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Career Movies

Career Movies
American Business and the Success Mystique

An analysis of the career/business film as a genre.

January 2003
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
300 pages | 6 x 9 | 30 b&w photos |

Achieving the American Dream became inextricably linked with career/business success after World War II, as an increasingly consumerist America learned to define the dream through possessions and status. Not surprisingly, Hollywood films in the postwar years reflected the country's preoccupation with work and career success, offering both dramatic and comedic visions of the career quest and its effects on personal fulfillment, family relations, women's roles, and the creation (or destruction) of just and caring communities.

In this book, Jack Boozer argues that the career/business film achieved such variety and prominence in the years between 1945 and 2001 that it should be considered a legitimate film genre. Analyzing numerous well-known films from the entire period, he defines the genre as one in which a protagonist strives for career success that often proves to be either elusive despite hard work, or unfulfilling despite material rewards and status. Boozer also explores several distinct subgenres of the career movie—the corporate executive films of the 1950s; the career struggles of (single, married, and/or parenting) women; the entrepreneurial film as it is also embodied in texts about immigrants and racial and ethnic minorities and business-oriented femmes fatales; the explosion of promotionalism and the corporatization of employment; and, finally, the blurring of work and private life in the brave new world of the televirtuality film.

  • Introduction
    • From American Dream to Success Mystique
    • Defining the Genre and Other Theoretical Approaches
    • Organizational Structure
  • Chapter 1. The Classical Corporate Executive Film
    • Executive Promotion and Family Allegiance
    • Corporate Nationalism
    • Shoring Up the New Male Bureaucrat
    • Beyond the Corporate-Family Equation
  • Chapter 2. The Emergence of the Career Woman
    • From Shamed Working Moms in Noir and Classical Melodrama to Embarrassed Ones in Comedy
    • The 1970s and After: Transitional Consciousness Gives Way to Clones, Comedic Supermoms, and Competitive Saboteurs
    • Consumerism's Legacy of Narcissism and Displacement
  • Chapter 3. The Entrepreneurial Impulse
    • Surveying the Agony and Ecstasy of Ownership
    • Immigrant and Racial Issues in Family Businesses
    • Entrepreneurial Femmes Fatales in the Film Noir Tradition
    • Eroticized Success Mastery and Repetition Compulsion
  • Chapter 4. Huckster Foreplay: The Promotion Industry
    • From Early Cinema Hucksters to Corporate Media Demagogues
    • Directing Desire in the Postwar Classical Film
    • Evident Resistance in the Transitional Era
    • The Entrepreneurialization of Employment and Other Promotional Realities in the 1980s and 1990s
  • Chapter 5. Working in American Televirtuality
    • From Network TV to Cultic Space and Cultural Metaphor
    • The Drive to Virtuality in Production and Consumption
    • Reception and Simulational Identity in Cyberspace
  • Conclusion
  • List of Film Stills
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Jack Boozer is Associate Professor of Communication at Georgia State University.


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At least I don't measure a man's success by the size of his wallet.
—Carl Fox to son Bud in Wall Street

Now you're not naive enough to think we're living in a democracy are you, buddy? It's a free market and you're part of it.
—Gordon Gekko to Bud Fox in Wall Street

The two clips of dialogue above, which are taken from director/co-writer Oliver Stone's 1987 film, suggest issues that are critical to American career ideology as it has functioned under a capitalist system. In Wall Street, college graduate Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) must choose between the opposing economic viewpoints and character of two paternal figures: his father, Carl (Martin Sheen), who represents a tradition of lifetime corporate service; and his chosen hero Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), who represents the Reaganomics decade of deregulation, greed, and profiteering scams. Bud's dilemma for his time also highlights a prime concern of this book, which addresses the way characters in Hollywood business films define themselves and their career success in light of their given social and ideological contexts. Business career life has been central to American experience, and Hollywood has produced so many significant films on the subject that they deserve special consideration in their own right. Looking back, business films can be seen to reflect great shifts in economic and technological conditions, and thus attitudes toward career. Following the Great Depression in the 1930s, and the World War II era of personal sacrifice and industrial expansion in the 1940s, America gave birth to a new age of corporate culture based in mediated promotionalism and mass consumerism. This study concerns those American corporate and entrepreneurial business films released between 1945 and 2001 that focus on culturally significant middle-class careers and their relationship to personal and national growth and meaning.

Historically, this important body of films represents the way business has provided individuals with opportunities and challenges, but has also at times left them in distress, disillusionment, and alienation. The ever-present American Dream of increased affluence through hard work is obviously not guaranteed, any more than business career advancement and monetary success is necessarily indicative of personal fulfillment. Because of often conflicting public and private views of success, one can find fulfillment in a career or calling that may appear to society as financially unrewarding, or be financially successful in a career that leaves one indifferent, unhappy, ethically compromised, or like Bud Fox, legally culpable. On the individual level, work fulfillment can be seen to require first of all opportunity, but also commitment to the correct career choice, to the correct career approach in a given setting, and to the ability to find satisfaction in one's accomplishments. Bud Fox chooses Gordon Gekko as his mentor and boss despite his awareness of the man's legal transgressions. Bud bathes in the financial power and celebrity of Gekko's public notoriety right up to the point that the young man is arrested on felony charges by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Bud's rapid career rise under Gekko is short-lived simply because he just happens to get caught for overstepping a thin line between legal and criminal business activity. This also makes Bud's legal come-uppance less than reassuring, even though he manages to provide state's evidence against Gekko. Oliver Stone's morality tale is finally less concerned with legal retribution than with the troubling reality of a widely accepted model of success that is increasingly characterized by predatory attitudes and behavior. Through Gekko, the film evokes the enduring appeal of audaciously ego-centered money power. The seductiveness of this personal empowerment myth represented by Gekko captivates Bud and, by association, American youth generally, further distancing individual career success from links with family and community.

Bud's two fatherly career models in Wall Street also represent a 1980s version of a conflict that has always existed in American business That conflict is between laissez-faire enterprise entirely free of government oversight, and business that is sufficiently regulated by government to actively prevent the kinds of financial and social abuses that are demonstrated by Gekko here. President Reagan's fiscal policy in the 1980s preached the indirect, "trickle-down" benefits of private, Darwinian business success in a "deregulated" marketplace. His policy showed little interest in the fate of employees, patrons, and even the economic health of the government, which was rapidly finding itself awash in debt at a time of growing unemployment. A primary issue in Stone's film is that Bud's commercial urban milieu has already taught him to be awed by publicly recognized financial power figures such as Gekko, rather than by less visible but no less dedicated salaried workers like his father. Bud's father is strong, but he is already overmatched by the mediated consumer images Bud is heir to. Bud's experience with private enterprise suggests that societies which reify narrow business values inevitably run the risk of breeding a cynical youth for their work force.

From Gekko, the audacious corporate raider, Bud gets the self-centered, no-holds-barred fever of business as war, while Bud's father, Carl, empitomizes success through long-term allegiance to his colleagues and his company in relation to the quality of their public service. But Carl's devoted role as an airline technical manager and labor rep, for whom the issues of company working conditions, salary, and pension are primary, already appears to his son to be outdated and class-bound. Carl also admonishes Bud to consider the quieter satisfactions of building a business on his own, which could provide a service and make a contribution rather than simply feeding off the work and problems of others. But this too falls on deaf ears. What captivates Bud is Gekko's flashy style in hostile corporate takeovers, which grab headlines and boost his authority image in direct correlation with his profit margins. Gekko trains Bud in his methods, which include the kinds of securities manipulation and bogus investment schemes that were hitting front page news at the time. This film's timeliness was proven by an event immediately prior to its public release date—the Black Friday stock market disaster in October of 1987. This crash occurred in an atmosphere of junk bond supported corporate buyouts, insider trading, and poor investment and lending practices, particularly at underregulated Savings and Loan institutions across the country.

Major Hollywood studio directors prior to Oliver Stone have been especially aware of the central role American business plays in everyday life and in the nation's political economic ideology. This role is prominently featured in classical-era films beginning in the 1940s such as Orson Welles's Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Frank Capra's Meet John Doe (1941) and It's a Wonderful Life (1946), Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday (1940) and Red River (1948), and Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Written on the Wind (1957). Many other important studio-era directors including Billy Wilder, Martin Ritt, Elia Kazan, and Alfred Hitchcock also feature business concerns in a sizable proportion of their film output. In Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson's study of classical Hollywood films, they go so far as to recognize "in the goal-oriented protagonist a reflection of an ideology of American individualism and enterprise," which lends itself to "a rigorous chain of cause and effect." Social advancement through individualist enterprise, therefore, may be recognized as an impulse that is aligned with the very definition of film character identity and plot structure in the age of Hollywood studio cinema and in American film generally. But it is the business career film that most directly represents the nature and practice of American economic ambition as it most frequently and significantly exists in commercial and mercantile activity.

Since the 1950s and the close of the classical era in film, America has seen an accelerated its pace of economic and technological change, and middle-class business experience and attitudes have changed along with it. Business films of the transitional Hollywood cinema period, which begins in the 1960s and runs through the 1970s, reflected a national trend of conscious, resistant attitudes toward racism, misogyny, the Vietnam War, and "the establishment" of big business as well as big government. These films often have narratives involving personal and institutional failure or collapse whether they are focused on entrepreneurial (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, 1974, Save The Tiger, 1977), or corporate endeavors (Network, 1976, The China Syndrome, 1979). Business films of the 1980s and 1990s further suggest that the affluent consumer society based in the notion of endless corporate expansion and conglomeration was not eliminating serious social problems, but showing a tendency rather to constantly create them. This appears due in part to the raised expectations created by promotional consumerism, where each generation has been encouraged to exceed the material expectations of the preceding one. In Wall Street, Bud initially explains to his father why the maintenance of his expected lifestyle image now makes it impossible for him to live off only $50,000 a year. Bud Fox is hence the creation of a promotional culture that encourages the kinds of quick fix business ambitions and immediate gratification that can create a growing debt against the future. Wall Street is predicative first of later film homages to aggressive business cynicism in films such as Boiler Room (2000), and secondly of very current realities such as the late-2001 auditing scandal and bankruptcy of the giant Enron Corporation discussed at the conclusion of this book.

The sheer variety and cultural relevance of business films in the 1980s and 1990s are further testimony to their significance. Colin Higgins's broad comedy Nine to Five (1980) dramatizes the assertion of new women's issues in the corporate office setting; John Landis's comedy Trading Places (1983) wryly comments on big speculative capitalism in relation to homeless poverty and race; Francis Ford Coppola's Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988) looks back to show the fate of an inventive and safety-conscious postwar entrepreneur forced to take on the entire Detroit auto industry; Barry Levinson's Disclosure (1994) considers the vulnerability of the individual business manager in an environment of political (gender) correctness and litigation, global labor markets, and high-tech company mergers; Cameron Crowe's Jerry Maguire (1996) demonstrates the hard road of an individual sports agent vying against big corporate competition; and Michael Mann's The Insider (1999) traces the difficult role of a corporate executive who becomes a whistle-blower against Big Tobacco. In all of these comedic or dramatic narratives, a struggling entrepreneur or corporate worker stands against superior business odds and wins some concessions but little or no significant power. For ultimately what these recent examples convey is the possibility of somehow holding the most exploitative elements of corporate capitalism at bay while trying to preserve one's personal integrity and a meaningful career life at the same time. This is the primary dilemma in most of the business career films to be discussed here. Other than through the psychosocial dynamics of family life, but also closely related to them, it is through gainful employment that the protagonist's career desires and ethics, as well as America's potent success myth, are most realistically tested.

From American Dream to Success Mystique

The nation's entrepreneurial and corporate success ethic has been understood to act in tandem with a democratic idealism, although the realities of American democracy have not always meant equal opportunity for all of its peoples. More specifically, the nation's almost religious devotion to individual self-initiative in work as a ticket to upward mobility has been an unrealistic expectation for certain disenfranchised groups, including those trapped in restrictive cycles of poverty, racism, and/or gender and ethnic discrimination. But for the greater middle class since the end of World War II, the belief in economic mobility through devotion to business careers has nevertheless continued to define mainstream American ideology. A simple formula for career success (cs) would see it as equal to career attainment (ca), which is defined largely by society, over career fulfillment (cf), which is defined largely by the individual, or cs = ca/cf. This equation assumes, of course, that career attainment may in some cases be qualified by the degree of self-fulfillment in any final determination of career success. The difficulty of balancing society's dominant economic view of career attainment with one's personal sense of career fulfillment remains a common theme in the business career film.

This is the case in Arthur Miller's revealing Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Death of a Salesman, in 1949, which, explicitly addresses career problems with the American Dream. The play had long and successful runs in and outside the United States, and was adapted twice to film, first by Laslo Benedek in 1951, and then by Volker Schlörndorff in 1985. This drama is certainly America's most well known cultural investigation into the mythic force of the traditional success dream for its time. Benedek's earlier film version, with Fredric March as traveling salesman Willy Loman, conveys, like the play, the personal anguish that can result from an overdependence on a public success image. Willy lives the hail-fellow-well-met style of success in his mind, increasingly overlooking the discontinuities and contradictions that separate him ever further from honest personal fulfillment. Willy is ironically seduced by that very promissory status world that he solicits as a regional salesman. Willy's response to personal job failure along the way is not to live closer to reality and to readjust his views of himself, his family, and his career, but rather to persist more vigorously in his rhetorical affirmation of his personal and career performance and ideology. The schism between Willy's inflated perceptions of success and his work and family reality thus becomes a chasm. Increasingly, his career failures belie his inflated self-image. The mainstream success dream becomes a self-defeating phantom precisely because Willy allows the image rather than the essence of self-fulfillment to drive him. The significance of this is not so much that Willy is a failure as an individual because he has permitted himself to be misled, but that the seductive power of the Dream invites failure because the social pressures to at least appear successful are so great. Defending the intent of his work in the introduction to his Collected Plays in 1957, Miller writes that "Willy Loman has broken a law... which says that a failure in society and business has no right to live." Willy becomes trapped in the success image because there is no alternative measure of esteem, no recognized optional course of dignity to help in times of economic failure.

The American success dream is shown to be most destructive where it is most fully embraced as the image-obsessed consumer ideal that it has largely been allowed to become. In these terms, Benedek's film, following closely the theme of Miller's play, poses an American middle-class tragedy based on an increasingly warped version of that personal initiative that America has so long celebrated. As if caught up in the Dale Carnegie view of success offered in his 1936 best-seller, How to Win Friends and Influence People—a boosterist methodology for "getting ahead"—Willy Loman, who is past 60 years of age, believes that being well liked equates with being financially sound. But his other-directedness also separates him from his own particular strengths and talents. It is only when he is no longer supported by his employer of 34 years that he first begins to recognize that he never "accomplished something" worthy beyond his own mythical self-promotion. Just prior to Willy's final act of suicide, his oldest son Biff stands before their helpless family and pleads with his oblivious father: "Dad, will you take the phony dream and burn it before something happens?"

By the mid-1950s, the entrenched model of the white middle-class family with the father at work and the mother overseeing the home was under assault on a variety of fronts. And Hollywood's trend in "social problem" films made this amply apparent at the time. (See, for example, Martin Ritt's No Down Payment [1957].) The traditional family that had restricted the woman to domestic affairs was going to be tested by single women already devoted to their own businesses (The Revolt of Mamie Stover, 1956). Additionally, the demands of racial and ethnic minorities for equal rights in work and society were also being foregrounded in major films (see Imitation of Life [1959] and Giant [1956]). In the new corporate environment of professional management, too, the trend toward bureaucratization was increasingly perplexing if not counterproductive (The Solid Gold Cadillac, 1956). In all these arenas, a shared definition of the American Dream was becoming harder to define.

Materially speaking, the success dream was realized for great numbers of middle-class whites in the affluent 1950s, but it also proved unstable and fleeting. In the three decades that followed world war II, from 1945 to 1965, America's economy became more privatized and bent on the notion of individual success and consumer status. The idea of the American career success dream — a fantasy of wealth and happiness through personal advancement and material attainment — also became increasingly externalized into consumer image terms. It grew more self-conscious—competitively isolating and contentious—a dream that was growing more fragmented and less attached to a common purpose. The externalized and splintered new version of the American success dream could thus henceforth more accurately be described as a "success mystique." A growing promotional industry was beginning to displace the ownership of personal goals with its own promises and dream images. In the process, the individual's search for the most appropriate career path seems to have become yet more troubled (The Arrangement, 1969). The new success mystique concerns wealth and attainment just like the old dream, but as the business career film now began to imply, the mystique also involves an added awareness of the ecstacy and defeat of highly individualized consumer competition, and of certain business and government attitudes and practices that were actually causing a decline in the overall quality of life (Chinatown, 1974).

In its unique focus on the working details of commercial enterprise and individual career identity, therefore, the history of this film form offers useful insights into important changes in the individual workplace experience, and its association with subtle changes in the larger success ideology. That so many major Hollywood films fall into the business career category reflects significantly on America's devotion to commercial interests as they have come increasingly to dominate individual, family, and political life.

Defining the Genre and Other Theoretical Approaches

It is largely because of the enduring prevalence of business career cinema and its direct links with economic and increasingly technological changes and political ideology that it deserves historical consideration as a genre. Genre study is informed by a strong interest in the practical cultural contexts of films, and it is aided here in particular by sociological, psychoanalytic, and progressive postmodernist considerations. These concerns will necessarily include, then, where appropriate, specific issues that touch on class desire, gender roles, racial/ethnic positioning, and the increasing role of communications media. In addition to film genre scholars, the social, psychoanalytic, and ideological theorists to be included here range from C. Wright Mills and Peter Biskind in the Hollywood classical era, through Raymond Williams, Nancy Chodorow, and Christopher Lasch, to the recent practical sociological theory of Paul du Gay. Current scholarly perspectives such as those of Doug Kellner are also included that look to the metatheory of Jean Baudrillard and further address issues of subjectivity and agency in today's media technocracy.

Any proposal for recognition of generic status requires its categorical identification by several means: through a grouping of representative texts and their basic, distinguishing genre characteristics; through an historical overview of a genre's longevity and variations over time; and through considerations of already available theoretical and critical methods for recognizing film genre as a body of texts operating within a cultural field of production, exhibition, and reception. I will briefly address each of these genre concerns here.

While it is obvious that the drive for career success also plays a significant role in movies about labor or the professions, and much of what I say here might apply to them, I believe the business genre is the dominant career category in its overall cultural and ideological significance. The other career areas which I have had to exclude in the process of tracing the business genre's parameters might therefore be considered important subcategories in relation to the larger business career domain. I have left out labor films and their preoccupation with labor and management issues, not because they are unimportant, but because they have been previously addressed by other scholars and generally do not demonstrate the same issues found in white-collar business films. I have also excluded films involving the professions, because they too have their own immediate categories of concerns which tend to take precedence over, or at least alter in special ways, the problems that are typical of strictly commercial pursuits. Hence, films involving the practice of medicine, psychiatry, law, journalism, and education, among others, all reflect a body of considerations that are unique to those areas and hence beyond the scope of business issues treated here. In films about the professions, issues of conformity or resistance to particular professional standards tend to predominate. This also applies to police/detective and artist/performer texts. Artist/performer films, for example (All About Eve, or the three versions of A Star is Born), typically offer very direct accounts of career experience, but their public performance and celebrity aspects are removed from the everyday world of most insider business practice. It is the direct and fully dominant profit orientation of private enterprise — and again its lack of universally defined professional career guidelines — that sets it apart.

A diachronic overview of genre also remains essential as a way to trace genealogical variations and transformations, as well as periods of cultural indifference. The prevalence of specialized film clusters and recurring cycles within a genre's unfolding history can provide important indicators of genre validity and significance, as well as useful signs of genre flexibility and sensitivity to specific cultural trends. Primary among these for the business career film is the basic textual distinction that must be made between entrepreneurial and corporate endeavor, since different expectations and structures of experience apply to each one. This is also true for gender issues in commercial enterprise. These two kinds of categorical distinctions remain salient concerns throughout this study.

Business career cinema also satisfies the defining characteristics of most other genres which are recognized at least in part by their protagonists' occupations, as well as by their settings, iconography, and narrative focus. The typical small business entrepreneur or white collar corporate figure considered here usually has managerial status and spends considerable time in offices or serendipitous business locations. This central character is also typically dressed for the job and organized around a relevant work etiquette and schedule. It is the protagonist's endeavor predominantly in the business workplace that most often provides this genre's defining characteristic. The struggle for upward job mobility further provides a common plot formula focused largely on issues of economic status. Business films are all about the basic ambitions, methods, and ethics of an individual's career quest, in relation both to a particular company of employ and to America's larger success myth.

The business career genre also demonstrates a comfortable fit with theory and criticism that has sought to define how genres are constituted relative to their individual texts as well as to their wider cultural recognition as a category. Writing in Genre, Steven Neale sees film genres as not simply groupings of similar texts but as "systems of orientations, expectations and conventions that circulate between industry, text and subject." American cinema viewers have generally been so thoroughly acquainted with business life that it is often taken for granted in the promotional and consumer discourse that surrounds these films. References to business career struggles are not uncommon in Hollywood's film advertising or in critical journalistic and academic reviews. The centrality of business enterprise to America's version of success ideology, however, has not been widely investigated, particularly as an historical generic category. Borrowing from the vocabulary of semiotics, Rick Altman has noted that genres are a familiar "field of language/image paradigms that exist in a syntax of particular myths and rituals." The business career film has special resonance here because it is formulated as a narrative of career pursuit (the story content or "semantic" field), where the individual is ritualistically tested against the particular demands of a business institution and/or marketplace for the right to advancement and mythical success (the cultural "syntax").

For Thomas Schatz, genre films are further loaded with "value-laden narrative conventions". Schatz elaborates on the genre film's ritual, mythic function: "In its ritualistic capacity, a film genre transforms certain fundamental contradictions and conflicts into a unique conceptual structure that is familiar and accessible to the mass audience." Here too, the American business film sets up the career plot as a quest for a largely economic success ideal, which typically leads to "fundamental contradictions and conflicts" resulting from the mix of personal career goals with commercial institutional demands. The particularized career struggle thus creates a "unique conceptual structure," but one that is also quite "familiar and accessible to the mass audience."

The career struggle not only poses the central conflict in the business drama, but it also tends to have one of two outcomes in the protagonist's search for success. The first involves a negative business outcome despite real commitment to the mainstream success dream (Death of a Salesman, Tucker). This is the most common business drama plot and it is most typical of the entrepreneur film. The second outcome is career success, but a success that fails to bring the expected fulfillment (The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit [1957], Wall Street). This outcome is particularly common to the corporate drama. Even business comedies that provide positive romantic and/or business closure usually go to great lengths to demonstrate just how conformist and ludicrous the world of business can be (How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying [1967]), or how tenuous the relationship between advancement, wealth, and happiness (Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? [1957]). Excessive measures to attain career success are problematic in drama but mainly funny in comedy. In one comedy vehicle for Jerry Lewis, Who's Minding the Store? (1963), the bumbling Norman Pfeifer (Lewis) is told by his boss, "You have to make your choice: honesty or wealth!"

In Hollywood films, the business protagonist may realize personal growth through the refinement of job focus and improved skills, although career success is seldom sufficient without the complementary presence of romantic and/or family interests, which are often the primary motivation for the career quest in the first place. These private interests are also at times represented as a fallback alternative when a job or career choice becomes a dead end. Director and cowriter Billy Wilder's film The Apartment (1960), for example, can be broadly categorized as a dark romantic comedy, although the prevailing tone and meaning of the film comes from the workplace setting and career struggle of the main character Bud (Jack Lemmon), making it more precisely a dark romantic comedy of (rather than "within") the business career genre. Bud allows his ambition in the corporate pecking order to invade and nearly overwhelm his domestic and romantic space. The price for his final lack of cooperation with his unethical superior's demands is job termination, which is less important to him than that he gets the girl and retains his sense of personal values. Because corporate leaders are so frequently shown to be unethical or narrowly obsessive in the postclassical business film, the rising protagonist typically represents a healthy call for change. But closer observation usually reveals also that it is the business ethics of the individual hero rather than those of the corporate institution and its market and political milieu that provide hope for business reform.

Like most genre cinema, the business career film does not point to social solutions so much as it reflects on certain contradictions within the larger rituals and myths of success. In this regard, recent theoretical discussions of genre have drawn distinctions between the usefulness of text based, structuralist cultural ritual approaches, as opposed to genre approaches based on the extratextual practices of industries and audiences (see the "inter-textual relay" in note 5). Both of these approaches also tend to oppose what has been called the ideological approach, which has been too narrowly defined as a kind of Marxist ideology of capitalism's imperial political economic mandates on culture and genre production, where genre is necessarily read as simply reinforcing the status quo. But this reductive definition of a dominant ideology ruling genre doesn't do justice to the pervasive importance of central myths and ideology in genre conception, production and reception. The centrality of economic and hence political ideology in American genre—and its obvious place in the ritual and mythic dimensions of the business career texts that are under study here—necessitates a constant and open consideration of ideology's function in both textual and extra-textual approaches to genre.

Organizational Structure

An historical overview of the business career film from one decade to the next reveals many alterations in business circumstance and thematic focus. The several special subcategories and cycles of business texts over time also require a closer look. In addition to the distinctions between corporate and entrepreneurial business, and between male and female employee issues, it is the cycles of particular business film types that make up the chapter and division headings of this book. Chapter 1 is devoted to the basic prototype of big business career cinema prominent in the 1950s: the classical corporate executive film. This particular movie type grew from a wide cultural interest in the new corporate life, including particularly the development of a new kind of managerial executive class attuned to new forms of corporate bureaucracies.

Chapter 2 takes an overview of the struggles of business and career women in cinema. It begins with those films featuring women's rapid migration into the paid workforce during World War II, which continued after a brief lull into the decades that followed and made a huge impact on gender role and workplace issues. But the emergent career woman since the early 1970s has been presented as a very mixed success story on the screen. Whether an institutional employee or entrepreneurial character, she faces the same issues women have always faced in society, only more so owing to the expansion of her duties to include career responsibilities. Women's business identity in film as in life has centered around their often divergent domestic and career goals, particularly for the single working mother. She is a central figure in the representation of the cultural dichotomy between nurture and economic competitiveness.

Chapter 3 is devoted to the small business entrepreneur. Since 1944, the all-important small business film appears only about one-third as frequently as those concerned with the corporate world, which has of course dominated the American economy. And while the entrepreneur film may not suggest as much economic and political relevance nationally as does the corporate business film, it does provide the primary test for the controversial but still fundamental belief in the success that will surely follow self-initiative and determination. Entrepreneur comedies (of which there are only a few) typically support the ideal of complete success through small-business enterprise; entrepreneur dramas, on the other hand, usually contradict that ideal.

Entrepreneur films that reflect immigrant, racial and ethnic perspectives are also central to America's promise of economic opportunity. White prejudice against racial and ethnic minorities in the business landscape often creates additional conflict within and between these minority groups, which has largely predictable consequences for career identity and success. This section looks at five films involving immigrant and African American entrepreneurs, whose identity and business ethics bring new challenges to the dominant American business community, resulting either in various forms of assimilation or in counterstrategies for survival. The outcomes of all five of these immigrant and interracial small-business films are ultimately tested against the controversial "assimilation" model.

In every decade since the war, small business has been represented fairly equally on celluloid by male and by female protagonists, although this does not suggest gender parity in work. A closer look at women in start-up business films also reveals a special subcategory of texts dealing with entrepreneurial females who use sex to get ahead in the marketplace. Most of these characters are variations of the femme fatale, who display much the same basic kinds of initial business ambitions and long-term goals as do legitimate women entrepreneurs. This category of sexually active women "entrepreneurs" convey a great deal about the nature of commodification and exchange in contemporary society. Most primary entrepreneurial women characters in film have played a part in challenging or redefining family, workplace, and in some cases the political economic landscape, and have thus given new meaning in reality and in film to Freud's old question, "What do women want?"

The two closing chapters consider the two most important influences on contemporary consumer culture and career economics. Chapter 4 addresses the surprisingly large number of films about advertising and public relations. These narratives reveal the internal workings of promotional activity, a media branch of business that has become increasingly central to all business endeavor. The escalating energy and expenditure devoted to promotionalism has played a massive, immeasurable role in the economy and culture of the United States that would seem to justify the many fiction films that are based upon it. (The huge promotional budgets for contemporary Hollywood films are also part of this phenomenon.) The issue of productive work and identity in advertising also insinuates a consciousness of the possible absence of meaning that develops in the endless round of promoting and consuming. Hence, these texts are considered with an eye to the way this industry has partly defined business, government, and success ideologies in general..

Chapter 5 considers the other major influence in contemporary business and career life: the revolution in televisual experience and advanced digital communications. Communications systems are having an increasing impact on the economy and job market, but they also play a role in enlarging consumer expectations and the overall speed of the production/consumption cycle, adding to the further collapse of culture into pure commerce. The new convergence of advanced media systems promise instantaneous outreach and interactivity. Increasingly installed across the nation in businesses and private homes, these startling information resources carried by fiber-optic, microwave, and cyber technology have also, however, decreased privacy and exacerbated the pressure on the individual to keep up and be a full participant in the information revolution, with all the demands for new learning and consumer trendiness that is implied. This speeded up and intensified data environment can be daunting, turning workspace into mediated fishbowls of accomplishment or failure. The new technoculture workplace has become the critical testing ground for social self-worth in a society that insists upon the images of economic success for identity confirmation. One political commentator from India recently observed about America: "There is a terrible emphasis on success. It is not a country that has much patience with failure."

Because of the new technology, old distinctions between business and domestic environments have crumbled, and electronic screens have become a constant presence of commercially determined reality that opens up the world at the same time that it changes that world and brings it closer together. In the latest employment and lifestyle scene, as recent business films suggest, the old questions of subjectivity and subjective vulnerability remain central. The films included in Chapter 5 suggest how workplace and success ideology increasingly exist within a televirtual space, a total field that saturates and collapses the private into the public dimensions of experience.

What Career Movies finally provides, then, is a historical genre mapping of changes in Hollywood's view of the world of business career identity and success. It considers American cinema's exploration of individual career trajectories as they relate to cultural constructions of productivity, consumption, and meaning. Because genres such as this one are so closely aligned with their historical moment, there is good reason to weight the interpretation of these films toward their actual narrative content and time-specific tensions. The genre protagonist's difficulty in identifying and pursuing career fulfillment reveals the most important intersection of the personal and cultural at the most critical point of value exchange. The consistency of this genre in the latter half of the twentieth century provides informative reflections on and projections of the changing world of career experience in its social, mythic, and existential dimensions. The question Who am I? remains bound to the career related question What is my purpose and goal in life? In sum, from the postwar era to the postmodern millennium, business career films represent an important generic history. They reflect not only changes in the business world and in personal career life, but also changes in the way Hollywood has come to see and evaluate the increasingly technocratic consumer economy's impact upon the individual's business experience and success ideology.


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