Published with permission of the author
(From The Encyclopedia of Class—publishing in early 2007)
Bill Barry gives the only course in the U.S. dealing with labour in the movies.

Films and the depiction of class

Bill Barry
Community College of Baltimore County

Movies are the most popular of the popular arts, usually associated with working class audiences, so it is worth looking at how workers, as part of a mass commercial audience, see themselves depicted on the occasionally silver screen.

Movies depicting workers reflect larger social movements: in the 1930’s, for example, there are some “socially conscious” movies which virtually disappear by the 1980’s in the Reagonomics era and are casualties today of the dwindling union movement. Unlike some other forms of art, movies require an enormous capital investment so the commercial successes of “summer teen movies” and of Star Wars in 1977, with its merchandising tie-ins and computer-generated special effects, have generally turned movies away from social dramas which do not provide boffo box office receipts.

Movies which portray working class life can be placed, like workers history, into two basic categories: “labor” movies, which show workers’ collective struggles and their organizations, and “worker” movies which depict workers lives and situations, often focusing on individual efforts and upward social mobility. Both categories of movies, however, show workers trying to deal with the fundamental class question: how can workers make their lives better?

“Labor” movies like Norma Rae (1979), Matewan (1987), Silkwood (1983), Bread and Roses (2000) and 10,000 Black Men Named George (2002) show workers organizing unions in a positive, even inspirational way. In contrast, movies, like FIST (1978), Blue Collar (1978), Act of Vengeance (1986), Hoffa (1992), and North Country (2004), show unionism as a corrupt or destructive social movement.

“Worker” movies usually feature ambitious working-class individuals who—far from trying to collectively change class relations—use their skills and ambitions to rise within, or even out of, the working class. Movies like Breaking Away (1979).Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), October Sky (1999) and Erin Brockovich (2000) are typical movies of this type.

The silent movie era, which ran from 1909 to the late 1920’s, provided a surprisingly large numbers of “labor” movies. Describing them as “Capital vs. Labor” films, historian Michael Shull estimates that in the 1909-1919 period, “more than 150 films (an average of two films a month) portrayed workers taking some form of direct action against their employers.” Many of these early silent movies have been fortunately preserved by The Library of Congress and show common workplaces—sewing shops, mines, factories—while portraying the conflicted consciousness of the working-class trying to find its way: “decent employees” are often incited by outside agitators while young working-class women (played in The Eternal Grind by the famous Mary Pickford) fall in love with the children of their employers. Even the famous director, D.W. Griffith directed a “labor” movie called Intolerance (1916) after his glorification of the Ku Klux Klan in Birth of A Nation (1915)

Historian Steven J. Ross points to another immediate problem: the financing and distribution of early movies. While the early “flickers” which appeared in the early 1900’s required very little capital, the production and distribution of movies was capital intensive, so unions often tried to raise money for working-class stories that could be shown in union halls. The early visionaries were not successful, and the huge capital investments required in movies had a very marked, and negative, impact of the depiction of workers in movies ever since.

The most famous silent movie depicting working-class life was, ironically, a movie which appeared after the silent era had closed. Released in 1934, Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times dramatized a worker driven literally crazy by work on an assembly line. In a vision of deindustrialization and the Depression, the worker becomes a service worker and then a migrant worker, mixed with scenes of accidental participation in a Communist demonstration. For the previous 20 years, Chaplin had been showing the difficulties of working class life, and his most famous figure—the tramp—is a displaced worker, a hobo without the Little Red Book of the IWW. His depiction of a worker, however, is of the worker as a victim, resourceful but powerless, pitiful and comic at the same time.

In City Lights, Chaplin begins to explore for the first time one aspect of social mobility in workers’ culture: the sudden, happy and accidental, relation between a worker and a very wealthy individual who literally makes all of her dreams come true. More modern versions, like Working Girl (1988), Maid in Manhattan (2002) and even Pretty Woman (1990) reprise the Cinderella (or Cinderfella) myth of resourceful and ambitious workers who fortuitously find wealth and (presumably) happiness by having relationships above their class.

While the 1930’s could have (and should have) provided a large number of movies reflecting the rise of industrial unionism, the domination of the movie industry by the Hollywood studios, which were obsessively anti-union, and by the censors of the Breen Office, who feared “reds” as much as sexual innuendos, limited the movies about workers and their struggles.

Two famous and enduring movies, both directed by John Ford, took up the issue of workers’ lives. While sociologists might argue over the original class status of tenant farmers in The Grapes of Wrath (1940), there is no question that the Joad family experiences a precipitous downward mobility to the depths of migrant working-class existence. Much more optimistic than the book, this movie still shows the radicalization of Tom Joad and the difficulties of his family in surviving the Depression. How Green Was My Valley (1941) is a classic depiction of workers, showing both their social history—family, language, community—and their union organizing, with the upward mobility of  daughter  Angharad Morgan, who marries the son of the mine owner.

A similar social ascension is depicted in The Valley of Decision (1945) in which the daughter of a disabled Irish steel mill hand is hired as a domestic worker at the mill owner’s house—so far, so historically correct!—and then marries the son of the owner.

Two other movies from the 1930’s show working-class life in a very different way. Black Fury (1935) depicts a bitter miners strike, resolved when an individual miner threatens to blow up the mine while Black Legion (1936) shows the hazards of upward mobility as an ambitious skilled tradesman, played by prep school graduate Humphrey Bogart, joins a hate group after being passed over for promotion in favor of a Polish coworker.

It could also be argued that many of the gangster movies of the 1920’s and 30’s depicted class issues, as the criminal is invariably a poor young man with ambitions to move up, often surrounded by examples of “legitimate” wealth acquired by less than ethical methods. Ambitious working-class women in many of these movies are negatively shown as “gold diggers.”

The 1940’s brought the depiction of workers as energetic and brave patriots in a long string of war movies, usually featuring the class polyglot of ethnic characters in the strict—and unchallenged– class system of the military. From Here to Eternity (1953) is perhaps the most skillful of these movies, though it omits the scene from the book in which the main character is in military prison with a former IWW organizer.

The release in 1954 of two very different movies about workers and their struggles provides an excellent introduction to “labor” movies as an element of American culture.  Salt of the Earth was not only a movie about workers’ struggles, but the workers themselves helped create the movies and many of them played featured roles. Based on a strike at a zinc mine by a local of the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers in Bayard, NM, the movie was written, produced and directed by blacklisted Hollywood talent, and shows a heroic workers struggle, tangled in gender, ethnic and family issues. Screenwriter Michael Wilson stayed with striking miners for three months in 1951 to gather material for the script and later returned to let the miners “edit” his draft in a unique collaborative experience. Financed in part by the union and using a crew of blacklisted technicians, director Herbert Biberman directed the movie, which featured blacklisted actor Will Geer as an evil sheriff. The depictions of struggling workers in a movie provoked more controversy in real life as officers of IATSE (Internal Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees) refused to allow unionized projectionists to show the movie. IATSE officers in recent years apologized publicly for their roles in supporting the blacklist.

An opposing view of workers and their unions emerged in On The Waterfront, written and directed by two men, Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg, who had co-operated in the expansion of the Hollywood blacklist by “naming names.” This movie depicts the longshoreman’s union—accurately—as a mobster-controlled organization, and provides a starring role for a marginal worker and former boxer who “names names” in an attempt to clean up the local. Consistent with other movies about the working-class, On The Waterfront features an individual inspiring a collective struggle—in this case, the struggle, like the one depicted in FIST or Blue Collar—that is against as much against the officers of a union  as it is against the bosses.

The power of the blacklist and the shifting of American culture away from “labor” movies also had an impact on gender roles. Sylvia Jarrico, the wife of blacklisted writer Paul Jarrico, noted that after the red scare of the early 1950’s, strong women were now considered to be “sinister” and “manipulative,” so that one “labor” movie of the period, The Pajama Game (1957) featured perky Doris Day as a union officer, in frilly clothes and high heels, who not only wins a strike but—in a classic depiction of worker mobility—falls in love with the plant manager. The emergence of a post-war “classless” society or a “middle-class society”—depending upon which sociologists you choose—also hastened the disappearance of class issues in movies.

The unique exceptions to this disappearance are working-class movies like Norma Rae (1979) and Matewan (1987), Bread and Roses (2000) and 10,000 Black Men Named George (2002), which show union organizing in all its complexities, with the main organizer as the hero/heroine for the movie—a rare depiction indeed.

With the growth of the service economy, movies like 9 to 5 (1980), Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) and Office Space (1999) were set in modern office workplaces. The most grotesque portrayal of workers as the century ended was the glorification of scabs during a strike in The Replacements (2000) but the working-class and its issues have been virtually eliminated from popular movies in the United States.

SUGGESTED READINGS: Steven J. Ross, Working-Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America (1998); Michael Slade Shull, Radicalism in American Silent Films, 1909-1929 (2000); Tom Zaniello, Working Stiffs, Union Maids, Reds and Riffraff: An Expanded Guide to Films about Labor (2003); James Lorence, The Suppression of Salt of the Earth: How Hollywood, Big Labor, and Politicians Blacklisted a Movie in Cold War America (1999).