Little Man, What Now? (1934): Borzage Vs. The Depression

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Little Man, What Now? is a curious title although Carl Laemmle seemed to believe in the tale even giving it a public service announcement to make the point very clearly. This is a story for every man even as it seeks to document the daily problems of the contemporary society.

From the opening vignette, the movie preaches a message of peace, tolerance, and minding one’s own affairs like an upright citizen. If you’re like this jaded viewer, you grow wary of a picture with a self-serving agenda, especially one done poorly. Thankfully, Little Man is about a lot of ideas, including the things that get jumbled up inside a person’s head as they try to make their way through the world. Or rather, when they try and make their way through the world connected with someone else in marriage. This is Frank Borzage, after all, so a romance must be key.

One is reminded instantly we are in the throes of the Depression though this is Germany. It’s true much of the western industrialized world was plagued by stagnation and poverty. Herr Pinneberg (Douglass Montgomery) is a clerk and his tyrannical boss might very well be Ebenezer Scrooge though bald, bearded, and more oafish.

His family lives in the adjoining room with a cackling freckle-faced son and his dowdy daughter, who’s not had any luck landing a husband. Her belittling father has tried to up her prospects by hiring three bachelor’s to work for him. She dislikes them all except for Pinneberg. The feelings are not mutual, and he’s already wed. To keep his job, he conveniently keeps this detail a secret. It’s out of necessity. He’s madly in love with his wife.

Margaret Sullavan has a youthful vigor and prevailing spirit of a newlywed about her to be sure, but there’s also something deep and wise layered into her performance. She’s steady as her husband seems to crumble in the face of every change in the winds.

Next to her, Douglass Montgomery at times feels weak-willed and green, almost deserving of the world’s ill-fortunes because he gripes about them so much. And yet it’s difficult to be too harsh with him lest someone puts the mirror (with its three panes) up to my face as well.

We are continually reminded of the world’s many ailings from bigotry to unrest and poverty. Against this, Borzage literally captures them frolicking together in the lap of nature. While they do model a slightly different cross-section of Depression society from say Man’s Castle, they still exhibit the same rapturous affections for their beloved. Throughout the entire film, they remain the deliriously fixated center. What remains to be seen is how the characters and situations around them evolve.

The old man starts feeling positively chummy even as his daughter becomes petty even vindictive criticizing the “other woman” he was seen with. Speaking from experience, it doesn’t matter the age, there is a helplessness, nay, a uselessness that comes with being unemployed, especially when others are counting on you. Hans remains resolute when it matters most. Maintaining his pride and the love of a good wife mean more to him than money.

There’s another wonderfully staged scene between husband and wife as the merry-go-round sends our heroine round and round through the frame as she responds to her husband’s questions about where she’s been. She sheepishly admits she got so hungry she ate all the pieces of salmon from the market and now they have no dinner. Far from being angry, he laughs riotously. This is what love is.

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The movie is melodrama in the way that a life is full of smatterings of drama, cycling through the highs and lows, the devastations and elations, that come with the daily grind. The picture never feels like it’s aiming for a particular peak. Instead, it’s content enough to offer up vignettes because we have a couple to hold onto and root for, even as the scenery, the jobs, and the hardships change. They remain our steadfast point of reference.

Next, they make their way to Berlin, which we come to realize is only one decision out of a whole host they will have to make. They meet Hans’s step-mother at the station, a bubbly absent-minded woman always holding onto her inseparable dog.

However, she’s not so genial when you get to know her, and their desperate financial straits don’t help matters any. Thankfully, they have one friend, a most curious fellow named Jachmann. He’s a close associate with Mrs. Pinneberg. His real title, I couldn’t say.

Alan Hale was always the good-humor man but, in this case, he’s also a man with means. He just might be able to set them up with a home and a job, when he’s not kissing hands and laughing his head off, that is. Certainly, he’s some kind of shyster but a generous one with a heart of gold, especially when beautiful girls and their downtrodden husbands are concerned.

Another impeccable image comes when the couple is crammed in bed together as the mother’s party hits full stride just outside their doors. If we talk about the wage gap between our parent’s generation and us, this image of contrasting social statuses within a single family says as much about the Depression Era. However, it turns out she advertises in the papers because her home is actually a house of ill repute, and it carries with it a local reputation. They must move on.

Hans is a naive idealist and yet he rarely seems ready to make the sacrifices and the allowances his wife is; he’s not really willing to live within his means. Their new home has a Seventh Heaven rooftop, though he fails to see its quaint qualities; it’s close to a barn or better yet a stable.

If it was good enough for the baby at Christmastime, it’s good enough for them in their own humble estate. After all, being a Little Man is only in the eye of the beholder. In the eyes of his devoted wife, there couldn’t be a greater, grander, more important person to fill up her world.

As for the “What Now?” only time will tell. They rightfully state, “We created life so why should we be afraid of it?” What it does supply is this renewing sense of hope in the face of uncertainty. Again, it’s akin to the foremost Borzage pictures. It’s a testament to his convictions that he’s able to remain a romantic during the dog days of the Depression, and he keeps us believing in the power of love even within these dire straits.

3.5/5 Stars

Only Yesterday (1933): Margaret Sullavan Shines

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In the opening designs of Only Yesterday, the New York Stock Exchange is encapsulated by its usual hubbub only to hit the skids of pandemonium when the market crashes. We’re talking about the Big Crash of 1929. It plays as the backdrop to our story, very much functioning as current events.

The backstory makes the film fall even closer to home. Because like just about everyone else, Universal Studios was saddled with their own financial troubles so it seems fitting Only Yesterday was the project made to get them out of the doghouse and salvage their holdings.

If we are to believe this film, part of what Black Tuesday did was totally humble both the rich and the poor (and the movie studios) in their separate estates. Before the sheer magnitude of the devastation has spread, we get a front-row seat at the party hosted in the home of Mr. and Mrs. James Emerson.

What becomes immediately apparent is the buzz of the atmosphere with tumultuous music and a smattering of glib zingers. There’s a cascading frivolity on all sides to go with the idle chatter supplied by such gossipping fiends as Franklin Pangborn.

However, Mr. Emerson (John Boles) comes home positively shellshocked because he’s been cleaned out. He’s in no state to make merry opting to disappear into his study. It’s in the backrooms and corridors where the crushing reality sets in, to the point of private devastation.

From the outset, Boles comes off as a sympathetic figure and a calming presence even as he comes to terms with the weight of the Crash and its innumerable implications. It’s true the man of the house looks to be teetering on the brink of suicide, if not for a mysterious letter on his desk.

He opens it up and thereby begins the heart and soul of our story. It is partially his story and someone else’s as well; it began before anyone knew of a Depression, in 1917. If you remember, without leafing through your history books, “The War to End All Wars” was reaching its conclusion.

Back then James was a dashing soldier, unmarried, and still looking to finish up business overseas. It was on one such evening back in 17 where he met a buoyant young woman (Margaret Sullavan in her stellar debut) on a dance floor.

She is the picture of youth and her voice has yet to reach depths of only a few years later Regardless, precocious Mary Lane comes out of the woodwork to confess her love for him from afar after well nigh 2 years!

He takes it good-naturedly enough, altogether flattered anyone might look at him in this manner, and it leads to something — a dance and then whatever might come next. If the cynical would term it a one-night-stand, then it’s a little bit of paradise and Mary holds onto the evening.

In her mind, it’s the first of many, if not for the fateful news that the 309th is engaged to be shipped overseas. This is the event her whole life seems to hinge on up to this point; one evening was an entire lifetime. It just goes to show how the same event can take on differing degrees of resonance for two people.

It happens so quickly as to totally catch the audience off guard. James is off to fight a patriotic war and Mary is going up to New York as to not besmirch her family with her ignominy; she is with child.

Shopworn Angel would capture much the same jingoistic “Over There” milieu a few years down the road and yet that time around, not only would Margaret Sullavan be the veteran opposite a still callow Jimmy Stewart, the Production Codes would exert themselves more rigorously.

In terms of solely content, there’s little doubt Only Yesterday is armed with the uncompromising brazenness of the Pre-Code era. This includes a broad-minded perception of a woman’s place in an evolving society. It makes for a fascinating bit of observation, especially considering how Classical Hollywood would eventually settle into a status quo — a cult of domesticity tailored to the mid-20th century.

However, in Only Yesterday, we get Aunt Julia (Billie Burke), a progressive woman who has a life involving such independent-minded things as bob hairstyles and full-time employment. Aside from The Good Witch, Burke often played ditzy oddballs in numerous comedies where she wears on the viewer. Here there’s something resolute and distinctly likable about her because she does beat to a different drum.

The words leaving her lips are both an encouragement to her rejected niece even as they color how she sees the world in the 1930s. She has effectively worked to “kick the bottom out of the bucket called the old double standard” and she fervently believes “Today a woman can face life as honestly as a man can.”

Aunt Julia also helps to temper the situation swirling around Mary helping ease her mind. As a word of comfort, she says, “It’s no longer a tragedy, it isn’t even good melodrama, it’s just something that happened.” Meanwhile, Burke’s jovial suitor (Reginald Denny) seems like a playful generally affectionate chap. This portion is one of the film’s most carefree as a result.

Armistice eventually comes and with it parades of victory. We know what must happen now: a reunion. There don’t seem to be many close-ups throughout the film, but Sullavan gets a few of the most crucial ones when she’s reunited with her man only to realize he doesn’t remember her, having found someone else to love (Benita Hume). It’s a devastating bit of exposition and her face says it all.

If Gold Diggers fo 1933 details a forgotten man, she’s a forgotten woman, although she’s not about to wait around to be noticed — she has a son to look after. It shows the depth of her character.

Mary shares a bit of the sacrificial devotion of Stella Dallas or the tragic unrequited point of view a la Letter from an Unknown Woman, maintaining a thin line of communication with her former love through a string of telegrams.

What’s astounding is even in her youthfulness — at only 24 years of age — Sullavan’s more than able to carry the weight of the performance, not only a vivacious ingenue but a mother who’s forced to weather the weight of the world alone. Like Stanwyck a few years later, they prove themselves wise far beyond their years. What a way to enter Hollywood.

Finally, it happens and The New Year brings her face to face with the man she once knew. Boles feels more and more of a cad over time, whether he was meaning to be or not. He has a steady demeanor, a serenity in his favor, but after being so ignorant of one woman, he manages to rebuttal his wife as well, all in a very civilized manner, mind you.

Even as Billie Burke represents something else, there’s still a prevailing sense that women can be cast aside for the sake of a story. Sullavan, on her part, exudes a quiet regality even unto death. What Mary has, however, is a legacy in the life of her child, and in him, like with any life, there is still some hope for the future.

From a historical perspective, there’s a lot to be learned. Even back then a young lad would rather go to the pictures to see Chaplin than read a book, and all the women want to look like Greta Garbo — one of the most sought-after glamour girls of the 30s. Some things never change.

It’s rather sobering to read Margaret Sullavan’s son Jimmy Jr. was played in real life by Jimmy Butler, who was affected by WWII like many were affected by the previous war — killed in action in France at the age of 23. It grounds Only Yesterday in real tragedy.

3.5/5 Stars

Is The Good Fairy (1935) Luisa Ginglebusher?

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Though not what I might consider purebred screwball comedy, The Good Fairy nevertheless shares some of the essence of the genre, based around class divides and fanciful plotting. The roots in fairy stories even precede two of Billy Wilder’s finest early scripts Midnight (1939) and Ball of Fire (1941) mixing modernity with the worlds of childlike invention.

It’s no small wonder Preston Sturges would be the tip of the spear in the ascension of screenwriters as singular talents, followed soon thereafter by Wilder. Both men would crave more control over their material, which led them both to highly successful careers in the director’s chair. But we are still in the nascent stages for the time being.

The Good Fairy is actually helmed by an up-and-coming director in his own right, William Wyler, though he and Sturges were both subsequently sacked by the studio (or asked to leave) for complications they engendered. That says nothing of the quality of the movie itself.

Admittedly, I’m hardly adept at knowing just what denotes Wyler’s technique as a director aside from the addition of Herbert Marshall and the usual professionalism that assures a fine viewing experience. In this regard, it’s a sight easier to realize the hand working the strings behind the character’s mouths.

You can pick up a certain idiosyncratic quality to the dialogue and then with a flash of recollection you remember Preston Sturges. It’s unmistakable from his impeccable naming of characters; our heroine is Ms. Luisa Ginglebusher (Margaret Sullavan), to the verbal kerfuffles characters engage in, which verge on the uproariously ludicrous.

The daydreamy orphan’s trajectory from a girl’s home to an usherette on the floor of a lavish theater begins when a stately gentleman (Alan Hale) requests an audience with Dr. Schultz. He misunderstands the good doctor to be a man until a helpful girl at the orphanage straightens him out explaining “he” is actually a “she” (Beulah Bondi).

Any matter, they meet and after surveying the prospects, the theater owner decides on the whimsical Luisa (Margaret Sullavan) who soon finds herself learning calisthenics, dressed from head to toe in military garb, and lighting the way for her patrons with a glowing arrow. You’ve never seen a ticket taker quite like this. Here the lavishness comes in, overwhelming her humble sensibilities.

She is also taken with the magic of the moving pictures, getting completely distracted and involved in the movie melodrama playing out in front of her. In this particular case, a woman is continually being chided by her remonstrative lover to “Go.” The tears start flowing.

Her first misstep, no fault of her own, comes right outside the theater when a lothario (Cesar Romero) tries to pick her up. At a moment’s notice, a patron (Reginald Owen) she recognizes from inside serves as a stand-in for her husband and gets her out of harm’s way. He expects no favors from her. In fact, he has connections to get her into a decadent party. His in-road, being a waiter at the establishment.

She ends up way out of her league, an orphan enraptured in the extravagance of the upper elite and swimming in it giddily like an impoverished fish out of water. Because of course, she is. Among the party guests is Konrad, a flittering Frank Morgan who takes an immediate liking to her because she’s well, young and cute and he’s an old eccentric coot with loads of cash.

Eric Blore is up to all his huffy nonsense as an overbearing snob with a cackle for a laugh. There’s a mutual distaste cultivated by the two men that’s utterly hilarious. Reginald Owen is a fine addition as the indignant waiter constantly trying to protect this girl he feels responsible for. With fortitude and a steady supply of excuses, he looks to check in on her and make sure the older “gentleman” doesn’t take any undue liberties.

Nothing catastrophic happens but there’s a spectacular development when Luisa pulls the same trick about a fake husband and Konrad promptly offers the unseen man a job as an excuse to continually lavish the pretty young gal with trinkets. In a follow-up flash of inspiration, Luisa winds up fabricating a husband who happens to be a lawyer out of the phone book — one Max Sporum (Herbert Marshall), distinguished and honorable but terribly broke.

So providence smiles down on him warmly in the form of “The Good Fairy” conveniently bankrolled by a neurotic millionaire. Sporum, of course, thinks he’s being chosen for his strength of character while Konrad believes him to be a downtrodden soul with the wife that he’s taken a personal interest in. Only Ms. Ginglebusher knows the truth and she’s not spilling the beans unless under extreme provocation. But that inevitable moment does eventually arrive. I will leave the ensuing complications be because that is much of the delight of the picture, seeing how all the various confusions will smooth themselves out.

The question, in the end, remains, Who really is “The Good Fairy?” because for varying reasons Luisa, Konrad, and Dr. Sporum all have reasons to claim the title. What’s not up for debate is Detlaff, the waiter. Like John Barrymore a few years later, he plays “The Fairy Godmother” and he does a fine job indeed.

4/5 Stars

The Mortal Storm (1940)

The_Mortal_Storm-_1940-_Poster.pngOur introduction to The Mortal Storm feels rather flat. Bright and bland in more ways than one as we become accustomed to our main storyline.  Professor Viktor Roth (Frank Morgan) is held in high regard all throughout the community as a prominent lecturer at the local university and beloved by his colleagues and family. The year is 1933 and the Bavarian Alps are still a merry and gay place to live. That’s our understanding early on as the Professor celebrates his 60th birthday with much fanfare and receives a commemorative memento from his class.

In some ways, Frank Borzage’s picture shares a striking resemblance to All Quiet on the Western Front another film that makes its German roots blatantly obvious and yet it wears its incongruities like the ubiquitous use of the English language with ease. And as all the characters accept it, we do too as we begin to sink into the story. But crucial to this story is that they are not as accepting of other things. It feels a little like paradise. Life is good and people are happy. But we expect that at some point the time bomb will go off and it does. Adolf Hitler is elected Chancellor and just like that people begin to change. It’s a collective revolution — a youth movement of sorts.

Pastor, pacifist, and thinker Dietrich Bonhoeffer tore apart the Fuhrer concept straight away in a talk he gave in 1933, long before many of the later horrors during the Nazi reign of terror. But much as this film portrays, such an ideology only leads to destruction — a necessity to harm your brother. Bonhoeffer stated the following which feels surprisingly pertinent to this narrative:

“This Leader, deriving from the concentrated will of the people, now appears as longingly awaited by the people, the one who is to fulfill their capabilities and their potentialities. Thus the originally matter-of-fact idea of political authority has become the political, messianic concept of the Leader as we know it today. Into it there also streams all the religious thought of its adherents. Where the spirit of the people is a divine, metaphysical factor, the Leader who embodies this spirit has religious functions, and is the proper sense the messiah. With his appearance the fulfillment of the last hope has dawned. With the kingdom which he must bring with him the eternal kingdom has already drawn near…

 “If he understands his function in any other way than as it is rooted in fact, if he does not continually tell his followers quite clearly of the limited nature of his task and of their own responsibility, if he allows himself to surrender to the wishes of his followers, who would always make him their idol—then the image of the Leader will pass over into the image of the mis-leader, and he will be acting in a criminal way not only towards those he leads, but also towards himself…”

And so it happens in this film. We see it around the professor’s dinner table first. Formerly, a forum for high-minded debate, it’s quickly become a battleground of ideology. Roth’s step-sons and most notably his daughter’s fiancee Fritz Marberg (Robert Young) have all been caught up in the rhetoric and promises of Herr Hitler. All other forms of thought and free thinking have been discarded, these new ideals burrowing into their minds, dictating their actions, and ultimately poisoning their lives and the lives of all those around them. I never thought it was possible to despise Robert Young but when his mind is polluted by an ideology as rancorous as Nazism it’s far from difficult.

We don’t see Jimmy Stewart until quite a ways into the film and he disappears from sight for some time following an escape to Austria from the Nazi clutches, but he’s still our hero imbued with that same iconic everymanness. He is the man to continue the open-minded, compassionate forms of thinking that Professor Roth exemplifies and subsequently get torn asunder.

Margaret Sullivan and Stewart yet again make a compelling pair following Lubitsch’s Shop Around the Corner. She is the good little German girl Freya who actually proves to have a backbone and he is the humble farm boy who stands by his ideals like Stewart always did. They are caught up in a love story amidst a world that seemingly lacks any shred of romantic passion.

Undoubtedly the Production Codes forbade from mentioning Jews in the story — the non-Aryans like Professor Roth, but that makes this film even more haunting, the fact that the people without a voice are not even acknowledged. They are silenced and remain silent.

With its overt portrayal of the Nazis as menacing thugs and brainwashed ideology machines, The Mortal Storm is startling. For years and years most all of us have read, heard, and seen a great deal on the Nazis that we have unknowingly compiled but this film brings many of those common factors to the fore. It’s obvious that people saw them then. They knew them then. They weren’t blind. Thus, it makes us beg the question what were other Europeans and Americans actually thinking? Because although The Mortal Storm might be the exception rather than the norm, there had to be a general consciousness about the Nazis.

Because the film hardly sugarcoats anything nor does it mince words. It’s surprisingly blunt and utterly bleak in its portrayal even with a bit of a bittersweet Hollywood ending. What’s left is a lingering impact that’s terribly affecting. Only at that point do we realize the total transformation the film world has gone through. Those opening moments of The Mortal Storm are so vital as it is only in the waning interludes where we truly comprehend how far things have fallen into hell.

It’s a stunning piece of work and this is not simply the ethereal love story I was expecting. It is a thoroughly gripping indictment of the Nazi menace and far more candid than I would have ever imagined. The Mortal Storm suggests perhaps most audaciously that there were people who waded against the pervasive current of the time. They let their lives be dictated by good will, decency, and personal relationships rather than any churning force of a single political ideology.

The final quotation pulled from the moving work of Minnie Louise Haskins “God Knows” ends like so:

“I said to a man who stood at the gate, give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown. And he replied, go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than a light and safer than a known way.”

4.5/5 Stars

Review: Shop Around the Corner (1940)

Shop-Around-the-CornerA quaint, unassuming film, especially up against other more lavish Ernst Lubitsch works like Trouble in Paradise and Heaven can WaitShop Around the Corner still manages to be in the upper crust of romantic comedies — even to this day.

The story revolves around a little shop in Budapest run by the often curmudgeon and excitable owner Mr. Matuchek (Frank Morgan). Every morning he comes to open up shop and nearly every day he has something to complain about whether it’s his workers or the lack of business. His right-hand man is Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) who has been a diligent clerk in the store for well nigh nine years now.

He confides in his older colleague and friend Mr. Pirovich (Felix Bressart) that he has begun correspondence with a mysterious lady friend who was looking for a partner with whom to discuss culture and all the higher forms of art. Kralik is intrigued as he wants to expand his mind and he seems to have found his perfect match.

Meanwhile, the status quo gets shook up a bit when a Ms. Novak comes into the shop. At first, she gives off the sense of a flustered shopper, but in a matter of moments, she proves herself as a shop girl, acquiring a position even without a vacancy.

Over time, his relationship with Ms. Novak becomes increasingly more antagonistic, to begin with, because she wears a blouse unsuitable for the workplace. The prospect of his first meeting with his secret correspondent has Kralik on edge in expectation, but when he cannot sneak a peak, Pirovich looks for him and delivers a stunning revelation. It is, of course, Ms. Novak.

In such a way the dramatic irony begins as Kralik understands just who this girl is, and she continues to brush him off as the stiff, bowlegged man from the shop around the corner. Mr. Matuchek has unspoken problems of his own that cause him to abruptly fire Kralik, his most faithful counterpart. But their relationship is patched up and the crackerjack clerk gets his position back and then some.

There’s still the matter of Ms. Novak because he truly does feel something for her, even showing up at her home to see how she is getting on after calling in sick. It’s in this moment that she reads one of the letters in front of him. One of his letters.

Then, right before Christmas everything his bustling and busy in the little shop. All seems right as Mr. Matuchek is in good spirits with a Scrooge-like transformation for the holidays. He even winds up with someone to share a festive holiday meal with. It seems that Kralik has a fiancee and so does Ms. Novak. As it is Christmas they both try to leave the other on a positive note, and Klara goes so far as to mention her initial crush on her colleague. This then becomes the critical moment for Kralik as he still knows something she doesn’t. He frightens her stiff about her mystery man and then reveals him to be her pen pal. All it takes is a carnation in the lapel. She gets it right then. They embrace and share a kiss.

Although Stewart is far from a Hungarian clerk, he does exude a pleasant commonness, better than any other actor of his era. As such, he has the perfect demeanor and presence to portray Kralik, a man who seems altogether ordinary, although he certainly is more than meets the eye. Margaret Sullavan seems a generally forgotten leading lady, but there is an airy, almost ethereal quality to her. In real life, she proved to be difficult at times, but here she somehow fits rather remarkably with Stewart. The two leads prove to be adept sparring partners in Lubitsch’s altogether effortless romantic comedy.  It truly reconciles the lines between ideals and reality which allow two people, such as these, to fall in love for real.

4.5/5 Stars

Klara Novak: All my knowledge came from books, and I’d just finished a novel about a glamorous French actress from the Comedie Francaise. That’s the theater in France. When she wanted to arouse a man’s interest, she treated him like a dog.

Kralik: Yes, well, you treated me like a dog.

Klara Novak: Yes, but intead of licking my hand you barked.

 

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

cc994-the_shop_around_the_corner_-_1940-_posterStarring James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan with direction by Ernst Lubitsch, the film follows the events in a little shop in Budapest Hungary. Alfred Kralik (Stewart) is the most respected employee in the shop and when Ms. Novak (Sullivan) comes in he advises her no jobs are open. However, she does land one and thus begins their rocky relationship. They are constantly at each others throats arguing. Both of them want to end the conflict on a good note as they go their separate ways to marry people that they were corresponding with by letter. When Stewart is to finally meet his unknown lover, he is shocked to look in and see Ms. Novak. Through a series of events she finally figures out he was the writer of all her letters and the two former enemies fall in love. This unorthodox romance has good characters and comedic moments that make it enjoyable to watch.

4.5/5 Stars