Miklos Laszlo’s 1936 Hungarian play Parfumerie has achieved lasting cultural and artistic significance despite being a relatively unknown piece of work. You most likely know it by its other names: The Shop Around the Corner (1940) and You’ve Got Mail (1998). There’s also a Broadway musical, She Loves Me, that premiered in 1963 and has enjoyed many revivals since its initial run. Parfumerie is a bit like Cinderella: it has inspired other versions because the story is just that irresistible. Picture this: two feuding co-workers have no idea they’re penpals.
The Shop Around the Corner remained in Budapest but the perfume shop of the original play became a small department store. I still haven’t seen You’ve Got Mail (listen, I know), but the way Nora Ephron reimagined it is mightily impressive. This time the story moves to New York, where the clueless rivals send emails instead of letters. Do you see the potential of yet another adaptation involving social media? Today we meet, befriend, and fall in love with people online, but as Parfumerie shows, this phenomenon isn’t exactly new!
In the Good Old Summertime doesn’t update the story for 1949, but moves it further into the past. This time it’s 1900s Chicago instead of 1930s Budapest. Matuschek and Company is transformed into Oberkugen’s music shop. The original was one of a handful of black and white MGM movies reworked as a technicolor musical. It was also directed by Ernst Lubitsch – two more of his films would become musical remakes: 1927’s The Student Prince of Old Heidelberg as The Student Prince in 1954 and Ninotchka (1939) as Silk Stockings (1957). I just find that so interesting. Facts are indeed fun sometimes!
While The Shop Around the Corner is one of my favorite films, I deeply adore this version. It may not be the better film, but it’s the one I like best. I love that Summertime distinguishes itself from the earlier film but still shares some similarities with it. I love the set designs and decor, the gags!, and the way it emanates warmth and softness.
The title is somewhat deceptive since the story takes place at Christmastime, but that’s another thing I love about it. The movie is short on things I don’t love. The only thing that I have a minor problem with is the way Buster Keaton’s character is written. He plays hapless Hickey, the nephew of store owner Otto Oberkugen (S.Z. Sakall). I just wish that Keaton’s strengths as a comic were put to better use in his performance, instead of just the sequences he helped create for the film. Nonetheless, it’s still splendid and always a joy to watch. It’s a much cheerier film than The Shop Around the Corner, which dealt with adultery and a suicide attempt. Instead, Summertime provides a gentle, funny romance between Otto and store clerk Nellie (Spring Byington), and a mishap involving a violin.
Oberkugen’s, like any workplace, is not without conflict or a difficult boss. S.Z. Sakall truly was so cuddly, but he shows off an irascible and still lovable side as Otto. Despite his routine grumpiness, work at the shop is mostly pleasant. Everyone gets along.
And then one day, Veronica Fisher (Judy Garland) arrives at the shop looking for a job. While there, she meets salesman Andrew Larkin (Van Johnson) for the second time. She met Andy earlier that day during a catastrophic encounter at the post office, where he destroyed her outfit. It was by mistake and he did offer to pay for the damages, but he still ruined a perfectly good outfit. And then he just rode his bike off with not a care in the world!
Naturally Veronica is none too thrilled that this guy could be her coworker, but he barely pays attention to her credentials and insists the shop isn’t hiring. Veronica is quite tenacious though. Even when Mr. Oberkugen confirms that there are no openings, she still won’t back down. She proves herself by selling a harp to a customer, which endears herself to Mr. Oberkugen. He was the only one who actually liked the harp, but Andy doubted they’d be able to sell even one, and suggested getting rid of them. This girl not only proves him wrong but delights the boss, who does hire her after all.
Veronica continues being a model employee much to Andy’s displeasure. She even rubs her higher sales in his face. Since that first meeting their mutual dislike has only deepened. But they do find respite from their daily work quarrels. Each of them exchanges letters with an anonymous penpal who is so cultured and intelligent, someone who they can both have meaningful conversations with. In fact, on that fateful day of their initial meeting, they were at the post office to receive letters from their special friends.
Andy and Veronica have such high opinions of themselves and lofty romantic ideals. But they’re too busy bickering to notice. All that exists for them is the mystery man/woman, who is far superior to their annoying coworker.
There’s still so much more that I love about this film. Judy Garland looks so exquisite and her performance is sheer excellence. She heightens the emotion in all of her scenes and is just a wonder to behold even when she isn’t singing. And when she is, like in the fabulous “I Don’t Care” number, I’m simply left in awe. In the Good Old Summertime is yet another perfect showcase for her shattering talent.
I also really love the height difference between these two. He’s so big and she’s so small, which make their battles even more adorable. And though I love Judy as Veronica, I still like to imagine June Allyson in the film. I feel like this role was tailored for June, and she was supposed to play it originally! It also helps that she resembled Margaret Sullavan, who originated the part in The Shop Around the Corner. But Judy made the role totally her own and only she could sing those songs in her unforgettable way.
Van only had effusive praise for his luminous costar:
They don’t make people like Judy Garland anymore. She was a natural, spontaneous talent.
She wasn’t in the best health during filming, but Van made sure her time on the set was comfortable and filled with joy and laughter. As he put it, “she just needed love.”
And that is as good a transition as any to write about my love for Van!
It all started with In the Good Old Summertime. By the time I watched this on April 28, 2016 (thank you, Letterboxd), I had been gradually warming up to Mrs. Johnson’s blonde boy Van. I had seen him in a couple of movies and thought he was cute with a nice speaking voice to match. Then this movie came along. As I watched it for the first time, I was more taken with Judy to be honest. Don’t get me wrong, Van was great! I loved the way they played off one another, how palpable Andy and Veronica’s dislike was. I was enjoying the film a lot and felt no need to compare it unfavorably to The Shop Around the Corner. There was also no need to compare Van and Judy to Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan either.
But in that penultimate scene, when Andy is about to reveal to Veronica that he’s her penpal, something changed. I couldn’t believe how, well, seductive Van Johnson could be! It came as quite a surprise. But I relish this scene: the way it’s shot in that low, intimate lighting, their faces almost hidden in shadow; the way Andy teases Veronica who grows ever more flustered as he kisses her neck and whispers in her ear. What absolute heart quivering romance. As I wrote my notes while rewatching, I too was growing flustered. “I’m gonna explode!!!” was what I ended up scribbling at one point.
“Psychologically I’m very confused, but personally I feel just fine.”
Oh my dear Veronica, me too.
Van’s compassion for Judy makes me love him and this film that much more. It’s evident how much fun they both had, and their friendship just shines throughout. This was one of the 30 Van Johnson movies I watched back in 2016. Now I’ve seen 48, which is unimportant in the grand scheme of things, but I claim it as a small victory. It’s given me the chance to really appreciate how versatile and exceptional he was onscreen.
I cried tears of happiness the first time I watched In the Good Old Summertime. I haven’t cried again on any rewatches, but that thrill of happiness is ever present. I love Van so much. I knew I wanted to finally write about this film that started it all on his birthday. It’s a day that I’m always looking forward to. It helps that Michaela hosts an annual blogathon celebrating him! Click on the banner below to read other posts in honor of him today.