|Montréal, 11 novembre 2000 / No 71||
by Edward W.Younkins
Many films are not representative of the real business world – the businessman has not fared well in films as a whole. The film culture is often unflattering in its cinematic depictions of businessmen and capitalism, has attacked business and industry for destroying an old communal order based on equality, and laments the businessman's preoccupation with material success and the dominance of large organizations in people's lives.
However, some films do characterize the businessmen in a more favorable,
even heroic image by emphasizing the possibilities of life in a free society,
the inherent ethical nature of capitalism and the good businessman, the
strength and self-sufficiency of the hardworking businessmen, and the entrepreneur
as wealth creator and promoter of human economic progress. Positive film
images of businessmen do exist but more are needed in order to illustrate
the values of free enterprise, innovation, and personal initiative.
AntiHeroes: Losers, Victims and Villains
In Charlie Chaplin's silent film, Modern Times (1936), a human industrial Everyman is portrayed as a victim who is pushed around by inhuman mechanisms in a futuristic manufacturing plant and by leaders of big industry. The apparent thesis of this satire is that modern industrial capitalism will eventually lead to the loss of self-identification and self-respect on the part of the workers.
Seize the Day, a 1986 film based on Saul Bellow's 1956 play, is about Tommy Wilhelm (played by Robin Williams), a small-time commodities speculator and failure who lacks entrepreneurial talent. Wilhelm is portrayed as an antihero in the age of anxiety – a victim of people, forces beyond his control, and his own weaknesses who cannot cope with the complexities of American business life.
Two films have been made from Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman – a 1958 version starring Frederic March and a 1985 made-for-TV movie starring Dustin Hoffman. Willy Loman is a pathetic traveling salesman at the end of his road. He desperately wants to believe that he is a success (i.e., well-liked) as a salesman, father, and husband. For Willy, popularity excuses deficiencies – or him personality counts rather than character. Willy is a totally tragic character, an object of pity and scorn, who is portrayed as a frustrated victim of modern materialistic society that worships success and values the individual based on his accomplishments and the amount of money he has made. Unable to admit failure, Willy is a deluded braggart whose philosophy of selling is based on appearances. He wants to succeed so badly that by the end of the film he has rationalized that the insurance money his family will receive from his suicide will make him a good provider – his death thus becomes a means to material success.
The 1992 film Glengarry Glen Ross, based on David Mamet's 1985 play, is about desperate real estate salesmen who are scrambling to save their jobs. Unlike Willy Loman, a traveling salesman out on his own, these salesmen work together in a grungy office that is a small part of a large corporation. The film depicts the salesmen as hucksters and victims who try to sound rich and confident when talking to potential buyers but who actually suffer from despair and contempt for their fate. These characters, especially Shelley Levine, an over-the-hill salesman played by Jack Lemmon, represent the difficulty many people have in convincing themselves of the importance of what they do.
The Hucksters (1947), a film version of the Frederic Wakeman novel, is an exposé of the advertising business that helped to give Madison Avenue its dubious reputation. At the end of the film, Deborah Kerr tries to convince Clark Gable that it is possible to be an honorable man in advertising,
Bartleby (1970) is based on Herman Melville's story of a man who
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is a 1956 film based on Sloan Wilson's novel that portrays a society of consumption, materialism, conformity, ambition, and organizational politics. Tom Rath, played by Gregory Peck, takes a position with a company run by a successful and honorable workaholic. At the end of the film, Rath explains to his boss that he will not take a more demanding higher position with the firm. Although he would like to have the money and prestige he does not want to work evenings or weekends – work is not the most important thing in his life. Rather than run the corporate rat race, he has decided to stay in a lesser but more comfortable position. Rath's renunciation appears to be a modern version of Bartleby's
The 1993 HBO movie, Barbarians at the Gate, based on the 1990 book by Bryan Burrough and John Helvar, is a sendup of the
Then there is Wall Street (1987), Oliver Stone's attempt to portray the securities industry as corrupt. Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas) is a cold and ruthless corporate raider who uses illegal methods to gain wealth. Gekko obtains insider information from Budd Foxx (Charlie Sheen), a kid from a working class family who is now a novice with a Wall Street firm. Stone depicts corporate takeovers and breakups as totally destructive – he certainly doesn't believe in the process of
Many films are even more blatant in their depiction of businessmen as corrupt, selfish, antiheroes and villains who are rent gougers, toxic waste dumpers, manufacturers of dangerous and shoddy products, etc. Fortunately, some films have emphasized the heroic traits and accomplishments of those who live and work in the corporate world.
Rogues, Eccentrics and Saints
Frank Capra's populist films, such as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can't Take It With You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Meet John Doe (1941), and It's A Wonderful Life (1946), do a superb job of displaying the themes of individual liberty, social justice, private charity, personal virtue, the primacy of the civil society over politics and the state, the preferability of individual entrepreneurship and local communities over large scale corporations and big cities, and skepticism of big government. For Capra, happiness is not guaranteed – it is the individual who is primarily responsible for his life and the pursuit of his freely-chosen goals. Capra's films display the wide array of behavior that is possible under capitalism, which is itself only a means and leaves it to the individual to decide the types of goals to be pursued – material, social, altruistic, aesthetic, etc. Compared to other economic systems, capitalism is most conducive to the use of man's free will, thus making moral behavior possible.
Tucker: the Man and His Dream (1988) was directed by Francis Ford Coppola and tells a biased version of the true story of Preston Tucker (played by Jeff Bridges), a charming, persuasive, optimistic, innovative, and visionary maverick who challenged the
An American Romance, a 1944 film directed by King Vidor, celebrates the American Dream by following its immigrant hero, Steve Dangos (played by Brian Donlevy), from his arrival at Ellis Island through his ascension from miner to steel worker to foreman to automobile entrepreneur who uses his knowledge of steel to build a safer, full-frame car. This film exemplifies the work ethic, portrays America as the land of unlimited possibilities, depicts the assimilationist truth of America, and views capitalism as the social system that best provides freedom and the opportunity to create, achieve, and pursue one's vision of happiness. At the end of the film, the hero is called out of retirement to produce bombers in the war effort to set men free.
Another quest for the American Dream is brought to the screen in two film versions of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby – a 1949 version starring Alan Ladd and a 1974 version starring Robert Redford. In this story Jay Gatsby, a man driven by a consuming passion, rises from humble origins to great wealth – wealth presumably and mysteriously obtained through bootlegging and racketeering. Despite his apparent corruption, Gatsby is a romantic and sentimental hero who embodies the qualities of hope, wonder, and idealism. Gatsby's dream was Daisy, a woman who wanted to marry him but he didn't have enough money for her. Gatsby goes to war, returns, prospers, and furiously, but unsuccessfully, attempts to win back Daisy with his wealth – she had married a rich man while Gatsby was away. Gatsby can be admired for his romantic readiness and his pursuit of his American Dream – for Gatsby, Daisy symbolized the American ideal.
Mac (1993) is the story of a hardworking Italian-American who starts as a carpenter but who dreams of becoming and eventually becomes a contractor. John Turturro plays Mac and directs the film of an uncompromising, honest, focused, and hard working man with extremely high standards. For Mac there are only two ways to do a job,
The Fountainhead (1949), a film based on Ayn Rand's 1943 novel, tells the story of Howard Roark (played by Gary Cooper), an architect and innovative genius who refuses to compromise by giving in to popular artistic design. His demanding standards coupled with his refusal to compromise result in very few clients. This pro-individualist, pro-capitalist film concretizes the theme of independence vs dependence – Roark represents pure individualism. Roark is Rand's projection of man as he might be and ought to be. The high point of the film is Roark's courtroom speech,
The Man in the White Suit (1952) stars Alec Guinness as Sidney Stratton, an entrepreneurial visionary chemist who invents a fabric that will not wear out, stain, or become dirty. Leaders of both the textile mills and labor unions come to the conclusion that the industry will be ruined and the laborers will become unemployed since both the industry and the worker's jobs depend on clothes that wear out thereby forcing consumers to purchase new ones. Both management and labor are guilty of thinking of only the immediate effects of the breakthrough and only its effects on their special groups – they did not consider that consumers could now have clothes and additional products that could be made with the resources shifted to other uses and that jobs in other new industries will be created. Despite the fact that his fabric does eventually fall apart due to a flaw in the formula, the heroic inventor is not discouraged – at the end of the film he is shown working to correct the error in his formula.
The 1960 film, I'm All Right Jack, tells the story of a college graduate looking for a job after World War II. Stanley Windrush, played by Ian Carmichael, takes an unskilled labor position at his uncle's factory. Stanley is very enthusiastic and hard-working and consequently when a time and motion expert studies him at work the result is the establishment of greatly accelerated work schedules. Everyone (except Stanley, of course) strikes because of these accelerated standards. Stanley breaks the picket line and continues to work thus becoming a hero to the general public who are tired of strikes and the exorbitant demands of unions.
In Sometimes a Great Notion (1971), based on the novel by Ken Kesey, Henry Fonda plays Henry Stamper, the head of a small, independent, family-owned, logging business in Oregon. Hank (played by Paul Newman) is Henry's elder son who represents individualism and self-sufficiency. The hardworking Stampers are heroic small businessmen who are anti-union, anti-socialist, and unamenable to anyone, including the government and labor unions, who tries to tell them what to do – the family motto is
Patterns, originally a made for TV drama, was remade into a theatrical release in 1956 – both screenplay versions were written by Rod Serling. The central concern is the disillusionment of a young executive, Fred Staples, when he takes a prestigious position with Ramsey Corporation. Walter Ramsey has hired Staples with the idea that he would replace an older executive who has been with the company for a great many years. Ramsey systematically and ruthlessly undermines and publicly humiliates the older executive – Ramsey even gives Fred public credit for work actually performed by the older man who collapses, has a heart attack, and dies. Staples decides to quit but is persuaded to remain and fight the inflexible, manipulative, but charismatic Ramsey by being his moral conscience. Fred is an ambivalent hero who exhibits a curious mix of personal, social, and ethical concerns who, at least at the end of this realistic film, has the fortitude to assert himself.
Executive Suite (1954), a film based on Cameron Hawley's 1952 novel, examines the machinations and intense struggle for power in a major company after its C.E.O. suddenly dies – until then the company had been a centralized one-man operation. The ultimate conflict is between Loren Shaw (Frederic March), the controller, and Don Walling, a young, creative, vice-president played by William Holden. The conniving Shaw is oriented toward cost efficiency (even at the loss of quality) and increased short-run profits and dividends to the shareholders. The hero, Walling, on the other hand, takes a long run outlook and is concerned with employee self-respect, production of quality products that workers would be proud of, and company growth. The underlying themes are: 1) that the businessman is an unappreciated hero who contributes more to society than he receives in return;
Many films have depicted the businessman with hostility and derision. Businessmen have been portrayed as overly-materialistic, greedy, miserly, villainous, corrupt, unethical, hypocritical, insecure, insensitive, anti-cultural, exploitative, smaller than life, depersonalized and mechanized, repressive of emotions, and subservient to the system.
Fortunately, there are some films that emphasize the heroic traits and accomplishments of the businessmen. As discussed above, viable capitalist heroes have appeared in several films that have treated the businessmen with admiration, understanding, and compassion. Some films show the businessman's role as potentially heroic in itself by celebrating the energy and opportunity of life – the opportunity for men of ambition and talent to make something of themselves. Other films teach that acts of courage and creativity consist of following one's sense of integrity rather than blind obedience and in inspiring others instead of following them. Still others portray the business hero as a persistent, original, and independent thinker who pursues an idea to its fruition.
More films need to be made that emphasize the positive qualities of the businessman by showing the triumph of the individual over adversities, depicting business heroes as noble, appealing, and larger than life, and by portraying business careers as at least as honorable as careers in medicine, law or education.
Cash McCall, Hank Stamper, Don Walling, Steve Dangos, and the fictionalized Preston Tucker are examples of positive screen portrayals of businessmen. More such positive cinematic role models are certainly needed. A great start would be a film version of Ayn Rand's novel, Atlas Shrugged, whose plot is built around several heroic business and industrial executives including self-made steel tycoon Hank Rearden, copper baron Francisco d'Anconia, and railroad genius Dagny Taggart. Fortunately, TNT currently has an Atlas Shrugged TV miniseries in production. Although the projected 6-hour event will necessarily omit about two-thirds of the novel, it will, according to its producer and screenwriter, precisely and analytically present the novel's theme of the role of a man's mind in running his life. This presentation will undoubtedly prompt many individuals to go out, purchase, and read this great novel. When Atlas Shrugged airs sometime during the second half of 2001, film will have at last found some true capitalist heroes.
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