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
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
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 Man in 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).
Charles Chaplin starred in several films with business themes.
Early silent films often looked at
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.
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
The roles of
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.
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
Toward the end of the 1990’s, a new genre of business film began to emerge that featured temporary workers and cubicle employees.
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.
Literary works with business themes
Radio broadcasting industry
Television broadcasting industry
Television programming with business themes
Video rental industry