I’d heard about this movie, but had no idea that it was a variation on The Little Shop Around the Corner (revisited in You’ve Got Mail and, to a lesser extent Pillow Talk).
It’s quite entertaining, although more so in the first 80 minutes than the last 20. Otto runs a music store and Van Johnson plays his top salesman Andrew. We meet Judy Garland (Veronica) sauntering down the street on her way to a job interview. She and Andrew collide. It’s not mutual hate at first sight. Veronica is immediately perturbed, but Andrew is pleasant. Their bump dislodges her feathered cap. He reaches to retrieve it for her, placing it on her head, only to find that he’s caught a feathered BIRD and is launching that at her instead. Veronica is more put out than ever and scurries briskly away.
At the shop, when Andrew realizes that she’s there for a job, he feels threatened and tries to discourage her. Otto, who is in love with his bookkeeper and assistant, Nellie, is charmed by Veronica, but is content to follow Andrew’s lead in the decision NOT to hire her, when a customer walks in and is instantly wooed by Veronica. She sings, she flatters, she makes the sale. Otto hires her on the spot, much to Andrew’s dismay. He and Veronica bait and banter and this sparring comprises the film’s best moments.
Eventually, the competition is more important than the customer. They vie to sell a cheap copy of sheet music as hard as if a valuable piano is at stake. Of course, Andrew is outmatched. He can sing, but after a male customer has been vamped and cajoled by a sultry Veronica, he’s in no mood for Andrew’s song and dance. Veronica preens, Andrew glowers. I actually like the fact that they are peers. Although Andrew reminds Veronica that he’s her supervisor and uses the title as an excuse to critique her attire, Veronica responds in kind and rebukes his tie. She doesn’t play second fiddle, because she’s a woman and Andrew doesn’t bicker with her because she’s a woman (at least not ostensibly), but because she’s a rival as good at the job as he is. That’s refreshing for 1949.
What they don’t realize is that they are pen pals. They write each other constantly and anonymously. Retrieving the mail is the high point of each of their days. And their correspondence is growing increasingly romantic. Veronica thinks her pen pal is the smartest man alive and Andrew esteems his pen pal so much that he has no interest in the violinist who lives across the hall from him and seems as if she would eagerly welcome any advances he cared to send his way.
Correspondents Veronica and Andrew plan to finally meet each other and each anticipates the moment with great excitement. Unfortunately, Otto and Nellie have had a spat. She insinuates that she is dating someone to taunt him. He decides that all of the employees will have to work late, in a sly effort to keep her from going out that evening. That means that Veronica and Andrew can’t meet their beloved pen pals. Both are distressed by this and grumpier with each other than ever.
Meanwhile, Otto and Nellie reconcile. Although we are told that they are in love at the outset of the movie, we don’t know why they haven’t married already. Apparently, they’ve worked with each other for decades. When Otto is assured that Nellie doesn’t have a date with another man, he lets his staff go home. Veronica and Andrew rush to meet their pen pal. But Veronica gets their first. Andrew and his co-worker have a chance to see her take her seat at the restaurant and they surmise that it’s HER! Veronica is Andrew’s pen pal. Andrew seems ambivalent about this turn of events. He doesn’t reject the idea of Veronica as his love interest automatically, but his feelings about her don’t become ardent immediately either. After talking to his co-worker, he goes over to Veronica at the restaurant, without revealing that he is the pen pal. Veronica is annoyed by his present and lets him know how much finer a person her pen pal is than Andrew can ever be. He’s someone flattered by her feelings. Veronica thinks she has been stood up and goes home despondent.
The next day, Andrew dresses with care, making it a point not to wear the tie Veronica despises. When she calls in sick, he is disappointed. He goes to her house to look in on her. She is babysitting. Her aunt is a seamstress and the baby belongs to one of her customers. To her surprise, Andrew is good with babies. He has a sister with children and has had experience. Veronica’s feelings for him seem to change when he sees him with toddler on knee. Again, for 1949, I’m glad to see that the sight of a man who will be a hands on father is a turn on for Veronica.
Andrew plants the seed that the reason her pen pal didn’t show up at dinner was that he saw her with Andrew and was afraid to approach. Veronica agrees with this theory. When a letter arrives from the pen pal himself, it confirms her suspicions. He still loves her, but was intimidated by the presence of a man as, according to the pen pal, handsome and appealing as Andrew is.
Unfortunately, the movie loses its luster at this point, just when we want to spend time with Veronica and Andrew, blinders about each other removed, we’re swept away on a sub plot that seems to have no other purpose than to fill time.
Otto and Nellie become engaged. They throw a party with live music. Otto inexplicably asks Andrew to take his prized violin home for safe keeping, so that it can be played at the celebration. Andrew carries the violin home, but when his neighbor sees it, she assumes that he has brought it for her to play at competition, since she asked him to borrow an instrument for her at the music store. Andrew lacks the heart to tell her that the violin is not for her. He lets her take it to the competition, but hovers over her, to make sure it’s not damaged. When Veronica sees Andrew with his neighbor, she mistakenly thinks he’s dating the neighbor and becomes depressed.
Little does she know that Andrew is thinking of settling down and as soon as he gets a raise and has enough money to support a family, he is looking to start one.
At the engagement party, Otto needs to stall for time waiting for Andrew to show up with the violin, so he has Veronica perform for the crowd. Veronica turns into Judy Garland and does some rousing numbers. The movie announcer tells us that the movie was originally a vehicle for June Allison and if they’d known it would star Garland they would have put in more music. I’m glad they didn’t.
When Veronica can’t stall anymore, Andrew has to confess that he let someone else use Otto’s priceless guitar. Otto is appalled and fires Andrew.
Back at the store, all of the employees are sad to see Andrew go, especially Veronica. She’s choked up and seems to want to say something to Andrew, but back down. Never fear, with Nellie’s gentle intervention and Otto’s realization that his violin was in good hands, because Andrew’s neighbor was a very talented musician, Otto changes his mind and hires Andrew back with a bonus.
Delighted that he will now have enough money to support a family, Andrew seeks Veronica out and teases her. He says he saw her pen pal and he’s sure she will be very happy with him, even though he’s old, short and bald. Veronica tries to pretend that looks don’t matter to her, but is having the wind knocked harder out of her sails each time that Andrew reveals yet another flaw in her intended. Andrew capitalizes on her flustered state and leans in for passionate kisses, as he casually explains that he is, in fact, the penpal. By that time, Veronica is so into their kiss that she hardly cares who he is or was any longer. That reveal should have been the fun high point of the movie, not an anti-climatic aside. So, that was disappointing. Whether her reaction was one of shock, pleasure or anger, it should have been a moment that was played up, not down.
Epilogue: We see Andrew and Veronica walking merrily down a summer lane in parasol and seer sucker as their daughter (a 2 year old Liza Minelli making her movie debut) is held lovingly between them, as the movie ends.