Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Movies--6--Bells are Ringing

I was reminded of this little gem of a movie musical by an article by Pat Buchanan entitled "The Party's Over" about the recent financial debacle. I will refer to the article later because it is so completely different than the party's being over in this movie.

The movie is about a girlnamed Ella Peterson, played by Judy Holliday, who works as a switchboard operator for an answering service. However, she goes beyond just answering the phone for the clients by giving them advice and in other ways getting involved with their concerns. For example, one of the clients uses her to tell her son what Santa Claus would like him to do. Her extra involvement with the clients is a concern of her boss, played by Jean Stapleton. As an aside, there must be at least twenty years separating this movie from "You've Got Mail" which also features Jean Stapleton, but she looks (and acts) the same in both. Our heroine is particularly concerned about a client who apparently is having trouble meeting a committment to write a play. He is continually getting calls demanding to know how the writing is coming--calls which he does not return. Finally, Ella decides to take matter into her own hands and, finding his address in company records, go and sits on him, initially literally and then figuratively, until he begins work on his play. For some reason, she decides that her own name is too prosaic, so she tells the playwright, played by Dean Martin, that her name is Mellissante Scott. They develop, first a working relationship and then a romantic attachment. He invites her to a party hosted by the producer of his play. The party is attended by people who clearly hope to get "in the big time" by dropping names of famous people with whom they supposedly associate. They sing a very clever song about the name-dropping bit. But while at the party, Ella realizes that these are not her kind of people. She is not, after all, "Mellissante Scott", she is plain old Ella Peterson. In this moment of self-recognition, she writes the playwright a "good-bye" note, leaves the party, and as she returns to her work, she sings the beautiful, plaintive ballad, "The Party's Over". Of course, it all works out in the end, because she is the kind of person for whom the party is never over, it is just a different kind of party--the party of always helping and serving people. As the movie ends we see Dean Martin and Judy Holliday walking hand in hand on their way to the real party--a party that will undoubtedly involve many of clean-up chores she mentions in her song, but they will, besides dirty dishes most likely also involve dirty diapers, but there will be much of happiness as well as some heart ache.

Which brings me back to Pat Buchanan. The "party" to which he refers is the collapse of many of the financial institutions of late. But unlike Ella, Pat has had no realization of who he really is. He is, after all, one of the big-names who enjoys dropping even bigger names. His article is not plaintive, it is bitter. He clearly does not want the party to end. He is doubtlessly convinced that with bigger tariffs and more restrictions and other government action, the party can continue. For him and his type, almost anyone who sees the solutions to life's problems in the granting of special benefits through law, the real party will never really begin.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Movies--5--How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

In two previous reviews--Holiday for Love and Sabrina--I have criticized the Hollywood portrayal of business. This movie, originally a play, is a deliberate spoof on the business world. Of course, what makes a spoof funny is that there is an element of truth in the spoof. In this spoof we have a fictional company making a fictional product. Almost no one in the company knows what the product actually does or is used for. The division of labor makes this entirely possible. As Leonard Read pointed out in his marvelous essay, "I, Pencil", thousands of people contribute to the making of pencils that have no idea what a pencil even is. This is as true within individual companies as it is between companies that do business with each other. A secretary for a company that makes electrical transducers may not have a clue what a transducer is or does and yet be a marvelous secretary making a vital contribution to the company. In this movie the product is "wickets" and apparently no one knows what one is or does.

The basic story is that a young man obtains one of the myriad "how-to-do-it" manuals with the same title as the movie, and follows the directions explicitly, thereby rising from mail-room clerk to Chairman of the Board of Directors in a week or so. The advice consists largely in buttering up key individuals and stabbing others in the back. Of course, the movie portrays a company pretty much in the same light as more serious portrayal with a bit of exaggeration. In more serious movies criticizing, either directly or indirectly, the corporate executives know little about what is going on in the marketplace or even in the business end, but here they know absolutely nothing. In this movie, the hero, Ponty, holds almost every executive position in the corporation, but there is never an indication that he knows the anything about the competition or even the product itself. In more serious movies, we see secretaries who spend a great deal of time primping and flirting, but here, that is all they do. In both serious movies, and in this spoof, the idea that the corporation should serve customers is not mentioned or considered. The purpose of a corporation is to serve the people in the corporation--at least, Hollywood sees it that way.

The movie is a musical with some wonderful songs by Frank Loesser, who also did "Guys and Dolls". My own favorites were "I Believe in You" and, my very favorite, "The Brotherhood of Man". In the Brotherhood of Man scene, the chairman of the board is deciding what to do, after a marketing scheme has resulted in a disaster for the company. With the companies entire executive board assembled in a conference room, he ponders, "The question is what to do, and who to do it to?" At that juncture when Ponty, and possibly everyone else is in real trouble they sing, "The Brotherhood of Man". The theme of the song is that we are all part of the great brotherhood of man and should be treated with kindness, love, and respect. It is interesting to me, that these men, everyone of whom is much better off, financially at least, than the overwhelming majority of the "brotherhood of man" and who is hoping to hang on to his high corporate position precisely so they do not have to enter into the ordinary "brotherhood", should suddenly be waxing so eloquent on the brotherhood of man. Actually, it is probably best that we remember the fact that we are in the brotherhood of man when things are going well and, therefore in a position to support, in some way, the more downtrodden of the brotherhood. When things are going rough for us, it is probably more helpful to remember the Fatherhood of God, i. e. that it is through Him that we "live and move and have our being."

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


"Dave" is a very enjoyable movie with a happy ending that is probably more improbable than the numerous other improbabilites that are essential to the plot. Basically, it is the story of a young man named Dave who has two very valuable talents. First, he loves helping people and is delightfully friendly and outgoing. Second, he bears an uncanny resemblance to the President of the United States. As we meet Dave early in the movie, he uses both talents in the free market to earn a living. The first he uses to help people find work, i. e. he runs an employment agency. The second he uses to do business promotionals suggesting that the President recommends his client's products or services.

It is his second talent that drives the plot, which is similar to "On the Double", "That Night in Rio", "On the Riviera" etc where an "ordinary Joe" is enlisted to impersonate a prominent person on a short term basis. Since Kevin Kline, the star of Dave, lacks the comedic talents of Danny Kaye, the story is more straight-forward, along the lines of "I was Monty's Double". Dave is initially hired to substitute only very briefly for the real President so he can get away to a tryst with a paramour. But while making love to her, he has a stroke, so the President's Chief of Staff enlists the aid of the President's speech writer and the Secret Service men who originally hired Dave to make the switch more permanent until the President recovers. Actually, the Chief of Staff is hoping to somehow arrange it so that he will be made President, but, of course, only the speech writer knows that. The stroke apparently is so serious that there is little hope that the President will, in fact, recover enough to resume office.

The story is driven by the fact that the real President is a real jerk. He cares about no one except himself, but uses all of his staff to take the blame for his selfishness, i. e. somehow he gets the blame shifted to his staff for vetoing all those worthy programs that Hollywood loves to support, e. g. homeless shelters, aid to the needy, arts subsidies, etc. Of course, the Chief of Staff is an even bigger jerk. He wants to veto everything except aid and subsidies to himself. It turns out that the President's philandering and his hard-hearted attitude toward homeless shelters have driven a wedge between him and his wife, who wishes to have nothing to do with him, which is, of course, an important assist in the plan to substitute Dave.

Of course, the outcome is predictable. Dave and the First Lady fall in love when she figures out that he is not the real jerk she has come to know and hate all these years. She discovers this when, on a publicity visit to a homeless shelter, Dave shows an uncharacteristic (for the real President) interest in both the children at the shelter and her. Her suspicions are confirmed when she confronts Dave in his shower, conveniently located, like all showers in modern Hollywood movies, in the center of the living room, and discovers that he is missing some important moles and other tell-tale birthmarks. She clinches her suspicion by trapping him into telling about an experience that the real President never had. They spend a pleasant evening on the town together, but go back to the White House, where things are rapidly coming to a head.

The thing that has brought things to a head is that Dave, the quintessential nice guy, is tired of vetoing bills for the homeless and, in addition, he is determined to push through, entirely on his own, a full-employment jobs bill. This upsets the Chief of Staff, who, quite rightly it must be admitted, remembers that Dave is not the real President, and, although painfully aware that he also is not, feels strongly that he should be, and is, therefore, incensed when Dave fires him.

In the end, Dave gets his full-employment jobs bill, although, it is the Vice-president, having taken over as President, who pushes it through for him. We last see Dave running for City Council, the place, we are informed earlier in the movie, where the Vice-president got his start in politics. He is still running an employment service, which tells us that his full-employment bill, although passed, did not work.

I mention that the happy ending is probably the most improbable part of the whole movie, not so lmuch because it is improbable that a former First-Lady would marry the proprieter of an employment center, as the fact that, if Dave is successful in his political aspirations, she will in all likelihood wind up married to as big a jerk as before. I doubt very much that the President she initially married was a big jerk when she married him. He became a jerk for the reason so cogently made by Lord Acton, i.e. power corrupts. Dave is a wonderful man precisely because he has talents that he uses to serve other people. He sees the possibility of political office as greatly extending his ability to serve because it invests him with power, but power corrupts. As soon as he gets power, he will cease to be the Dave we know and love. He may not become exactly like the President he temporairly replaced, but he will have problems, because power corrupts.

One of the things that Hollywood, and even the American people find very difficult to believe, is that as soon as we begin using the power of law to force people to do what we would like them to do, or even what we feel they should do, it is personally corrupting.

Monday, September 15, 2008


"Sabrina is a movie originally adapted from a play, "Sabrina Fair" by Samuel Albert Taylor (The "Albert" is important because without it you might confuse him with Samuel Wooley Taylor and think that "Sabrina" is a movie like the latter's "The Absent Minded Professor, which it is not). Basically, it is the story of a young girl, Sabrina, who has fallen madly, hopelessly, in love with a rich, young playboy, David Larrabee. Because she is awkward, ungainly, and the Larrabee's chauffer's daughter, her love is, as stated above, hopeless, and her father sends her off to Paris to learn a trade. She comes back elegant, beautiful, and marvelessly self-confident, so that, not surprisingly, her fondest dream is realized when the object of her affection, David, falls madly in love with her. The trouble is that while she was in Paris, David has gotten himself engaged to another woman. That engagement is a necessary element in David's brother, Linus's, latest business venture. Linus fears that the breaking up of the engagement will destroy the chances of his being able to pull of his business deal, so he sets out to undermine the relationship between David and Sabrina by temporairily crippling his younger brother and using the resulting time to get Sabrina to fall in love with him, which Sabrina obligingly does. At the last minute, however, Linus realizes that this is rather an underhanded and shady thing to do so he obligingly gives Sabrina back to David. Depending on what you think of the characters and very dependent upon the portrayal, all turn's out in the end for the best, or, at least, what the screen writers intended us to think is the best. I have seen the play "Sabrina Fair" twice and in both instances I have felt that the ending was both believable and satisfying, something I cannot say for either of the movie versions.

In the original movie version the leads are played by Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart as Linus Larrabee, and William Holden as his younger brother, David. Of course, it is entirely believable that Humphrey Bogart's character, and almost anyone for that matter, would actually fall in love with Audrey Hepburn. What strains credulity to the breaking point is that Audrey Hepburn (Sabrina) would actually give up her infatuation with William Holden in favor of Bogart's Linus. I must admit that Hepburn really does make it almost convincing which is a testimony to her ability as the consummate actress. Part of the reason, however, that it works is that Linus is portrayed as a basically decent, competent, caring person who really does want the best for everyone. This is a role for which Bogart is clearly out of character--a far cry from his normal tough-as-nails, hardboiled, cynical, tyrant role. The casting makes little sense until you discover that the role of Linus was orginally intended for Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart was a last minute substitution. Cary Grant, of course, would have been perfect for the role and it is clear that the script was tailored with his normal character in mind.

The remake of the movie has Harrison Ford as Linus with I have no idea who as Sabrina and David. David actually does a fairly decent job, but the actress portraying Sabrina does not. Part, if not most of the problem, is Ford. He plays the role as undoubtedly the role would have been scripted had it been done for Humphrey Bogart. He is portrayed as Hollywood usually portrays businessmen, as being selfish, greedy, egotistical and thoroughly unlikeable to everyone except his mother. And even though, I felt, the portrayal of Sabrina was not all that sympathetic in this new version, I couldn't help but feel sorry for her. If she does, in fact, marry Linus as the ending sort of implies she might, I suspect that theirs will not be a match made in heaven or anywhere in proximity thereto, as Linus, as portrayed by Ford, is clearly incapable of loving anyone but himself with the possible exception of working up a tiny bit of affection for his mother and an equally tiny bit of admiration for his very efficient secretary.

The two versions of the movie show how very much the perception of business, or, at least, big business, is portrayed in Hollywood. In the Bogart version, Linus, is always expanding his business and merging with companies because he is convinced that he can run them better and thus increase the amount of employment for the common man. He takes companies with promising products, adds his own expertise and capital and enlarges them, thus increasing opportunities for both workers and consummers, making everyone better off. In the Harrison Ford version, on the other hand, Linus is portrayed as a hachetman. He gets rich by merging with a company that has a product that is developed and has manufacturing equipment in place and takes over the operation and fires most of the workers, thus reaping in all the profits from the sale of the new item for himself. I wonder why Harrison Ford did not use all the expertise acquired in the making of Sabrina to fire all the people listed at the end credits of his movie, and all subsequent movies. He could thereby make himself a great deal more money and save us all the trouble of having to sit through those end credits. Movies never used to have end credits. If they did it was merely a relisting of the cast telling you exactly who played what person. Are all those additional people necessary because of a rule by the labor union, or the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals? The very idea that a businessman could get rich by firing all kinds of workers has credibility only because so many of our large corporations, due to subsidies, import restrictions and tariffs, and other government rules and regulations, have come to be nearly as inefficient as the government. I think it was the economist, John Kenneth Galbraith who once complained that he was convinced that many big corporations were as inefficient as the government. He actually phrased his complaint as a rhetorical question, but the answer is that there are none, unless there is government involved. The reason is that no one voluntarily pays some one else for doing nothing. Unless the companies that Linus was always merging with, had lots of "fat" due to government subsidies and other government actions, every person he fired would result in less output, and hence, ultimately, less profit.

The fact of the matter is that in a free society we do not voluntarily do business with the kind of people that Linus Larrabee is portrayed as being in the Harrison Ford movie. In such a society he would either need a lot of government force to stay in business or he would be best advised to take all his money, while he still has any, and put it in government securities.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Movies--2--Holiday for Love

Holiday for Love is a made-for-TV Hallmark movie. Like many of its companions, it is a delightful love story centered around a holiday theme. The title itself bears little relation to the content of the movie. I think in this type of movie the goal is to get the words "holiday", Christmas, Season, and something related to romance or love in the title. I am reviewing it because I think it tells us a great deal about how our popular culture views business and corporations--a theme I will explore further when I look at the various incarnations of "Sabrina".

The movie stars Tim Matheson, Melissa Gilbert, and country-western singer, Travis Tritt, who sings a delightful country-western Christmas song at the opening of the film. The story centers around a large tractor corporation, "Bean's Tractor", that is having a tough time and is being forced to down-size in order to remain profitable. The company has several plants throughout the midwest and company executives are being sent to each plant to determine who in the plant should be let go or even if the entire plant should be closed. For some reason, the top executives feel that it is necessary that this whole operation should be kept top secret, so the executives are sent to the various plants with the story that they are actually making large purchases from the plant. Why such a thing would be necessary for a company to find out what is going on in its own plants is never, of course, explained, but it is an essential part of the plot. The fact that the top executives of the company would be completely in the dark about what goes on at their plants, and that the people working in the plants should be completely unacquainted with the top company executives, leaves us to wonder how the company has managed to survive at all, but that is not really addressed.

The CEO of the company is a sympathetic character who is clearly distressed about having to lay people off. He makes it clear that the actual layoffs will not occur until after the Christmas holiday. I will contrast him with Harrison Ford, the CEO depicted in the latest version of Sabrina. The hero, Tim Matheson, who is the CEO heir apparent, is sent to a small town named Athens, coincidentally, the town in which he grew up, but left in late childhood. No one knows him, but he remembers some of the people and is shown early in the movie exploring his old (now abandoned) home.

Since he represents himself as a potential customer with a large order of tractors, he is treated as the town hero. Everyone goes out of his/her way to be kind and he is offered goods and services gratuitously. In the meantime, he manages to fall in love with the heroine, Melissa Gilbert, who, like almost everyone else in town works at Bean's Tractor. She points out that her father (he is general manager of the plant), her brothers, and even more distant relatives work at Bean's. Through a series of interactions, she finds herself falling in love with Tim although she has been engaged to Travis Tritt for a long time and the engagement is going nowhere. As the movie moves along, we meet several other of the townsfolk, almost all of whom work for Bean's Tractor, even though many, if not most also have other jobs.

At some point the general manager, the heroine's father, realizes that our hero is not on the up-and-up and is actually there to downsize or even close the factory. At that point the attitude of everyone in the town changes dramatically, and Tim finds that he, not only gets the cold shoulder from everyone, including Melissa, but he can hardly even get any service or goods as people show a reluctance to have anything to do with him even in business transactions.

He returns to company headquarters and makes his report along with the recommendation that the plant at Athens be allowed to stay open without any layoffs and be used to make a new line of Bean Tractors that would be affordable for the small farmer such as Melissa.

He returns just in time for the company Christmas party. When the general manager sees him, just before saying grace at the Christmas party, he says a prayer that is spiteful and mean-spirited. In the speech that follows, Tim announces that no one will be laid off, at which point he again becomes the local hero. In that speech he calls the people of Athens good and hard-working. I would characterize them as neither. They have come to see Bean's Tractor as a source of guaranteed income, in exactly the same way as many, if not most government employees view their jobs. They put in their time at Bean's in order to pursue hobbies or alternate careers. Melissa, for example, uses her resources at Bean's to run what amounts to an animal shelter. The man who operates the local inn, works at Bean's until he can make a go of the inn. One suspects that even the general manager is at least as interested in using his position to provide employment for his family and friends as he is in the welfare of Bean's.

What bothers me in all this, is that this is clearly the attitude of the people who made the movie. Corporations are there more to serve their employees than there customers. The corporate executives that lay off employees are merely greedy no-goods. The executives in this movie are portrayed as people who have absolutely no knowledge of what goes on in the local plants, and very little knowledge of what the company is doing. It has never occured, apparently, to any of them to make tractors affordable to the small farmer. They are portrayed as men and women who get their MBA's and then just sit around collecting huge salaries at the expense of "the little guy out in the field". When times get tough, none of them suffer, they just lay off the workers. This is an attitude I will explore more when I look at the movie "Sabrina".

What is never made clear, is that a company has very limited resources. True, the CEO is portrayed as being hard-pressed and being forced to make the lay-offs, but it is never made clear that be saving all the jobs in Athens, the company will be forced to be harder on plants in other towns. It is this failure to recognize that corporations can only succeed by serving the needs and wants of consumers, that makes Hollywood productions so obviously anti-business.

The ending, of course, is predictable, but it is delightful getting there. What is important for my essay is the attitude the people have toward Bean's and the implied attitude of those who made the movie.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Movies--1--While You Were Sleeping

I have decided that this month I will make comments on several favorite movies starting with "While you were sleeping" starring Sandra Bullock and Bill Pulman.

My brother recommended this movie and it has become something of a favorite. Like most modern Hollywood movies it suffers from bad language, but it is a delightful movie otherwise. The basic story is that a young woman has imagined herself in love with a handsome young man who rides the subway every morning. Since she is the ticket seller, she sees him and fantacizes a relationship with him, although, they have not, in fact even exchanged a greeting. On Christmas day, however, the young man is attacked by muggers and thrown onto the track. The fall leaves him unconscious in the middle of the track. Sandra Bullock, the tickettaker, sees his plight and is able to move him off the track shortly before the train passes, thus, saving his life. Later in the hospital, she sees him lying in his bed and speaks her fantasy outloud. A passing nurse, assuming that the expression is factual, assumes that she is engaged to the man and announces it to the hospital staff, who, in turn tell it to the man's family when they arrive. The family include Glynis Johns and Jack Warden--who have always been fun in the movies I have seen them in.

The family takes Sandra Bullock in (assuming that she will be part of the family as soon as the son comes out of the comma that his experience has left him in). They make an extra effort, because apparently, the relationship with the son before his mugging had been increasingly distant. He had left the family business to become a lawyer, and had been successful at it and rather pusued his own life making contact with the family only very occasisionally. Sandra Bullock is strongly drawn to the family and begins visiting them frequently. She is especially strongly drawn to the oldest son, who, although initially very skeptical of the fact that Bullock is actually engaged to his brother, becomes a believer, and increasingly ardent admirer of her. The end, of course, is predictable, but the fun is in getting there.

One thing I particularly liked about this movie is that the lawyer did not come out on top. Movies, it seems to me have a special affinity for lawyers, mostly, I believe, because the writers have not the imagination, or experience, to believe that anyone else (with the possible exception of doctors) can start from scratch and be successful. In the movies, if you need someone to start from rather ordinary or especially if they must start from straightened circumstances, and yet make good in a rather brief period of time (brief enough to still be young enough to be marriageable material), the movies almost always chose to make the hero or heroine a lawyer. In this case, the hero is working in a somewhat-but-not-spectacularly-successful middle class business, and, inspired by the heroine (who is a lower middle class ticket taker) plans to launch out on his own in what we can assume will be a most risky venture. The business he is leaving is itself intriguing because it can best be described as filling a niche in a very competitive market--furniture (the family buys furniture from estates--mostly from families who do not want to keep the furniture of recently deceased relatives). At the end of the movie, we rejoice that after so many mix-ups and humorous, but embarrasing experiences, the two lovers have found themselves, but, I for one, rejoice in the fact that they will most likely have a period, and likely an extended period of financial struggle. The movie makes it clear that the financial success of the lawyer brother has not only led him away from his family, but led him into a lifestyle very foreign from his religious roots. He tells us when he comes out of his coma, that the near death experience have made him a new man, but somehow, I suspect, that when he finds himself again surrounded with all the trappings of wealth--an mostly unproductive wealth--that he will find himself rather soon back where he was. Although, the corruption due to unproductive wealth is certainly common in society, it is not often depicted in movies.

For its humor and the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, lessons about life and living, I give it an alpha.