Movies about business tend to reflect their times. “American Madness” (1932) depicts a run on a bank during the Depression. “Executive Suite,” “Woman’s World” and “Patterns,” all from the mid-1950s, have much to say about office politics during that period.
“Little Shop of Horrors,” which kicked off the 1960s with its plot about a man-eating plant that saves a floundering flower shop, suggests a beatnik sendup of capitalism. “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” (1971), one of those rare movies that shows a community being born, is populated by prostitutes and business entrepreneurs who suggest dazed, disappointed hippies.
While some of these now seem tied closely to the times in which they were made, there are many timeless films that deal with the subject. Here, in chronological order, are 10 Hollywood movies that always seem relevant to the business of business:
“The Magnificent Ambersons” (Orson Welles, 1942). A cautionary tale about a turn-of-the-century American aristocracy that faces ruin when it won’t change with the times. Tim Holt is the family’s stubborn son, who believes that automobiles “had no business to be invented.” Joseph Cotten plays a pragmatic businessman who regards cars as the future while admitting that “with all their speed forward, they may be a step backward in civilization.”
“It’s a Wonderful Life” (Frank Capra, 1946). For all its Christmas sentiment and fantasy elements, Capra’s tale of a crisis in post-war America boils down to a confrontation between two powerful businessmen. Wealthy, mercenary Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) threatens to transform Bedford Falls into the dreaded Pottersville, while idealistic banker George Bailey (James Stewart) puts his money where his heart is.
“The Solid Gold Cadillac” (Richard Quine, 1956). A remarkably timely comedy about corporate corruption. George Burns narrates the hilariously cynical prologue, in which the wildly overpaid managers of a giant company are introduced as if they were part of an Enron lineup. Judy Holliday, as a minor but pesky stockholder, asks all the right questions and won’t let them get away with it.
“Desk Set” (Walter Lang, 1957). Next-to-last of the Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn movies, starring Tracy as a snooping efficiency expert and Hepburn as the threatened head of a research team. Could a computer possibly replace her encyclopedic knowledge? Well, yes, but Hepburn’s character does seem to know the answers to all the questions thrown at her, and she’s operating in a Google-less era.
“The Apartment” (Billy Wilder, 1960). Earning the key to the executive washroom is what success is all about in Wilder’s Oscar-winning satire. Or is it? Jack Lemmon’s ambitious insurance clerk tries to make an impression on the adulterous executives at his company, while Shirley MacLaine goes after his married boss. As they gradually recognize each other’s desperation, neither goal seems worth it.
“How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” (David Swift, 1967). Robert Morse recreates his Tony-winning Broadway role in this Frank Loesser/Bob Fosse musical about a window-washer who shamelessly grabs every opportunity as he rises to the top of Rudy Vallee’s Worldwide Wicket Company. Morse sings “I Believe in You” – to a mirror - and convinces the board of directors to respect his employees in the rousing production number, “The Brotherhood of Man.”
“The Godfather, Parts I and II” (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972-74). The Mafia is presented as a family business, shadowy yet almost legitimate, in Coppola’s Oscar-winning adaptation of the Mario Puzo best-seller. Don Corleone (the late Marlon Brando) grooms his son Michael (Al Pacino) to take over once he’s gone, while Michael’s disenchanted wife (Diane Keaton) helplessly witnesses the corrupting influence of “this Sicilian thing.”
“Working Girl” (Mike Nichols, 1988). Behaving as if she’s about to break out into “A Secretary Is Not a Toy” (a show-stopper from “How to Succeed in Business”), Melanie Griffith battles sexism and worse as she tries to break out of the secretarial pool at her brokerage firm. Her snotty boss, played with scathing wit by Sigourney Weaver, steals her ideas. When Weaver’s character breaks her leg skiing, and Griffith meets a sympathetic investment broker (Harrison Ford), justice is done.
“Glengarry Glen Ross” (James Foley, 1992). Delivering a lethal pep talk to a group of real-estate salesmen, Alec Baldwin has the role of his career in this superbly acted treatment of David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a business that devours its workers. Al Pacino is a dynamo as the most aggressive of the salesmen. Jack Lemmon plays an aging loser whose sad situation echoes Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.”
“Office Space” (Mike Judge, 1999). The creator of “Beavis and Butt-Head” made this wry “Dilbert”-style comedy about a computer programmer (Ron Livingston) who revolts against the soul-crushing nature of the workplace. The unexpected consequence: Efficiency experts recognize middle-management potential and recommend promotion. A box-office disappointment five years ago, it’s become an essential cult movie.
© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints