Monday, September 29, 2008

Paul Newman

Paul Newman joked that his salad dressing made more money than his films.

That he was a very good actor will be long remembered and analyzed on movie forums forever. It's more difficult, and perhaps not even necessary, to analyze a actor's character, even based on his good works. A man invents a product or several products solely for the purpose of generating income for the needy. There are no measuring sticks for how decent and honorable that is.

In a profession where the mega-successful frequently seem to waste money and talent on superfluous demonstrations of their wealth, Paul Newman's salad dressing income will stand as a monument taller than his Oscar on how to live successfully.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Old Yeller (1957)

“Old Yeller” (1957) is a curious revelation. The last time I believe I saw any part of this movie my age was in the single digit range, and I don’t think I was able to stick it out to the end. Yeller’s unfortunate fate was too much for me to bear. Viewing it now through the perspective of world-weary middle age, I have to say this is one rip-snorting good movie.

The minute those credits start rolling and studio singers launch in to the folksy theme song, and Jerome Courtland begins to warble about “the best doggone dog in the west”, whose coat may be yellow but his “bold Texas heart is true blue,” one is suddenly morphed back into a child eager to be told a story. Danged if I know how they did it. The Disney studio was a kind of pied piper to Baby Boomers, that’s all, I guess.

Tommy Kirk is excellent as Travis, a boy in his early teens who takes over the farm chores while his father is off on a cattle drive. His emotions are transparent, genuine, and he is frequently very moving. Kevin Corcoran is very natural as his royal pain in the neck younger brother, Arliss, who throws rocks at people anytime he gets into a temper tantrum, which is often. Kevin is good in the role; he meanders around in a fog of his own imagination as if he is not acting at all, but playing. It’s the character who is annoying. One wishes somebody would drop kick Arliss through a pair of goal posts, but it never happens. Mother Dorothy McGuire is sweetly indulgent to the little brat.

Their frontier family lives hand-to-mouth. While his father is gone, Kirk takes up his father’s burden to support the family with a mixture of zeal and trepidation. It is essentially a coming of age story, and portrays the daily life of the post-Civil War frontier settlers. There is always work and more work, and yet the boys are ignorant about money since that is not a part of their daily lives. Little Arliss has never seen money and wants to know what it is and why it’s so important. Kirk has seen it only once, and has only an inkling of its importance.

Then the stray dog comes into their lives. At first a destructive pest, he becomes Kirk’s sworn enemy until the dog starts saving them from rampaging cows, bears, and wild pigs. Then Yeller is tops with everybody. Chuck Connors has a brief but memorable role as the dog’s former owner who trades him to the family for a horned toad Master Corcoran keeps in his pocket, and for “one big woman-cooked meal.”

Jeff York plays the roguish good for nothing loafer Mr. Searcy with relish, and Beverly Washburn is very sweet as his daughter Lizbeth. Fess Parker has a brief role as the father, even though we are not fooled and we know he is really Daniel Boone and/or Davy Crockett.

But this is not just a boy and his dog story where dog has to be shot because he gets rabies. (Spoiler alerts?! We don’ need no stinking spoiler alerts!)

It’s a story about struggle, and growing, and life that hits everybody different ways at different times, even in one family. The small farm is their entire world. There is nothing else but this, a couple neighbors, an occasional stranger to whom they must not withhold hospitality. Kirk is warned by his father that if he lets the corn crop die, there will be no bread in the winter. The boy hunts deer with a rifle taller than he is.

All the problems that Kirk must face on the farm that summer are problems for which he must find the solution himself. There is no magic, no luck, no fairy princesses, no Jiminy Cricket, no deus ex machina. The ultimate solution for the rabid dog is also one Kirk must do himself. He has not relied on grownups thus far. He cannot back down from his responsibility now.

There is a lot of action, and some wonderful shots in the film: when Kirk lies out in the cornfield at night to chase away raccoons and we see the huge starry sky through the tops of the cornstalks. When Connors demands a one-on-one business conference with the frightened Master Corcoran and the camera shows us Connors looking like Paul Bunyan because the angle is from the height of the little boy. When Dorothy McGuire sympathetically croons, “Ye-e-s-s-s, Yeller,” when she’s sewing up a gash in his side with a sewing needle and strand of hair from the tail of their mule. The scene when Kirk is mauled by the wild pigs. When Master Corcoran shares his cornbread and milk with the new puppy, both of them cheek-to-cheek as they lap it up from a bowl. The shot of Kirk walking away, his back to us, in a cloud of gun smoke, his shoulders sagging, his shattered emotions telling in his body posture, after he shoots his dog.

As realistic as this all is, one glaring anachronism is the utter lack of responsibility taken by his younger brother Arliss. He plays and gets into trouble, while the older brother is about ready to crack up with the pressure of running the farm. Kevin Corcoran is fun for the young kids to watch, his self-involved adventures in the meadow and the brook, strolling across the top of the table where they eat for a shortcut. But Arliss would not have had so much playtime in reality. Dorothy McGuire is a gentle and indulgent mother with a voice like a summer breeze, but Nineteenth Century kids just didn’t have much playtime. If he were a rural boy, he’d be working just as hard and just as much as his older brother on the farm. If he were a city boy, he’d be working in a factory. Only rich kids were without that kind of burden, and these boys are not rich.

That’s why Papa has taken the steers to Kansas, as he says, “Cash money’s all we need to get a tight tail-hold on the world.” We still think that way. We still bust our bums for it.

Another seeming anachronism is the toy Indian headdress and tomahawk Papa brings Arliss back for a present. Even though Kirk collects Comanche arrowheads with fascination as boys did, in the late 1860s Indians were still savages they feared, not the benign cartoon characters they would be come to the 1950s kids watching this film. It would still take another couple of decades and a lot more activism to bring the persona of the American Indian one further step into the realm of human being, and not just benign cartoon character. There is an excellent National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall in Washington, D.C., but its very newness tells us what a long road it’s been for that to happen.

The Baby Boomers in the audience, more than Arliss in reality, would have related to the headdress as a toy. They had already been through the coonskin cap phase. They had tomahawks with bendy rubber blades mounted on plastic sticks. They had colorful toy tom-toms and plastic guns. They would have related to a story about a kid and a dog that was not hip or edgy, even if they did not share such responsibilities in a hand-to-mouth existence. Even if they did not need to guard with their lives a patch of corn in their suburban back yards.

There’s still kids today who have a lot of responsibility, from caring for younger siblings or getting meals when parents are working, and much more than that, but their stories don’t seem to make it to the big screen. Only the hip and edgy seems to sell today, often, though not always, with young characters in their teens and 20s whose behavior is shallow and stupid, and sometimes even repugnant.

I read a comment by one fan of this film who wished we could go back to those days represented by this film. I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean the 1860s. He meant the days of his childhood in the 1950s or 1960s, with which this movie tale of the 19th century frontier is unwittingly and inexorably bound. It’s the first thing that hit me when the credits rolled and the song started. I was back on the living room rug watching Disney’s “Wonderful World of Color.”

But the movie didn’t make me want to go back to my childhood. It made me want cornbread. When they’re not eating it, they talk about it. Gonna make me some right now a’fore I die a’ hunger. Winter’s coming.

Monday, September 22, 2008

On the Old Spanish Trail (1947)

“On the Old Spanish Trail” (1947) is one of those B-westerns that takes its title and premise from a song. The action is fast-paced, probably because it is not slowed down by much of plot. But it has Roy Rogers, who came to be known as King of the Cowboys, and his horse Trigger, who was actually billed as “The Smartest Horse in the Movies.”

Trigger clearly had an excellent agent.

They are assisted by bumbling, raspy-voiced Andy Devine, by pert pouting blonde Jane Frazee as the girl who needs saving from the bad guys, by Tito Guizar as a lovable rogue called The Gypsy, and by a passel of The Sons of the Pioneers.

This tale of the Old West is actually set in present day (1947), and so we have a riot of converging images of horses and sedans, six-shooters and modern music. The Sons of the Pioneers are in debt and Roy must catch a bad guy for the reward and pay the bill. There are songs at every turn, and a female lead so gussied up in country western attire she looks like she belongs on a box of snack cakes. One cannot help but wonder why Roy is wearing his guns around town when this is not actually the old west. The pair of six-shooters makes him appear more overdressed than a lady wearing a fur coat at a barbecue.

Roy Rogers had a long career, appeared in dozens of films, mostly as himself, or rather as this character of Roy Rogers that he had created. Nobody is born King of the Cowboys, it’s not that kind of monarchy, so Roy had to transform himself into this hero of B-westerns. Gene Autry and Tex Ritter did much the same thing, starring as the real-life people they molded themselves into. Interesting that Ann Sothern played a string of “Maisie” films but never got around to calling herself Maisie. This is a phenomenon of the B-western. Reality was probably never more so successfully blended with make-believe, even for a film industry whose hallmark was the blurring of reality. It was done so simply and so well.

With the main patrons of these films being children, perhaps achieving this make-believe was easy. And profitable, especially when the Baby Boomer kids came along on a giant wave of television, marketing, and their parents’ disposable income.

The ca-shink sound of Roy’s spurs on a wood floor makes the whole movie for me. Maybe it was augmented by the sound guy, but I like to think that, at least, was genuine.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Movie from the Novel

One interesting feature of the old Hollywood studio system was that a very high priority was given to the adaptation of current popular novels into film. Since the studios were cranking out movies at an assembly line pace, there was a constant search for new stories, grist for the mill. The studios had people on staff whose job was to read novels.

Some popular novels from the 1920s through the 1940s are pictured here in their original hardcover printings. Among them, I think only “Three Came Home” by Agnes Newton Keith, has not been reprinted. The others have all been at one time reprinted at least once either in hardcover or, more commonly, paperback in the last 20 years. I wonder to what extent the films made from these novels have contributed to their being reprinted.

It is probable that old movie buffs who enjoyed Ginger Rogers’ Oscar-winning performance in “Kitty Foyle” (1940) have never read the book by Christopher Morley, or “Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947), have read the novel by Laura Z. Hobson. Obviously these novels were popular at the time the films were made, but are no longer the touchstones of popular culture they were then.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee has justifiably become a classic and probably does not need the wonderful 1962 film to publicize it. It stands on its own as a giant in American literature. But these other novels might have gone long by the wayside were it not for the films made from them, which possibly maintain them as part of our cultural history.

The numerous incarnations of “Show Boat” on film and the stage seem to overshadow the original novel by Edna Ferber on which it was based, reportedly the first novel ever to have been transformed into a musical. “Mama’s Bank Account” by Kathryn Forbes and “Cheaper by the Dozen” by Frank Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey were cozy memoirs of growing up in “the good old days”, a kind of fare that once was prime fodder for the movies. Today we’re more likely to read memoirs of dysfunctional families, and even those don’t always make it to film. It would seem that innocent books like these would lack a following today, and without the films that made them famous -- “Mama’s Bank Account” became “I Remember Mama” (1948) -- been relegated off the publisher’s back list to the anonymity of a public library book sale for stray copies.

Similarly “My Sister Eileen” has also undergone a number of film and stage versions, but the original memoir by Ruth McKenney is probably not at the top of anyone’s summer reading list today. They were delightful stories, told in the voice and style of their era, which is the point. They cannot be duplicated today, not with any authenticity. Just as one may examine 20th Century American culture through film and through popular music, the popular novels of an era lend a unique and valuable perspective, particularly on those interesting occasions when the novel is interpreted on film in a similarly authentic voice for its era.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Theater Guild on the Air

Hollywood is full of stories about young hopefuls being discovered through talent scouts, beauty contests, chance meetings at drugstore counters, etc. Despite these get-famous-quick stories, many of Hollywood’s best actors from its earliest days through to the 1950s came from the theater.

Regional stock companies as well as Broadway provided a legion of terrific actors well grounded in art of acting before any screen tests brought their faces to the scrutiny of the studio heads. Some of these, like Fredric March, regularly returned to the theater in between film roles. Some, like John Garfield, found refuge in the theater in the late 1940s and 1950s when Hollywood blacklisted them. One regional theatre, the La Jolla Playhouse in California was founded by three movie stars: Dorothy McGuire, Gregory Peck, and Mel Ferrer. Nothing, probably then or now, could match the income and fame of a successful film career, but even so for some stars, theater remained their first love.

Unfortunately for us, theater’s impermanence leaves us without a record. Once the set is struck, the play is over and the experience remains only in a few still photos and a playbill saved in a scrapbook. However, we do have a wonderful glimpse into the excitement and immediacy of a live theater performance in the recordings of the Theater Guild on the Air. Sponsored by US Steel, this radio show went on the air in September 1945, then moved to television in 1953 for another decade. Some of the finest stars of film and theater joined together to perform plays live on the air.

This blog has previously referred to movie stars’ appearances on such radio shows as Lux Radio Theatre, (see here). But Theater Guild on the Air was something apart from an adaptation of current films that Lux did so well. Listen to John Gielgud performing “Hamlet” in March of 1951, with Dorothy McGuire as Ophelia. It is something masterful and magnificent. Miss McGuire also appears in a striking performance as Nora in Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” in January 1947.

Listen to Canada Lee in “The Emperor Jones” in November 1945, or the theater greats Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in “Elizabeth the Queen” the following month. Another theater couple, Fredric March and his wife Florence Eldridge play in “Cyrano de Bergerac” in October 1947. Gertrude Lawrence reprises her Broadway role in “Lady in the Dark” in 1950. Helen Hayes appears with Montgomery Clift in “The Glass Menagerie” in September, 1951.

Here is a link to Theater Guild on the Air, now in public domain, where you can listen to these broadcasts for free. There’s a list of shows to choose. Listen to the intensity of the performances, to actors using their trained voices like instruments, to actors performing before a live audience, to actors who clearly loved what they were doing.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Blog goes dark.

This blog goes dark today in remembrance of those murdered in the tragedy of September 11, 2001.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Enchanted Cottage (1945)

The Enchanted Cottage (1945) is today a sentimental favorite of many old movie buffs, but upon its release, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther found the film “unreasonable” and “contrived.”

Dissenting opinions of this film are perhaps fitting, as the film’s message is of beauty being in the eye of the beholder. But Mr. Crowther’s practical assessment is interesting. He claims that the story of the WWII veteran with scars upon his face and a right arm left useless by his war injury who finds love with the homely maid in the cottage he rents, each finding beauty in each other, is ridiculous because these two people don’t have to be ugly if they don’t want to be. Advances in plastic surgery of the day would make it possible for the veteran, played by Robert Young, to be “studiously rehabilitated” and with cosmetics, the plain girl, played by Dorothy McGuire, could “make herself look very sweet.”

He has a point, but here Mr. Crowther is looking at beauty as being only skin deep. Our perception of beauty, and perhaps to modern audiences today, our perception of being accepted by other people and loved for who we are is the broader message of this film. Taken as an allegory and not literally, the film can be emotionally devastating as it is uplifting, and interestingly, for what we see into it and not for what we see.

A remote cottage on the New England coast is a setting intended to be romantic and haunting. Mildred Natwick plays the owner of the cottage, a lonely widow with an austere manner and seeming intuitiveness for unexplained phenomena, who invites Dorothy McGuire to work as a maid. Miss Natwick’s character displays a kind of sixth sense about people, but we are never given an explanation as to why or how she deftly manipulates the fortunes of those around her, but she has shut herself off from all people until a handsome Robert Young shows up wanting to rent her cottage. He brings his intended bride played by Hillary Brooke, a glamorous society girl who dismisses the new maid McGuire, with a bored glance.

Later, she breaks her engagement with Young by her horror at his disfigurement upon his return from the war, and the bitter Young broods in his room in the cottage, hiding from the world. Equally condescending and horror struck are his flighty mother, played by Spring Byington in a departure from her usual kindly roles, and stepfather played with terrifically boorish officiousness by Richard Gaines.

Mr. Young and Miss McGuire find comfort in each other’s company, marry for the sake of convenience, and fall so deeply in love afterward as to become beautiful in each other’s eyes and in the camera lens as well. This is one of the most memorable aspects of the film.

Young’s afflictions are more obvious. When he lights a match to gaze upon his face in the mirror of a dark room, the camera lingers on the drooping right eye with the line of a scar ending at his ear, and a twisted lower lip. As he fixes a hollow gaze upon himself, we may expect him to turn into a werewolf at any moment, and even critic Mr. Crowther comments, not unfairly, that he is made up “to look like something horrible constructed by Dr. Frankenstein.”

Dorothy McGuire’s ugliness is remarked upon by others and herself, but it is hardly the stuff of horror films. The chief feature of her homeliness lies in a somewhat mousy appearance of not being made up, and in the way she is lighted. In her homely scenes, she is lit poorly to convey harsh shadows on her face. It’s especially noticeable when she is in a scene with another person, and the other person is lit well, smoothly and in a flattering way, and she isn’t. That had to have been challenge for the crew. McGuire seems to be lit from below quite a bit, and the lighting crew all but holds a flashlight under her chin to create hard lines and freaky shadows on her face, the way we did when we were kids telling ghost stories. Remember that Seinfeld episode where his new girlfriend is alternately ugly or beautiful depending upon what lighting she’s in?

Cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff and editor Joseph Noriega deserve to be noted for their work on this film, culminating in the terrific scene where Young’s mother and stepfather return to visit, and the camera lets us see, if we haven’t figured it out before, that there is no enchantment in the cottage that made them beautiful, that they are beautiful only to each other. In different shots, viewed by her adoring husband, McGuire is coiffed and made up, and lit of course, beautifully, and from another camera angle from the perspective of the in-laws, she is homely again. Terrific scene when they come down the stairs together, beautiful at the top of the stairs, ugly at the bottom.

But director John Cromwell, an actor himself, doesn’t rely solely on camera tricks to tell the story. He sets quiet scenes where the actors are allowed to exchange their dialogue in long continuous shots, and this is the best part of the film. Dorothy McGuire, in particular, is a marvel of subtlety in her range, displaying with great strength and quiet intensity a character which in the hands of less sensitive and intelligent actress could have been a dishwater role. The comforting sound of her gentle voice is appealing and quite moving.

Herbert Marshall effectively plays the blind neighbor, a man whose own gentleness, as well as his actual blindness, make it possible for the couple to confidently engage in society beyond the safety of the cottage.

But Mr. Crowther is unconvinced, calling the film “more of a horror film than a psychological romance.”

At “face value” perhaps (pun intended). But there is more going on here beneath the surface, at least to many modern old movie buffs who find the film romantic and inspiring. In 1945, when Mr. Crowther advises plastic surgery and cosmetics to make one socially acceptable, Mr. Young’s parents concur by encouraging the ugly newlyweds to remain apart from the world in their safe cottage. Even Mildred Natwick, consoling Miss McGuire on her return from a disastrous outing at the village servicemen’s canteen, says, “It’s not for some of us, you and for me, to try to live like other people. You think you can sometimes, but there’s always the world to remind you. All the things that other people take for granted, you’ve got to make up your mind and your heart they’re not for you. You’ve got to find something else to take their place. Somewhere where you’re safe, where no one can hurt you.”

In her heart, this is something McGuire’s character already knew. She did not volunteer at the canteen to meet new friends, but to help out in the war effort. She was contentedly ensconced in the kitchen washing dishes for six months before the canteen hostess, a social butterfly herself, whisks McGuire out onto the floor where a Paul Jones, a square-dancing type dance for partners to change and meet new people, leaves McGuire emotionally crushed by being excluded once she’s out there.

It seems not simply a case of young men avoiding her because she is homely. McGuire just doesn’t fit in. She finds more comfort in the companionship of older people, quieter company, working diligently on her wood cuts and seeing to the comfort of others. The flash and noise and speed of the social interactions of her peers bewilders her.

Modern audiences who’ve taken this film to heart and call it classic maybe are not seeing a young woman with heavy eyebrows and no makeup acting like a wallflower. They may be seeing into it their own experiences, or the experiences of someone they know, who is physically challenged. Someone who is developmentally delayed. The child with cerebral palsy who struggles with stares. The autistic child who comes from the safe cocoon of home to the mainstream classroom where to his dismay, finds himself ostracized by peers. He is helpless to understand social cues, which is the key to survival. As the years go on, he will no longer seek the social interaction he desperately wants, but build an emotional wall for his own protection. Today’s film buffs see debilitating shyness and psychological barriers where being lonely occurs only in a crowd of other people and never by oneself.

We live in a world, several decades after this film was made, where being different is not so damning as it once was, but still comes at a cost. Perhaps this is what today’s old movie buffs see in this film, when it is taken as an allegory for all the outcasts among us. The possibility of being loved for who you are remains as irresistible as ever.


Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Seminole Theatre - Homestead, Florida

The Seminole Theatre shown here has a history not uncommon with old silent movie houses. Built here in Homestead, Florida in November, 1921, the Seminole was nearly destroyed in a 1940 fire, but rebuilt and re-opened not only for movies but for live entertainment, only to close again in the late 1970s. At this point, the story of the Seminole takes an interesting turn.

Standing vacant, the theater fell into disrepair, and it took the horrendous 1992 Hurricane Andrew which visited the Homestead area to change the Seminole’s fortunes. The owners donated the now seriously damaged building to the city, left roofless by the hurricane. The Seminole was declared a local historic site, the sole remaining Art Moderne style example of architecture in all of Dade County.

The Seminole Theater Group, organized in 1997, went into action from here, and with fundraising and the efforts of many, the old movie house is coming back to life as a performing arts center.

Have a look at this website on the history of the Seminole Theatre, and at this official site of the theater which shows us the promise of a vibrant community embracing its future through its heritage. A happy ending, just like in the movies.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Working in the Movies

It may have started the day Charlie Chaplin noticed a HELP WANTED placard in the window of a shop or a restaurant. I don’t recall the name of the film, for this scenario was repeated by him and others. He takes the sign and carries it in to the proprietor. Being a silent film, he points to the sign he holds, and then points to himself, placing his index finger imploringly against his chest, tapping his sternum a couple times. The gruff proprietor looks him up and down, and hires him.

There is no mention of requiring a resume or CV. There is no scheduling of first, let alone second interviews, and no references. No human resources director asks him, “If you were an ingredient in a salad, what would you be?” Or asks him any other question as inane as it is insulting, meant to delve into his psychology and ability to become a Team Member. It is a different world of being hired for a job. But then, when the unlucky Chaplin or Keaton, or Lloyd is discharged from employment, it’s often with a boot to the backside, so firing was a different game then, too.

In the early years of motion pictures, quite a lot of films used the workplace as the scene, and even the device which drove the plot of the story. The store, the factory assembly line, the office, the construction jobsite. This was the hard reality playground in the otherwise fanciful world of movie make-believe. Perhaps it was the Great Depression, when one-quarter of this country’s population was out of work in the worst years that changed the focus of the setting and story line of popular films. The little world, this all-consuming focus of the common worker faded like the disintegrating nitrate film on which it was recorded.

The big stars of the 1930s did not seem to play the guy who swept the floor. Character actors now took over the mundane jobs in the background, getting another keg of beer from the cellar while the star sang on stage. The star did not deliver ice anymore. The star was a roving reporter, or a private detective, or soldier of fortune. The star was an heiress or a princess, or the owner of the factory. Once in a while we might see Jean Arthur and co-workers in “The Devil and Miss Jones” (1941) but mostly the idealized proletariat we saw emblazoned in the WPA-sponsored post office murals was not what greeted us in the movie theater. Escape was the order of the day, escape from our troubles of not having a job, or else, the trouble and bother of having one to earn one’s living at all.

A generation later after The Little Tramp’s job hunt, we have the charming film “In the Good Old Summertime” (1949) with Buster Keaton, who used to play the worker as hero, now relegated to a minor role of just worker in a little shop selling musical instruments, a remake of “The Shop Around the Corner” (1940). Of course, the film’s stars, Van Johnson and Judy Garland are also salespeople in the store, but soon the focus shifts from the day-to-day mundane matter of being salespeople and turns into a love story. The film is a musical and a romantic comedy about finding one’s true love. Always a comforting message, but we know how it’s going to turn out. They will find true love. That’s what we paid for.

But possibly more fascinating, more gripping is what will happen to them if they lose their jobs? What if Spring Byington does not marry shop owner S.Z. Sakall? She is approaching her retirement years; will she be able to afford to retire on her salary? Retirement in those days for spinster shop ladies usually meant poverty.

Will Van Johnson ever be able to marry if he does not get a promotion and more money? People used to consider finances first and then commitment. Will he be a bachelor all his life if he cannot get ahead in the workplace?

When harried Judy Garland complains to Johnson, “When I came here I was a very enthusiastic girl. Now look at me!” we can commiserate because how many of us have felt frazzled by our jobs?

When boss Sakall makes them work overtime and take inventory, we see their frustration at having their personal plans for the evening thwarted, their lives thrown off kilter by the need to please their employer. All this stuff of the workplace is fraught with dramatic tension. While it is not as lovely as the quest for true love, it is what most of us can identify with because work takes up most of our lives.

We spend a lot of time at work. Yet even on television, where for decades the workplace was the setting for dramas and sitcoms, quite of lot of the storylines and action does not center on work. Rather, it focuses on the private lives of the characters and their personal relationships. We don’t really see much work being done. Ninety years ago all it took was a HELP WANTED sign to set the ball rolling for the plot to thicken, and the fun to begin, and the springboard for dreams to come true. Have a look at this clip from “Modern Times” below, and Happy Labor Day.

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