends up marrying a much younger lover. But that he is much younger is in fact a defiance of the conventions of the period and an assertion of a particular kind of freedom.
Only Yesterday is a very good ‘fallen woman’ film of the period, shot in the style characteristic of Stahl in the 1930s: the long fluid takes; the going back in time to a moment that alters one’s life — that could have altered anyone’s life — the sobriety of the treatment, the self-sacrifice made less saccharine by stoicism, by it being embedded in a kind of American self-reliance; the minimalist elegance of the storytelling (see how a change of lights indicates the movement of the elevator in the penthouse scene at the beginning, and all that it opens up dramatically); the making legible, felt, and understood that which is socially prohibited. It’s a lovely film. But what struck me most is the three things listed above; with the last two still seeming as relevant and as modern today as ever.
This is the photograph that led to Lauren Bacall’s movie career. It is currently on display, along with other works by Louise Dahl-Wofe, at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London. Ostensibly, Nancy ‘Slim’ Hawks saw this and thought her husband should test that striking presence on the cover for a new film he was planning. Howard did and cast her in a secondary role in To Have And Have Not, where she was so charismatic that he built up her part into Bogart’s leading lady. Men still go woozy when they watch her ask Bogart if he knows how to whistle. Bacall slinking provocatively on a piano, legs crossed as President Truman tickled the ivories, was enough make a whole nation woozy, some with indignation.
Kitty Hawks divorced Hawks and married Leland Hayward, legendary producer of some of the greatest hits of mid-Century Broadway (South Pacific, Mr. Roberts, The Sound of Music). Leland Hayward had gone out with Katharine Hepburn in the 30s and later married Margaret Sullavan, the immortal star of The Shop Around the Corner; Margaret Sullavan had earlier been married to Henry Fonda, who later in life wrote of how he spied on his wife making love to Jed Harris (‘the meanest man on Broadway’) through the window outside their own flat, riven with jealousy but immobilised by powerlessness, and wept; Brooke Hayward, one of the Hayward-Sullavan children, married Dennis Hopper and wrote – beautifully –about the childhood they shared with the Peter and Jane Fonda in Haywire. Slim herself was one of the super-rich ‘Ladies Who Lunch’ on the edges of Truman Capote’s ‘Swans’, Babe Paley, Lee Radziwill, Marella Agnelli, C.Z. Guest, and all the other ultra-fashionable consorts of the jet-setting 60s super-rich.
In a superb article, ‘Looking American: Louise Dahl- Wolfe’s Fashion Photographs of the 1930s and 1940s’, Rebecca Arnold writes of how Dahl-Wolfe’s photographs, of which the above isn example, ‘represent and help to shape feminine identities that evoke myths of America: the pull between visions of a vast Edenic landscape of opportunity and the cosmopolitan modernity of the city’ (p.46) and how, ‘her photographs provide a rich source for examining the growing confidence of the New York fashion trade and the crystallization of the “American Look,” which framed national identity in terms of active sportswear that spoke of functionalism and freedom. Dahl-Wolfe’s warm color schemes and light-filled images present a fiction of stability and cohesion during a period of turmoil. They smooth away contradiction and anxiety, providing unproblematic and coherently constructed ideals of American femininity'(p. 46, Fashion Theory, Volume 6, Issue 1, pp. 45–60)
Louise Dahl-Wofe shot for Harpers during the time it was edited by the legendary Carmel Snow. In the relatively recent A Dash of Daring: Carmel Snow and Her Life in Fashion, Art and Letters (2010),Penelope Rowlands recounts how Snow revolutionised fashion publishing by drawing on the European avant-garde to create a distinct, modern American view of life. Harper’s Bazaar during this period was part of the huge Hearst publishing empire that encompassed newspapers across the US but also National Geographic and Good Housekeeping, thus creating a taste for what Thomas Veblen had already termed conspicuous consumption. Hearst would be Orson Welles’ model for Citizen Kane. Welles himself, baby-faced but already a Broadway legend, was photographed by Dahl-Wolfe in 1938 (see below).
One can spin out a whole history of Hollywood and a whole series of social histories from one photograph, or one of Dahl-Wolfe’s at least. But one doesn’t have the time to do so now.
‘Louise Dahl-Wolfe: A Style of Her Own’ is on show at the London Museum of Fashion and Textiles until the 21st of January.
A lovely illustration of how Hollywood conceptualised, represented and satirised film spectatorship in 1935. Margaret Sullavan, just out of the orphanage, already enveloped in a cloud of romantic longings formed by fairy tales, is an usherette at Budapest’s Dream Palace, her first job. Reginald Owen is a viewer who will turn out to be her ‘good fairy’. Both are enraptured by the mannered, melodramatic and repetitive drivel they see onscreen. We understand why they are so involved. We also understand why others are not, and why they leave at a moment in the narrative before they arrive, i.e. why they might want to leave before seeing the whole thing. Fredric Molnar, who wrote the original play, and Preston Sturges, who adapted it, make for a lovely sweet and sour combination, all directed by William Wyler with great delicacy and respect for both his subjects and his audience.