Movie Thoughts: Without Reservations, The Shop Around the Corner

withoutreservationsOdds are that 1946’s Without Reservations isn’t on many cinema-philes list as a must see movie.

But any movie that features two of my favorite personalities of the “golden age of Hollywood” in Jack Benny and John Wayne is going to be put onto this cinema fan’s “must see” list.    Sure, Benny’s role is really nothing more than an uncredited cameo (Cary Grant gets one as well), but it’s still Benny and Wayne in a movie together (even though they don’t share any time on screen together!)

Without Reservations is not your typical John Wayne film.  Wayne has a firmly established on-screen persona and a lot of his roles are different shadings of the rugged, all-American alpha male figure.   And while I think Wayne is a better actor than others give him credit for,  Without Reservations isn’t exactly a showcase that is going to convince anyone to change their assessment of him.

Without Reservations is a romantic comedy with Wayne in the lead role, fully playing off his screen persona.  In many ways, it’s similar to what Arnold Schwartzenegger did in his roles in Twins and Kindergarten Cop.

Wayne plays Rusty, a solider who is taking a long train ride cross country to California.  Also on the train is best-selling novelist Kit, played by Claudette Colbert.  Kit is headed to Hollywood to see her best-selling novel adapted for the silver screen.*    The book is a big seller (we see multiple people reading it throughout the film and Kit trades in on her fame from writing it at a couple of points, all while out of the earshot of Wayne) and the studio wants Cary Grant for the lead role.   But Kit feels that an “unknown” is better for the lead male role and she’s immediately taken by Rusty and thinks he’d be perfect for the role.

* It’s hard not to be reminded of the Twilight novels and the furor surrounding their adaptation for the silver screen.  On a snarky aside, I can only assume this book is ten thousand times better than any Twilight novel could hope to be.

One problem is that Rusty has read the book and disagrees with the author’s take on what makes the “ideal” man.  Sparks ensues and the two engage in some nice back and forth as they travel by train to California.   There’s a nice chemistry to Wayne and Colbert in the film and there’s certainly nothing that you wouldn’t see in a romantic comedy released today.  It’s the old story of opposites attracting and sparks flying.   It all works well enough and it’s a pleasant little way to spent a couple of hours.  It’s certainly not the best movie featuring Wayne, but it’s interesting to see him as the lead in a romantic comedy.

220px-The_Shop_Around_the_Corner_-_1940-_PosterA far more interesting romantic comedy comes in the form of director Ernest Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner.  Adapted from a play (which always makes me curious about the stage version), the film stars James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan as the couple who doesn’t know they should be a couple.   The film has been remade a couple of times, most recently as You’ve Got Mail.  

Stewart is the manager of a family run shop in Budapest and Sullivan is a sales-girl at the shop.  The two have been exchanging letters with a person they met through an ad in the newspaper.   Turns out they’re exchanging letter with each other, though they don’t know it yet.   In real life, the two have a tempestuous relationship.

Much of the film works at keeping these two apart and having a few misunderstandings in meeting their anonymous letter writer in the real world (there’s a scene in a coffee shop that is superlatively done) until they finally realize that they’ve been exchanging letters with each other this whole time and are actually falling in love.    It’s a story that’s been imitated by others, but somehow The Shop Around the Corner manages to elevate itself above its imitators and still feel fresh today.

Part of it is that the supporting cast is given more to do than just be foils for the romantic leads.  Yes, there are conversations between various shop workers about the letter writers, but it’s not the sole purpose for the characters being in the film.  There’s also the feeling that the world exists not just to serve to get these two together.   There are concerns about the running of the shop, who is having an affair with the shop owner’s wife and the impact on him and the rest of the staff and questions about why some people have to work late and making ends meet.    I’d go so far as to say that it’s the supporting cast that elevates this movie beyond it’s standard romantic comedy trappings and makes it so much fun to watch.

Not that Stewart and Sullivan aren’t well cast and share a nice on-screen chemistry.  It’s just nice to see a romantic comedy that remembers there are other people involved in these peoples lives and they can be more than just sounding boards for their romantic frustrations.

I’m not usually a fan of romantic comedies — or let me say that “cliched” romantic comedies.    But both of these do well enough that I’d consider watching them again and even recommend them to guys who sometimes feel like they’re enduring romantic comedies for that special someone in your life.

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