Films with business themes
Significance: Films treating economic subjects tend to reflect popular American attitudes toward business during the periods in which they are made. For example, during eras of social and economic unrest, cautionary tales are popular. Rags-to-riches narratives have always been popular but are especially so during hard economic times, such as the Great Depression.
In a scholarly essay published in 2000, Mary Pileggi, Maria Grabe, Lisa Holderman, and Michelle de Montigny argued that all American business films can be traced back to the myth of the American Dream—the notion that with hard work and determination, every American has an equal chance to obtain prosperity. Pileggi and her coauthors went on to argue that the narrative of every business themed film fits at least one of these four categories:
- rags to riches
- power and wealth corrupts
- money can’t buy happiness
- poor little rich boy (or girl)
Rags-to-riches narratives began proliferating during the late nineteenth century, thanks to the popularity of the juvenile literary works of Horatio Alger. One of the great promoters of the American Dream, Alger wrote more than one hundred books for young people with such suggestive titles as Ragged Dick: Or, Street Life in New York with the Bootblacks (1868), Risen from the Ranks: Or, Harry Walton’s Success (1874), and The Errand Boy: Or, How Phil Brent Won Success (1888). Rags-to-riches themes remained popular in both literature and film during the twentieth century. Film versions of these stories generally depict characters succeeding through hard work, ambition, and sacrifice. They have been especially popular during eras of comparative prosperity and stability, such as the 1950’s and early 1990’s. They were also popular during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, when many Americans sought escapism. Notable examples of late twentieth century rags-to riches films include How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967), Trading Places (1983), Secret of My Success (1987), and Working Girl (1988).
Money Can’t Buy Happiness
Money-can’t-buy-happiness films typically depict successful people who discover that even great wealth does not always bring them the friendships and love that they crave. Films with this theme are often closely related to films with power-corrupts narratives. In the latter, characters who strive for financial power at all costs become evil, unhappy, and unsympathetic. Such films tend to gain in popularity during eras beset with social or political problems, such as World War I, when the emphasis was on the collective, not the individual; the years immediately following World War II; the Cold War era; and the Vietnam War years. Such films were also popular during the Ronald Reagan era of the 1980’s, when Americans were reacting to unemployment and Reagan’s new policies. Among notable films with the money-can’t buy-happiness narratives are The Manin the Gray Flannel Suit (1956), Baby Boom (1987), and In Good Company (2003). Notable power-corrupts films include Executive Suite (1954) and The Apartment (1960).
In addition to the four narrative types previously described, two other popular types of business films are whistle-blower and labor-strife stories. It might be argued that these are merely variations of the rags-to-riches theme in that they usually depict characters with almost nothing who speak out against corporate corruption or unfair labor practices, but for every Erin Brockovich (2000) that ends happily, there are several films with unhappy endings, such as Matewan (1987) and Silkwood (1983). Additional examples of this genre are On the Waterfront (1954), The Insider (2000), and The China Syndrome (1979).
From Silent Films to the Depression Era
Early silent films often looked at labor issues, with titles such as Capital Versus Labor (1910) and The Girl Strike Leader (1910). Because of the loss of many silent films, it is difficult to determine with which side many of these films tended to sympathize. However, films reflecting both points of view still survive. Especially popular with members of the working class were the films of Charles Chaplin, many of whose early films centered around work—or the lack thereof. In shorts such as Making a Living (1914), The Tramp (1915), and The Pawnshop (1916), Chaplin portrayed workers who tried to get by doing as little as possible. In Work (1915), he played a man who had to do most of his employer’s work while his boss did nearly nothing. Every time Chaplin’s character slapped his boss in the face with his paintbrush in that film, he expressed the anger of many workers. Chaplin’s 1936 feature film Modern Times, which is essentially a silent film, although it has a sound track, is one of the classic films of the Depression era. In this film, Chaplin’s tramp character begins literally as a cog in the dehumanizing machinery of the modern industrial age.
Rags-to-riches tales were particularly popular during the Depression. One variation on this theme occurred in musicals, such as Forty-Second Street (1933), in which a plucky chorus girl becomes the star of a Broadway show, thanks to a lucky break. Popular rags-to-riches comedies of the era include Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), in which Gary Cooper plays a small-town man who inherits a fortune. Another classic of the era is Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934), a money-can’t-buy happiness story in which Claudette Colbert plays the spoiled heir to a fortune.
World War II and Afterward
During World War II and shortly thereafter, a large part of the films with business themes had money-can’t-buy-happiness stories that promoted the notion that the common good was more important than individual success. One of the best-known examples of this theme is Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). In this film, James Stewart plays the manager of a small-town savings and loan institution who considers himself a failure until an angel helps him realize how much good he has done for his community—in contrast to the town’s wealthy and unloved villain.
The roles of women in business films have often differed from those of men. A survey of 120 business films made between 1927 and 1995 found that businesspeople rarely broke the law, betrayed others, lied, or used sex to get ahead, unless they were women. A blatant early example of this is in Baby Face (1933), wherein the main character, played by Barbara Stanwyck, uses sex to rise from her job in the filing room of a bank to become secretary to the bank’s chief officer. Nearly fifty years later, the female protagonists of Nine to Five (1980) succeed by kidnapping their male boss.
During the postwar era, films questioning the roles of women in the workplace, such as Ann Sothern’s character in A Letter to Three Wives (1949), served as reminders for wives to concentrate on being homemakers, while allowing their husbands— then returning from the war—to take back their rightful places in the workforce. Director William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives, which won the Academy Award for best picture for 1946, also addresses this theme. In it, returning war hero Fred (played by Dana Andrews) has difficulty finding a job, while his wife, Marie (played by Virginia Mayo), who had gotten a job while he was away, is portrayed as selfish and angry. It is not surprising that after their marriage falls apart, Fred takes up with a more complacent, younger woman (played by Teresa Wright).
Not all films of the postwar era portrayed women in business in a negative light. For example, The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956) depicts a corporate shareholder played by Judy Holliday as a smart employee, who is given a figurehead position in the company in the hope that she will go away, but instead uncovers corruption within the corporation. Although Nine to Five portrays its female protagonists as lawbreakers, it also depicts them as supremely competent in business, despite their unorthodox methods.
The Reagan Era
With many factories closing or being taken over by foreign companies during the 1980’s, films focusing on the plight of exploited factory workers, such as Take This Job and Shove It (1981) and Gung Ho (1986), were popular. At the same time, the era of young urban professionals, or “yuppies,” was taking hold, and films about them were made. Examples include Bright Lights, Big City (1988) and Wall Street (1987). Despite the clear power-corrupts narrative of Wall Street, the “Greed Is Good” speech by Gordon Gecko (played by Michael Douglas) in the film was received as a rallying cry by many yuppies of the period, and Douglas won an Oscar for his performance as a corrupt corporate raider. As the 1980’s stretched into the 1990’s, both rags-to-riches tales, such as Secret of My Success (1987), and money-can’t-buy-happiness and power-corrupts narratives, such as Nothing in Common (1986), Baby Boom (1987), and Head Office (1985), all featured yuppies as characters.
Toward the end of the 1990’s, a new genre of business film began to emerge that featured temporary workers and cubicle employees. Clock watchers (1998), for example, is a story told from the point of view of temps working in a large firm. A quirky film with elements of the rags-to-riches narrative (the main characters eventually find their way out of temporary employment), Clock watchers reflected an employment reality that was becoming increasingly common throughout the United States, as the temp placement industry, led by companies such as Kelly and Manpower, continued to grow. Office Space (1999) revolves around a group of cubicle workers at a firm in Texas who are being evaluated by an efficiency expert firm and their subsequent decision to embezzle from the company. The central character decides that he no longer wants to go to work. However, instead of getting fired for not being productive, he is seen as a maverick with potential for management. This spoof of corporate cubicle culture evolved into a cult classic, with major companies such as Dell and International Business Machines (IBM) holding Office Space showings and theme parties for their employees. Like the early Chaplin films about characters who did not want to work that had delighted members of the working class during the early twentieth century, Office Space entertained early twenty-first century audiences with its depiction of office workers who do not want to fill out routine reports.
Bergman, Andrew. We’re in the Money: Depression America and Its Films. New York: Harper, 1971. Study of the film industry and the American films made during the Great Depression.
Casper, Drew. Postwar Hollywood, 1946-1962. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2007. Exploration of the American film industry through the optimistic era following World War II.
Mintz, Steven, and Randy Roberts. Hollywood’s America: United States History Through Its Films. St. James, N.Y.: Brandywine Press, 1999. Illuminating study of the complex interplay of history and film in twentieth century America.
Pileggi, Mary S., Maria Grabe, Lisa Holderman, and Michelle de Montigny. “Business as Usual: The American Dream in Hollywood Business Films.” Mass Communication and Society 3, no. 2/3 (2000): 207-228. Overview of business films made between 1927 and 1995. The essay does not discuss specific films but instead examines the predominant themes of the films made during each decade.
Welch, Sara J. “The Ultimate Four Letter Word.” Successful Meetings 55, no. 2 (February, 2006): 14. Article describes the Office Space party phenomenon.
See also: Literary works with business themes; Motion-picture industry; Radio broadcasting industry; Television broadcasting industry; Television programming with business themes; Video rental industry.