Youve Got Mail Takes Place in a Little Shop Around the Corner – Offscreen

Romantic stories have always attracted audiences throughout filmic history with the boy-meets-girl scenario being present in almost every cinematic genre, from thrillers to avant garde or experimental films. However there is a burning question permeating the current landscape of cinematic theory. Can this romance narrative be subverted? Can it be re-scripted? And if yes, how and where can we find traces of even the slightest change?

Although we often read texts (film or literary) that deviate from the norm, we still “only occasionally encounter texts/productions that shake the foundations of this more enduring ‘grand narrative’.” [1] In our effort to find alterations in romantic narrative, we really need to examine not only “the extent to which (these changes) alter the codes and conventions of traditional romance…. but whether or not they actively question and destabilize the institutions in which those conventions have become entrenched (for example, heterosexuality, marriage, monogamy, the family, or the prescription for same-race relationships).” [2]

theoretical framework

all filmic narrative can be analyzed structurally since it is composed of discernible elements. [3] the science of narratology is based on an analogy: a narrative is like a sentence and so can be analyzed with the help of a narrative grammar. each narrative comprises an acting subject and an action, with the possibility that there are objects around which the action revolves. According to Algirdas Greimas, there are six “grammatical” roles that can exist in a narrative: the subject and object of the action (sujet/objet according to French terminology), the sender and receiver (destinateur/destinataire), and the assistant. and the enemy (adjuvant/opponent). [4] each character in the narrative can assume more than one role. consequently, there may be various narrative combinations in proportion to the roles and actions. the aforementioned roles were originally applied to stories and helped the analysis of simple and short texts such as myths, popular songs, etc. however, they can be applied to more complex narratives since narrative grammar demonstrates that even the most complex forms of syntax result from transformations in deep narrative structure. [5] Greimas theory can also be used in film narratives as it holds that narrative structures can also be identified in film language. [6]

In this essay I will apply greimas theory to see how the evolution or change of a character’s narrative program can also define a subversion in the romantic narrative, which is largely a byproduct of sociopolitical changes. [7] for this reason I have chosen to analyze the narrative programs of the female protagonists of the corner store and you have a mail, since the latter is a version of the first.

the corner store has mail

in 1940, ernst lubitsch, the “master of romantic comedy” according to film historian and critic leonard maltin [8], decided to direct the first film version of the work the parfumerie, written in 1937 by the Hungarian playwright Miklós László. [9]

The theme is as old as time. two co-workers fall in love after despising each other and not knowing they were made for each other. In a small Hungarian department store, Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) works as the best employee and trusted friend of the owner, Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan). Alfred secretly corresponds with a young woman through a lonely hearts ad. he has never seen her and all he knows about her is her box number, 237. however, he confides in her closest friend and oldest employee at the store, mr. Pirovitch (Felix Bressart), who is in love with this young woman and is soon going to propose to her. A few days before Christmas, he hires a young shop assistant to help out. Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) is, of course, the mysterious woman Alfred corresponds with, but the two start their relationship off on the wrong foot, completely unaware of their true identities. as can be easily concluded, the happy ending comes just before the closing credits and after a series of misunderstandings.

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in 1998 nora ephron decided to update the story and the result was you have an email. this time however things were different. the beatles song during the opening credits is accompanied by the distinctive sound of a computer connecting to the internet, leading the viewer to understand that the film’s title is a direct reference to email which it has almost completely replaced conventional letter writing. In addition, the images we see are representations of a virtual and colorful New York until the camera enters an apartment where we find our protagonist Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan). she just woke up and listens to her boyfriend’s complaints against technology. the moment he leaves, she logs in and we discover that she is in a secret correspondence with an unknown man. she calls herself a shop assistant while he is ny152. the voiceover we hear belongs to joe fox (tom hanks) and we witness her talking about everyday things, while we see him in his luxurious apartment with his powerful girlfriend. with the help of parallel editing, we see them leave for work. she owns a small children’s bookstore that she inherited from her mother, aptly named the corner store, while he is a third generation entrepreneur who is about to open a new super bookstore to few blocks from his bookstore. .

From the first scenes of the two films we can already establish the following: in the 1940 film the first protagonist we encounter is the man, while in the second the first protagonist we encounter is the woman. Insignificant as this observation may seem, at first it comes with the additional connotation that women should not be immediately placed second. In addition, the position that Klara and Kathleen have in their historical time is quite different. Klara’s first narrative program finds her as a subject of action, aided only by her desire to search for an object, which is a new position as a shop assistant. second, she lives in a single room with her elderly aunts. On the other hand, Kathleen owns her own business and she employs three other people. her narrative schedule is vague at first and she seems to wander through life without a definite purpose. she enjoys flirting with her unknown online friend of hers without desperately seeking to meet him; she goes to work without new ideas to improve or alter anything in the store; and she is romantically involved with a fiery journalist with no immediate plans for the future. Only when her business is in jeopardy because of Joe Fox and after consulting with her online friend (who is actually Joe Fox), do the wheels of her first narrative show turn. As the subject of action and with the help of her boyfriend, employees and friends of hers, Kathleen struggles to keep her bookstore open and decides to campaign for it, even if it means becoming mean and ruthless, qualities she doesn’t at first seems to possess

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we see that klara has an innate determination to get what she wants, while kathleen lacks this attribute. however, as the plot progresses, both women detest the man they really care about. Klara is constantly at odds with Alfred, since the latter is her boss, and Kathleen tries to sabotage the opening of Joe’s new superstore.

another point worth discussing is the fact that klara is single and has tender feelings only for her secret friend, while kathleen is involved with frank and still corresponds with her man ny152, not feeling particularly guilty about his conduct. while the infidelity never catches on, in a way she is pulling away from her relationship because of another man. Thus, the story becomes more convoluted than in the 1940s version, where Klara sets up two goals, a job and a man, only to be hindered by her obnoxious boss, Alfred. kathleen’s case is more complex because she has to struggle to keep her business afloat, decide what she wants to do if her plan fails, and also make a decision about her relationship. both women’s narrative programs reflect the social changes that occurred from the 1940s to the end of the second millennium. in the intervening decades, women became financially independent and took on jobs that were usually held by men. as a result, relationships with the male sex also underwent significant changes. When Alfred asks his friend at the store the exact monthly expenses of a married couple, we see that in those days the man had to be the breadwinner, and that even when the woman worked, the man had to earn more money. . the feminist and post-feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s helped end this condition. Kathleen’s second object is not marriage but companionship. she doesn’t mind (at least not openly) having babies and doing housework, but she first wants to find her true self and what she wants to do in life. at the beginning of the film, she wonders about her work and asks “what exactly do I do?” while towards the end of the film, after having sold all of her stock and closed her store, her beloved accountant, her elderly man, congratulates her on her brave decision and tells her that “she’s leaving.” into the unknown with…nothing.” However, Kathleen is finally free to pursue what she truly wants in life, as the years that have passed have been filled with someone else’s hopes and dreams (probably her mother’s). she is therefore victorious in the end, complete with the mate of hers that she so longed for.

klara, on the other hand, leads a much simpler existence, but not without obstacles. its narrative program has two objects: a job and a husband. the ending of the 1940 film heavily suggests that a marriage proposal will occur within hours of the first kiss, while the last goodbye kiss from 1998 suggests only the beginning of a healthy relationship and nothing more.

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while ephron doesn’t alter the basic structures of the romantic narrative, he does put things in a different perspective, following an era when women were economically independent and didn’t expect a husband to solve their problems. Further analysis of the way men act and think in both films could also reveal small but significant changes in the way the romantic narrative is evolving, even in major Hollywood films.


the corner store (1940) lubitsch, ernst, direction screenplay: samson raphaelson based on the work parfumerie by nikolaus laszlo cast: james stewart (alfred kralik) , margaret sullavan (klara novak), frank morgan (hugo matuschek), joseph schildkraut (ferencz vadas), felix bressart (pirovitch) duration: 97 min.

you’ve got mail (1998) ephron, nora, director screenplay: nora ephron, delia ephron cast: tom hanks (joe fox), meg ryan (kathleen kelly), greg kinnear (frank navasky) , parker posey (patricia eden), jean stapleton (birdie conrad), dabney coleman (nelson fox), john randolph (schuyler fox) duration: 100 min.

final notes

1 Pearce, Lynne & mustache gina. fatal attractions. rewriting romance in contemporary literature and cinema. London. Sterling, Virginia: Pluto Press, 1998, p. 1.

2 ibid.

3 according to robert stam [1992: 69], “the conventional elements of the narrative structure (characters, plot pattern, setting, point of view and temporality) can be considered as sign systems that are structured and organized… . ”

4 greimas, algirdas julien. structural semantics. Paris: Poof, 1968, 1986, p. 176-178.

5 rimmon-kenan, shlomith. fictional narrative – contemporary poetics. new york: routledge, 1983, p. 6-15.

6 greimas, algirdas julien. structural semantics. Paris: Poof, 1968, 1986, p. 158.

7 a key term in the grammar of greimas is the personal narrative program. Greimas defines it as a model of change of state and is considered as the starting point for the formation of an operative theory of the forms of action in a specific space-time universe [1993: 177]. In other words, the narrative program is the personal plan of action that each character has in a narrative. Of course, it goes without saying that different characters have different narrative programs and the plot is created through the intermingling of the characters’ actions in their efforts to achieve their goals.

8 leonard maltin, cd-rom microsoft cinemania 97, 1992-1996 microsoft corporation

9 in 1949 there was a new musical version of the work called in the good old summertime with judy garland and van johnson


greimas, algirdas julien. structural semantics. Paris: Poof, 1968, 1986. Greimas, Algirdas Julien & courtes, joseph. sémantique: dictionnaire raisonné de la théorie du langage. paris: hachette, 1993. pearce, lynne & mustache gina. fatal attractions. rewriting romance in contemporary literature and cinema. London. Sterling, Virginia: Pluto Press, 1998. Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith. fictional narrative – contemporary poetics. new york: routledge, 1983. stam, robert. new vocabularies in film semiotics. London: Routledge, 1992.

electronic source cd-rom microsoft cinemania 97, 1992-1996 microsoft corporation

volume 9, number 9 / september 2005 essays ernest lubitsch film theory film_theory margaret sullavan narratology nora ephron remakes the corner store tom hanks you have mail

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