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! 




  1. I have a background in neither film nor television. Based on your comments, I decided to watch Sulvie's Love. I lack the sophistication to see the comparison between the two films. SL is a cute film with a gorgeous color scheme. The 50s-60s soundtrack is catchy. From a technical standpoint, the editing is choppy and the writing is clichéd. The ending is forced and abrupt. I guess there just wasn't time to dwell on Sylvie's daughter and the effect of her dad's departure. He simply disappeared from the story and the child seemed totally unaffected. I appreciate the total lack of vulgarity and profanity except for a mildly crude joke and one single s#$t. Its a pleasant movie but one that was obviously made for TV (Incidentally, for Amazon Prime, not Netflix.)

  2. Ooops, you're right about Amazon Prime. The two services blur in my head, I admit. And I don't mean to make a deep, scholarly comparison: just my thoughts on two films I happened to see back to back. I used to know Tessa in high school days (she was my son's drama-class colleague), so I wanted to check out her latest. Many thanks for chiming in, and I hope you visit Movieland again!