All Commentary
Monday, June 1, 1998

Cinema and the Capitalist Hero

Some Films Emphasize the Heroic Traits and Accomplishments of Businessmen

Edward Younkins is professor of accountancy and business administration at Wheeling Jesuit University, Wheeling, West Virginia.

The businessman has not fared well in film. Moviemakers have often attacked business and industry for destroying an old communal order based on equality and have lamented the businessman’s preoccupation with material success and the dominance of large organizations in people’s lives.

However, some films cast the businessman in a more favorable, even heroic, light by emphasizing the possibilities of life in a free society, the inherent ethical nature of capitalism and the businessman, and the strength and self-sufficiency of the hardworking entrepreneur.

The Heroic Corporate Raider

The corporate raider has been a tempting target for film makers, but not all movies portray this form of entrepreneurship as corrupt. In Cash McCall (1959), based on the 1955 novel by Cameron Hawley, James Gamer plays a misunderstood tycoon and financier who is viewed by many as an unscrupulous robber baron who takes over companies, lays off employees, and sells the firms for large profits. McCall is actually a shrewd, productive, and efficient businessman who rebuilds acquired companies, operates them more effectively than their incumbent management, has high standards of personal and business ethics, and creates wealth without guilt. Commerce isdepicted in the film as an honorable activity in a benevolent, life-affirming universe.

In Other People’s Money, a 1991 film based on Jerry Sterner’s play, Lawrence “Larry the Liquidator” Garfield, portrayed by Danny De Vito, wants to take over an outmoded, debt-free company that has a lot of cash. Larry plans to sell off the assets. The company’s aging chairman, Andrew “Jorgy” Jorgenson (played by Gregory Peck), is a traditionalist and supporter of community values who doesn’t want to see hundreds of people out of work. The climactic scene is a stockholders’ meeting—a fight for control of the board of directors between Larry, who would make the stockholders money, liquidate the company, and shift the resources to better uses, and Jorgy, who would continue in a dying industry (copper wire). The film portrays Garfield heroically: he makes money for the stockholders—including retired people who aren’t rich—while freeing resources to produce things that people want more than obsolete copper wire.

Both films accurately portray takeovers as nothing more than changes in ownership of assets, necessary for the efficient operation of a market economy.

The American Dream

Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988), directed by Francis Ford Coppola, tells the true story of Preston Tucker (played by Jeff Bridges), a charming, persuasive, optimistic, innovative, and visionary maverick who challenged the “Big Three” establishment by creating a utopian automobile. Tucker is portrayed as a Capraesque hero who fights the forces that eventually crush his dream. The film celebrates the American can-do spirit and the entrepreneur as the driving force of capitalism and wealth creation. According to the film, Tucker was the victim of Detroit and Washington, illustrating the need to separate economy and state.

An American Romance, a 1944 film directed by King Vidor, celebrates the American Dream by following its immigrant hero, Steve Dangos (played by Brian Donlevy), from his arrival at Ellis Island through his ascension from miner to steelworker to foreman to automobile entrepreneur who uses his knowledge of steel to build a safer, full-frame car. This film portrays America as the land of unlimited possibilities and views capitalism as the social system that best provides freedom and the opportunity to pursue one’s vision of happiness.

Mac (1993) is the story of a hardworking Italian-American carpenter who realizes his dream of becoming a contractor. John Turtur-ro plays Mac and directs the film of this uncompromising, honest, focused, and hard working man with extremely high standards. For Mac there are only two ways to do a job, “the right way and my way and they’re the same.” The moral of the story is that each person has a God-given vocation and can con tribute to the world by using his talents to the best of his ability.

Individualism and Independence

The Man in the White Suit (1952) stars Alee Guinness as Sidney Stratton, an entrepreneurial, visionary chemist who invents a fabric that will not wear out, stain, or become dirty. Leaders of both the textile mills and labor unions fear that the industry will be ruinedand the laborers unemployed. Management and labor are guilty of thinking of only the immediate effects of the breakthrough on themselves as clothing makers; they do not consider that consumers will now have clothes and the other products that can be made with the newly freed-up resources. Although his fabric eventually falls apart due to a flaw in the formula, the heroic inventor is not discouraged. At the end of the film he is shown working to correct the error.

In Sometimes a Great Notion (1971, a k a Never Give an Inch), based on the novel by Ken Kesey, Henry Fonda plays Henry Stamper, the head of a small, independent, family-owned logging business in Oregon. Hank (Paul Newman), Henry’s elder son, represents individualism and self-sufficiency. The hardworking Stampers are heroic businessmen who are anti-union, anti-socialist, and unamenable to anyone, including the government, who tries to tell them what to do. The family motto is, “Never give an inch.” The unions strike the small company and other logging operations throughout the Northwest. The Stampers, who pride themselves on honoring their contracts, continue their operation despite union sabotage and violence.

Needed: More Pro-Capitalist Film Heroes

Films have depicted business people as over-materialistic, greedy, miserly, villainous, corrupt, unethical, hypocritical, insecure, insensitive, anti-culture, exploitative, smaller than life, repressed, and subservient to the establishment. Fortunately, some films, more than I have recounted here, have emphasized their heroic traits and accomplishments.

Cash McCall, Hank Stamper, Steve Dangos, and the cinematic Preston Tucker are great role models. Hollywood should give us others.

  • Professor Younkins is a Professor of Accountancy & Business Administration and
    Executive Director of the Institute for the Study of Capitalism and Morality at Wheeling Jesuit University. He is the founder of Wheeling Jesuit University's undergraduate major in Political and Economic Philosophy. He is also the founding director of the university's Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) and Master of Science in Accountancy (M.S.A.) programs.