Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Romance, 20th and 21st Century Style: "The Shop Around the Corner" and "Sylvie’s Love"

‘Tis the season, they say, for happily ever after. As a respite from the daily Zoom and gloom (thanks, Stacey Freed, for that invaluable turn of phrase), I’ve been seeking out romantic movies with upbeat endings. After watching two of them back to back, I realized what a distance we’ve traveled from 1940 to 2020.

 The Shop Around the Corner, adapted from a Hungarian play and filmed with panache by Ernst Lubitsch, is so endearing that its longtime popularity is no surprise. In fact, its basic plotline was borrowed for the Tom Hanks/ Meg Ryan 1998 hit, You’ve Got Mail. You’ve Got Mail introduces two business rivals who loathe each other in person, only to discover they’ve been exchanging romantic messages over the Internet. The Shop Around the Corner of course doesn’t mention AOL. It uses a more traditional form of communication—the letter—to tell the story of two co-workers at a Budapest leather goods shop who spar like cats and dogs in person, not realizing they’ve been anonymously pouring out their souls to one another as pen-pals

 The central idea of The Shop Around the Corner involves discovery. The shop is full of secrets,  which eventually come to light, for better or for worse. But the two leading characters, played by James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, are not fundamentally different from whom they appear to be in the workaday world. They’re just hiding their deeper, more sensitive sides from their co-workers, though Stewart gets clued in long before Sullivan, leaving room for some delicious moments in which he knows something she doesn’t. Eventually, of course, love will out, just in time for Christmas.

 It’s unfair to compare a classic Lubitsch comedy to a Netflix special, but the new Sylvie’s Love has benefited from major billboard display and a Christmas release. It stars the up-and-coming Tessa Thompson, and its production values are sumptuous. It’s set in Fifties and early-Sixties New York, in and around the world of TV production: everyone wears wonderful clothes (like floor-length evening attire to see a Nancy Wilson concert) and lives very nicely indeed. It all feels like the well-dressed world of Douglas Sirk, except that the central romantic characters are Black, and don’t seem to particularly be suffering because of their ethnicity.

 But they suffer: yes, they do.  Except, of course, when Sylvie—a clerk in her father’s record store who’s trying to make it in television—lays eyes on Robert, a jazz saxophone ace who comes to the store seeking work. They spar charmingly, until she actually hears him perform and is dazzled. He’s dazzled too, by her frisky cuteness and wit. Since this is a 21st century romance, they quickly hop into bed. Which is fine, except for the fact that she’s officially engaged to someone else, an upwardly mobile doctor’s son off doing his military service.

 Of course the unthinkable happens, leading to an off-camera wedding, a growing child, and (for Sylvie) the job of her dreams as a TV producer’s assistant with a bright future ahead. All the scenes that might have been interesting in a genuine romantic drama—Sylvie’s complex interaction with her husband, her socially aspiring mother, her daughter—are elided so that we can focus on her welcoming Robert joyously back into her life. I noticed the catchphrases in the film’s trailer: “Forget who you are expected to be. Become who you are meant to be.” It’s not so much about Sophie’s love as Sophie’s self-actualization. Love, that is, of herself and what gives her satisfaction, whoever else it hurts.  How very 21st century! 



Friday, December 25, 2020

Have Yourself a Sweet St. Louie Christmas (An "Unprecedented" Meet Me in St. Louis)

Christmas movies—the old-fashioned kind—tend to be short, sweet, uncomplicated, and sprinkled with music. The Christmas movie that comes to mind right now is Meet Me in St. Louis, the 1944 musical that was one of the first features directed by Vincente Minnelli, and the one that introduced him to his future wife, Judy Garland.

 Not that Meet Me in St. Louis is entirely set in the Christmas season.  This wholesome story about a large, chaotic family living in a big Victorian house on St. Louis’s Kensington Avenue actually covers an entire year. It’s an eventful year for the Smith family, beginning in the spring 1903 with preparations for the St. Louis World’s Fair and ending with the blaze of electric lights that dazzled fairgoers once the fair opened in April 1904.  In the interim, youngsters get lost and get found, and their siblings fall in and out of love. But the most serious plotline involves the announcement by Mr. Smith (the predictably autocratic but slightly addled family patriarch) that a job promotion will send all of them packing for a move to New York City. As Christmas 1903 approaches, seventeen-year-old Esther Smith (Garland) and the others are sadly preparing to leave their comfortable St. Louis life behind. That’s when Garland, with that characteristic quaver in her voice, croons to her sad little sister (Margaret O’Brien) the indelible “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

And what a little sister! I was surprised to see seven-year-old Margaret O’Brien billed in second position, just below Garland, but in many ways this tyke is the one who makes the movie sing. Her character is based on Sally Benson, who grew up to pen the nostalgic New Yorker stories that became the basis for this film. As portrayed in Meet Me in St. Louis, she’s an adorable scamp, one who delights in subjecting her dolls to grizzly fates, then stages funerals for them in the family’s garden. Her comic cakewalk duet with Garland is a delight. She also reminds us of a time when a little kid could safely roam the streets of her neighborhood, without interference from the older generation.  

 What sent me back to Meet Me in St. Louis (which is charming, but hardly the best movie musical to ever come off the MGM lot) is an “unprecedented” stage production by the Irish Repertory Theatre. This group normally presents dramatic works by Irish and Irish-American playwrights at their cozy playhouse in New York City. When the pandemic hit, they found a way to continue performing, by having the actors play their roles individually, from wherever they were quarantined, against a common specially-designed Zoom backdrop. In a play like Eugene O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet, it looks as though all the characters are interacting in a tavern (most Irish plays seem to be set in taverns!), even though solo performances have actually been stitched together via clever editing techniques. The IRT’s Meet Me in St. Louis takes this one step further. Company head Charlotte Moore actually directed from St. Louis, where she has been quarantining with family. The actors may all seem to be singing “The Trolley Song” in unison, as they ride a tram toward the World’s Fair site, but in fact they have all recorded themselves separately on their cell phones. Common backgrounds make the illusion of togetherness almost seamless.

 Which makes an apt metaphor for this complicated season. In the words of Garland’s big song, “Through the years we all will be together/ If the fates allow . . . so have yourself a merry little Christmas now.”

 Here’s actress Melissa Errico’s recounting, in the New York Times, of what it was like to be part of this unique production. 

 Deepest thanks and holiday wishes to Beth Phillips, who got me hooked on the IRT’s very special work.


Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Christmas in Hollywood?: Bah, Humbug!

The mildly entertaining film version of the recent Broadway hit called The Prom features some of our most glittering talents (Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman) as self-centered thespians who decide to Do Good only when it means they will personally reap some kind of reward. That’s why they jump on the bandwagon for a gay teenager who’s been barred from bringing her lady love to the high school prom, staging what they think will be a big publicity coup to enhance their own sagging box-office appeal. Of course, since The Prom started out as a Broadway musical, it oozes optimism and good-will for all humanity. The stars discover their kinder, gentler selves, leading to a jubilant finale in which everyone (even Kerry Washington as a narrow-minded PTA lady) finds happiness. Sounds like Christmas in June to me.

 Hollywood loves redemption movies, especially those set in the Christmas season. Hence the enduring appeal of It’s a Wonderful Life, as well as all those various versions of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which have starred everyone from Bill Murray to the Muppets We all know that A Christmas Carol ends (after Scrooge has learned to appreciate the warmth and family camaraderie of the holiday season) with plum pudding and a joyful “God bless us everyone.”

 Yet Ebenezer Scrooge’s earlier dismissal of the Christmas spirit as “humbug” is what I want to discuss right now. There’s something about celebrity that seems to bring out the worst in those who’ve been blessed with mass media appeal. When I worked in the film industry I saw, along with a lot of very nice people, some who’d definitely let fame and fortune go to their heads.  Perhaps it was a weird form of insecurity. But in any case, I watched name-above-the-title celebs demand extra attentions they didn’t deserve. These media monsters expect fealty from those around them, and think nothing of making others suffer if they don’t get their way at every turn.

 One such graced the cover of the Hollywood Reporter a few weeks back. There’s a full-colored shattered-looking picture of the star, along with these words: “THE IMPLOSION. It wasn’t just erratic, violent behavior that unmade Johnny Depp. It was his unquenchable thirst for revenge.” Inside are 4 full pages recounting instance after instance of Depp’s disturbingly self-centered behavior. On screen it may be lively and funny, but in real life not so much.

 Meanwhile, I can’t resist telling a personal story of how Hollywood’s sense of entitlement infects people other than stars. Decades ago, I was at our local Shubert Theatre, seeing a splashy road-show production of Cats. I was sitting in a house seat, because I’d just written a major piece on this production for the Los Angeles Times. By my side was my three-year-old son, ready and eager for his first big theatre-going experience. Yes, he had a booster chair, and he’d been carefully coached on how to behave.

 On the other side of me were two empty seats. They stayed empty until midway through the show when—in the middle of a musical number—a man and his daughter made their way across many laps and plopped down. I knew instantly that He was a well-known local TV personality, one who interviewed bigwigs and gave arts reviews. The child, about 5, didn’t sit quietly in her seat. Instead, she STOOD on daddy’s lap, while keeping up a steady stream of chatter about a production she’d clearly seen before. When I dared to politely reprimand the interlopers, I got an icy glare. The Spirit of Christmas Present? Bah, humbug.