The Shop Around the Corner

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

24 September

CompuServe launches first consumer internet service, 1979

On this day in 1979, after ten years of supplying dial-up computer timesharing to businesses, CompuServe (originally Compu-Serve) started to offer something similar to the great unwashed. The service was called MicroNET and was sold through Radio Shack stores in the USA. It proved more popular than CompuServe had anticipated and by the following year had been renamed CompuServe Information Service. By then consumers could access news stories, stock quotes and weather reports and they could book airline tickets using only their computer. They could also chat in forums and communicate via a system which CompuServe called Email. Old hands will remember when CompuServe email addresses looked like this – – eight inch floppy disks, green monitors, data transfer rates of 300 baud (ie symbols per second). By 1981 CompuServe were riding high with 10,000 subscribers. These subscribers paid for the service by the minute and were served, for the most part, text-based information. By the early 1990s CompuServe were the biggest online provider in the USA. And then came AOL with its free CDs dropping onto doormats, offering a more graphic-based service and, most importantly, all-inclusive packages complete with generous time allowances. Though they didn’t yet know it, CompuServe had been served.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940, dir: Ernst Lubitsch)

The obvious email-related film is You’ve Got Mail (or M@il as it cutely insisted). But why not go back to source. Or at least the best movie manifestation of the play on which the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan romcom is based? That’s Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner, starring Hanks’s spiritual predecessor, James Stewart, and Margaret Sullavan as the two employees of a Budapest department store who can barely stand each other in real life but are falling in love by letter. The will they/won’t theys are further complicated by the fact that the two are not masters of their own destiny but employees. And the Budapest setting? A reminder that it was a Hungarian, Miklos Laszlo, who wrote the original play, and that the US was engaged in a war in Europe for the preservation of Western civilisation (does anyone still use the term “Western civilisation”?). The film is one of the finest examples of the famous “Lubitsch touch”, the melding of sweet and sour, sophisticated and brutal, the heroic and the comic – pretty much the way that successful romcoms are still made today. That doesn’t mean it’s not cute, schmaltzy and contrived. But with Lubitsch there’s always an awareness of the cuteness, schmaltz and contrivance. We’re in on the joke.

Why Watch?

  • One of four collaborations of Stewart and Sullavan
  • “Among the greatest of films,” according to the highly respected David Thomson
  • A great example of a film with “the Lubitsch touch”
  • The brilliant café scene, lifted almost intact for You’ve Got Mail

The Shop Around the Corner – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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