Two Ways To Shoot The Same Scene: A Comparison of The Shop Around the Corner (1940) and You’ve Got Mail (1998) Shows How Filmmaking Changed Over the Decades

Some years ago, the Guardian’s Anne T. Don­ahue rec­om­mend­ed, as an alter­na­tive Christ­mas movie, Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail from 1998. “Admit­ted­ly, You’ve Got Mail takes place from Octo­ber to spring,” she writes, “but what mat­ters most is that the movie’s most com­pelling scenes — when Joe Fox (Tom Han­ks) dis­cov­ers that Kath­leen Kel­ly (Meg Ryan) is Shop­Girl, when they have cof­fee, when Kath­leen real­izes she’s prob­a­bly going to lose her store (and again, no, not cry­ing) — occur over the Best Time of Year™.” If none of this rings a bell, jin­gle or oth­er­wise, you may need to get up to speed on the roman­tic come­dies of the nine­teen-nineties. You’d do well to begin with Ephron’s pre­vi­ous Christ­mas­time-set Han­ks-and-Ryan vehi­cle, Sleep­less in Seat­tle.

Despite being pri­mar­i­ly con­sid­ered a spir­i­tu­al sequel to Sleep­less in Seat­tle, You’ve Got Mail is also an adap­ta­tion of a much ear­li­er pic­ture, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Cor­ner. Released in 1940, it stars James Stew­art and Mar­garet Sulla­van as co-work­ers in a Budapest leather goods shop whose mutu­al ani­mos­i­ty con­ceals, even to them­selves, the fact that they’ve been amorous­ly cor­re­spond­ing after being con­nect­ed through a per­son­als ad. This premise (which in turn comes from Par­fumerie, a 1937 play by Mik­lós Lás­zló) holds out prac­ti­cal­ly unlim­it­ed mileage to the rom-com genre. That two high-pro­file films have faith­ful­ly adhered to Par­fumerie gives cinephiles an oppor­tu­ni­ty to com­pare and con­trast, mak­ing a study of how film itself changed over near­ly six decades.

Evan Puschak, bet­ter known as the Nerd­writer, attempts just such an exer­cise in the new video above, focus­ing on a par­tic­u­lar­ly mem­o­rable scene shared by the two movies. “On the day the pen pals final­ly agree to meet at a café, the man, who gets there sec­ond, sees through the win­dow that his beloved is actu­al­ly his real-life antag­o­nist, and because of this, does­n’t reveal his true iden­ti­ty. This imbal­ance of knowl­edge makes for a mar­velous scene of dra­mat­ic irony, cre­at­ing a ten­sion that is at once heart-wrench­ing and hilar­i­ous.” In The Shop Around the Cor­ner, this scene plays out in a lit­tle over eight min­utes; in You’ve Got Mail, it takes near­ly ten. But what real­ly sep­a­rates the styles of the ear­li­er pic­ture and the lat­er is “the num­ber of shots used to cov­er the scene.”

“In 1940, Lubitsch filmed the café scene in just nine­teen shots. In com­par­i­son, Nora Ephron, 58 years lat­er, used 133 shots for the same mate­r­i­al,” result­ing in a dif­fer­ence in aver­age shot length of well over twen­ty sec­onds. This increase in cut­ting could reflect the fact that “ear­ly film­mak­ing tech­niques were influ­enced by the con­ven­tions of stage plays, where many film­mak­ers” — Lubitsch includ­ed — “began their careers,” where­as “films of the eight­ies and nineties were influ­enced by music videos and com­mer­cials, which increased view­er tol­er­ance for more rapid edit­ing,” to say noth­ing of the many oth­er wider cul­tur­al dif­fer­ences between the pre­war years and the end of the mil­len­ni­um. And when, some Christ­mas down the line, this mate­r­i­al next gets adapt­ed, it will pre­sum­ably reflect the aes­thet­ics (so to speak) of Tik­Tok.

Relat­ed con­tent:

A Young Nora Ephron Gets Ani­mat­ed About Breasts, Fem­i­nism, Jour­nal­ism & New Pos­si­bil­i­ties (1975)

The Alche­my of Film Edit­ing, Explored in a New Video Essay That Breaks Down Han­nah and Her Sis­ters, The Empire Strikes Back & Oth­er Films

Stan­ley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, the Most Trou­bling Christ­mas Film Ever Made

The Impor­tance of Film Edit­ing Demon­strat­ed by the Bad Edit­ing of Major Films: Bohemi­an Rhap­sody, Sui­cide Squad & More

Nora Ephron’s Lists: “What I Will Miss” and “What I Won’t Miss”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


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  • Richard says:

    Shop Around the Cor­ner was a charm­ing clas­sic.
    You’ve Got Mail was a hor­ri­ble mess in which the rich schmuck runs the hero­ine out of busi­ness, but still wins the girl.
    The only sav­ing grace was the Steve Zahn char­ac­ter.

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