What is it that tempts film-makers to say “Ah! Let’s do a remake of this one!”? A conviction that a script that’s worked once will work again? Also perhaps a somewhat egoistic belief that they will be able to make a better adaptation than whoever made the original film? This story, a classic Ernst Lubitsch romantic comedy, certainly had a lot going for it: sweetness, dewy-eyed romance, and a heart-warming wholesomeness set against a backdrop of wartime Budapest. No wonder, a mere 9 years after it was made, The Shop Around the Corner was remade as In The Good Old Summertime.
But which is better? And how do they compare?
Comparing the two films isn’t very difficult, because the basic plot is pretty much the same, even though the setting here is, not In The Good Old Summertime’s Chicago, but Budapest—the leather goods shop of Mr Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan). Unlike the jovial Mr Oberkugen of the later film, Mr Matuschek is a married man and certainly not the type to be casting adoring eyes on the two ladies who work in his store, Flora (Sara Haden) and Ilona Novotny (Inez Courtney).
Mr Matuschek’s first salesman, Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) is the hero of the piece, a personable young man who has begun a correspondence with a young lady whom he’s never met. The correspondence, as in the case of In The Good Old Summertime, has progressed to the stage of love, though Mr Kralik has not yet got around to meeting his beloved.
There are two other salesmen at Matuschek & Co. The flashy and foppish Mr Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut), who’s constantly trying to butter up Mr Matuschek, is one:
And Pirovitch (Felix Bressart) is the other. Pirovitch is a family man, with the responsibilities of providing food, shelter and clothing for his wife and two children. Pirovitch is to Kralik what Rudi is to Larkin (did you notice, by the way? Larkin is almost-an-anagram for Kralik): friend, confidant, shoulder to cry on.
Finally, there’s Pepi (William Tracy), the errand boy who’s in charge of taking deliveries to clients, running messages for Mr Matuschek, and generally acting as general dogsbody. Pepi is also incorrigibly sassy and is constantly letting fly, especially at Mr Vadas.
Into this compact little group of people comes Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan). Like Judy Garland’s Veronica Fisher, Klara is in desperate need of a job and begs Alfred Kralik to hire her. When he refuses, she eventually manages to impress Mr Matuschek by selling off a musical cigarette case (not a harp) to a customer. Mr Matuschek, much taken by Klara’s salesmanship, gives her a job, and Klara joins, to the annoyance of Alfred Kralik, with whom she begins an unremitting feud.
In In The Good Old Summertime, Mr Oberkugen’s Stradivarius (and his obstinate refusal to accept that his skills as a violinist are seriously lacking) form the critical turning point of the story. Here, it’s not quite so minor; Lubitsch takes us down a much more serious path: Mr Matuschek receives an anonymous letter indicating that Mrs Matuschek is having an affair with one of the salesmen at Matuschek & Co. Even Matuschek isn’t blindly jealous enough to suspect the bland Pirovitch of adultery; he assumes that Kralik, who comes to the Matuscheks’ occasionally for dinner, is the culprit. And that is what the plot hinges on… because how will Matuschek take to discovering that Kralik, whom he regards almost as a son, has been cuckolding him all this while? Is that, anyway, the truth?
This is why I like The Shop Around the Corner better than In The Good Old Summertime. Both the films share a similar beginning and end: light, sweet, romantic. What lies between those two ends is what really defines the film. In The Good Old Summertime is frothy and light-hearted throughout. True, there is a brief period of unhappiness centring around Mr Oberkugen/his violin and Andy Larkin’s neighbour and friend Louise: but that is here one moment, gone the next, and with not very much to show for it. What, after all, is the ‘message’ of In The Good Old Summertime? That one shouldn’t be completely blind to one’s own faults?
With The Shop Around the Corner, there’s more depth. The main counterpoint to Kralik and Klara’s love story is, of course, the revelation of Mrs Matuschek’s adultery (and its consequences on Matuschek & Co.)—but even other than that, there are occasional glimpses of sensitivity and loyalty, of human devotion and caring, of looking on the bright side of things even when everything around is falling apart.
That is what I like best about this lovely film: it is so human without being sugary. Where In The Good Old Summertime is entertaining but admittedly shallow, The Shop Around the Corner is peopled by a cast that’s much easier to relate to—probably because these people have the same problems we do, and their reactions are like our own. For instance, every time Mr Kralik (who’s discovered that Klara is his correspondent) pretends to be bumbling and insensitive, Klara’s the very picture of patience with him: explaining to him how and why her unknown ‘gentleman friend’ behaves the way he does. And Pepi, given an opportunity to get a move up in life, takes full advantage to fulfil his ambitions—even if it means being overbearing. Plus there’s Mr Matuschek, outwardly successful and paternal, inwardly plagued by doubts and insecurities, raddled by jealousies so deep that they will tear him apart.
My recommendation: if you come across In The Good Old Summertime, watch it. It’s vastly entertaining and lots of fun.
But look for The Shop Around the Corner: it’s a classic.