Dec 262003

Another bulletin from the Dept. of Almost Right: Larry Ribstein, blogging on the Forbes list of top ten business movies:

Forbes story on the Ten Greatest Business Movies and related stories on, says a lot about films attitude toward business. The top ten were: Citizen Kane, The Godfather: Part II, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Godfather, Network, The Insider, Glengarry Glen Ross, Wall Street, Tin Men, Modern Times… This film list provides new fodder for my theory. My thesis, again, is that, while films usually portray business in a bad light, they do not really say that business is bad. After all, the films most of us see are produced by big businesses. More precisely, films are made by people working in these businesses. Filmmakers see themselves as artists, the latest in a long line from cave painters through Michelangelo. Yet, unlike many artists, filmmakers art is so costly that films cannot get made without lots of money. Filmmakers must get this money from capitalists, who, in turn, must sell tickets. Because film artists resent their shackles, they often show struggling workers, greedy capitalists, and heroic artists. “Good” businesses are those where the artistic types have the upper hand, and bad businesses are those where the artists have lost. In other words, films see firms from the cramped perspective of the assembly line or the cubicle. From way out in Hollywood, firms often seem like beehives or rabbit warrens, unfit for human habitation.

Larry’s point needs to be sharpened up a bit. All things being equal, people prefer good merchandise to bad, and they make exceptionally fine discriminations. Gillette mightily outsells Schick because its razor blades are better, not a lot, just enough. There are a few exceptions to this rule, mostly in aesthetic products, notably Hollywood itself. Bad art makes more money than good art, in general because bad taste is more prevalent than good taste, and in the specific case of movies because the audience for them is overwhelmingly young, and the taste of the average adolescent is even worse than that of the average adult. These are depressing facts if you work in the taste business. “From way out in Hollywood” it is Hollywood that looks “unfit for human habitation.” A screenwriter might rashly conclude that schlock always trumps quality; and in fact, as a survey of Hollywood movies about business shows, he usually does.

The anti-business movies deal overwhelmingly with schlock purveyors: yellow journalists (Citizen Kane), swampland peddlers (Glengarry Glen Ross), penny stock hustlers (Boiler Room), shady aluminum siding salesmen (Tin Men), and out-and-out gangsters (The Godfather). It’s a Wonderful Life gestures half-heartedly toward the notion of quality as good business, as in the scene where Mr. Potter’s rental agent lectures him on how all the nice houses in Bailey Park are killing his real estate business. But mostly it’s more people vs. profits hoo-rah.

In a “pro-business” movie like Executive Suite, our hero, William Holden, is the research chief for the furniture company, and in his big speech, as he ascends to the chairmanship, he tells the board that the company will never sacrifice quality, profits be damned. That it might actually be more profitable to manufacture good furniture does not cross the screenwriter’s mind. (Holden figures prominently in several famous business movies, Network of course and also the most authentically pro-business movie out of Hollywood that I know, Sabrina, which is disguised as a love story. He was, perhaps coincidentally, Ronald Reagan’s best man.)

Or consider Tucker, a garish and tasteless but ostensibly pro-business movie. Jeff Bridges plays the real-life car designer Preston Tucker, who sets out to build a revolutionary automobile, and succeeds, only to be squelched by a conspiracy of the government with the Big Three. This happens to be pretty much true; but out of this pregnant material the director, Francis Ford Coppola, fashions only another morality tale of how, as Larry would say, the good company, in which the artist, Tucker, is in charge, goes down to defeat, or, as I would say, the evil capitalists foist off shoddy merchandise on an unsuspecting public. Hollywood doesn’t hate business. It just hates businesses that act all businesslike.

(Update: Larry Ribstein replies. Michael Williams comments.)

  11 Responses to “No Business Like Show Business?”

  1. Off the cuff, I can’t think of many good business *novels* either. Maybe the lack of films is just a continuation of this trend.

    Can anyone think of any good novels that deal primarily with business?

  2. Marquand’s novels are pretty good, although they tend to blur, and his best book, The Late George Apley, is more a brilliant exercise in naive narration than a business novel. Terry Teachout had some kind words for Point of No Return, and I like Sincerely, Willis Wayde as well.

    Atlas Shrugged, though not exactly a novel about business, and not exactly a novel, and debatably good, is certainly sui generis and belongs in the discussion.

    Balzac’s Lost Illusions is a great novel with a great deal of business in it.

  3. I am surprised you left out the strange beliefs about business set out in "My Man Godfrey". Any movie where a butler is canny enough to sell short his employer’s company’s stock (for his emloyer’s own good), but fails to understand that investors need some return (which instead goes to the homeless), is just too strange for words.

  4. Hollywood people are, in general, very good at business – making a film is, primarily, an exercise in entrepreneurial ability. Those who can’t bootstrap can’t break in. Hence the idea that it is about businesslike or not businesslike is off the mark.

    What Hollywood people have a low tolerance for is drudgery – and much of the business world consists, in its essence, of finding a means of making the drudgery of many into profit. Which is not evil – but one would not expect those who think of themselves as creative to be friendly to it.

  5. "Can anyone think of any good novels that deal primarily with business?"

    In what sense? Foucault’s Pendulum rests in its essence on the mechanics of the publishing business, but it is not a novel about heroic businessmen doing great deads for the rest of society.

    Business, like sex, is something which is more interesting in its effects than in setting out the details of. A great many more great books have been written about people’s romantic and business failures – or when those failures turn to crime, suicide or other extreme behavior, than in detailing how good success in the pursuit feels.

  6. I haven’t watched it in several months, but I recall Holden’s speech in Executive Suite as being a little more canny than you say. I remember Holden’s point as being "short term profits be damned if they lead to long term decline."

    The point that was being made was that making shoddy furniture for short-term profit would cost them regular customers in the long term.

    Saying that Ernest Lehman, screenwriter of Executive Suite, might not have thought of that is rather amusing, given that he also had a major hand in writing Sabrina (not to mention The Sweet Smell of Success and North by Northwest, each of which deal with different aspects of business to different degrees).

  7. Ian: Larry Ribstein made the same complaint in his reply, and that Lehman co-wrote both Executive Suite and Sabrina certainly embarrasses my thesis some. Nonetheless, the principal conflict in the movie is between making furniture, represented by Holden, and making money, represented by Fredric March; and Holden’s speech mostly dramatizes this conflict. The elements in it that you cite exist but are off the main line. The speech nods to the long-term financial health of the company in very much the way that Capra nods to the same notion in It’s a Wonderful Life.

    Stirling: Considered as sheer mechanism, the simplest business deal is infinitely more interesting than the most elaborate sex orgy. Consult the sex scene of your choice in literature if you doubt me.

  8. "Considered as sheer mechanism, the simplest business deal is infinitely more interesting"

    If this is how you feel, why read about it, when doing it is far more profitable?

  9. Couple quick comments:

    Neal Stephenson’s nove. "Cryptonomicon" deals quite intelligently with, and favorably toward, business. And Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s "Wall Street" gives one of the most persuasive paeans to the capitalist spirit that I’ve ever seen on film, though I’m not sure Stone intended that side of the argument to win over the viewer…

  10. Gecko isn’t much of a capitalist. Now, the smashers of the world have their place – as do currency speculators and other parts of the system, because the do the dirty work. However, the great paen to capitalism is found, not in prose, but in the products – whether built by private corporations, the state or a mixture of the two – that only a market economy can produce sustainably.

  11. Thanks for the link.

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