Comedy and drama rely on a handful of slam-dunk tropes -- settings and shtick familiar enough to serve as ageless backdrops for jokes, sitcoms and plays.
The neurotic on the shrink's couch. The penniless guy wearing a barrel. The nosy neighbor over the fence. The henpecked husband. Guy walks into a bar. And so on.
Perhaps the most fertile setting, certainly since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, has been the workplace and all its easily parodied facets: overbearing bosses ("Bumstead, you're fired!"), slave-ship working conditions, office romances, lazy employees, backstabbing coworkers and, in recent years, the combination of all these into the Dantean, Dilbertian cubicle culture of the New Economy.
The film "Nine to Five," released 25 years ago, took on a relatively new subject, working women, and it was Hollywood's way of marking an attitude shift in the gender power balance of the workplace. When Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda tied up their piggish boss and held him hostage, it was metaphorical payback for generations of butt-pinching, goosing and general servitude endured by women in the male-dominated workplace. It wasn't just Dabney Coleman tied up, it was "Beetle Bailey" 's Gen. Halftrack and all those like him, endlessly chasing the Miss Buxleys of the world around a desk.
"Nine to Five" was timely. Two years before, in 1978, more women entered the U.S. workforce than in any other year, the most radical long-term shift since the introduction of the assembly line.
A Return to Tradition
The workplace had received a similar shock at the outset of World War II, when women began streaming into factories and offices while men were serving in the European and Pacific theaters. But most of those women left the workforce when their men returned in 1945 and resumed their traditional roles in society, at least partly because a number of government programs -- such as subsidized child care -- were discontinued.
Throughout its history, Hollywood has mined the workplace like a reliable seam, as did the entertainment industry even before Hollywood. No doubt troubadours strolled about medieval Europe singing catchy lute tunes about workin' for ye olde man. Indeed, if you want to know what it was like to have a job from, oh, about 600 to 1200 A.D., just watch "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." A group of what appear to be mud farmers becomes so aggrieved at their working conditions -- presumably, the health plan fell short on key issues, such as the Black Death -- they form an "anarcho-syndicalist collective."
Prior to movies, novels dealt with the workplace, but moving pictures offered a way to show rather than just describe it. In the minds of many directors, workplaces were the dark satanic mills of William Blake.
Start with Fritz Lang's 1927 silent classic, "Metropolis." A German expressionist allegory, the film divides future society into two segments -- the effete ruling class that lives in skyscrapers and the subterranean worker drones who support them. The movie threw off many iconic images, but one that lingers is of a character splayed before a huge machine that resembles a clock face, a Christ-like figure nailed to the crucifix of industry.
The potentially dehumanizing aspect of rote work was a topic of great concern to Industrial Revolution thinkers and artists. In Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times" (1936), the Little Tramp is yanked into the gears of a huge factory contraption, as machine literally devours man. And you complain about your desk chair.
The return of veterans after World War II created suburbia. Unlike the previous 200 years or so, workers no longer walked or hopped a streetcar (or were transported against their will) to their jobs. Now, they drove their own vehicles or boarded a commuter train en masse from the new suburbs of Levittown, Greenbelt and others.
Newly minted corporate men had barely furnished their four-square slab house, fired up the grill and hung an imitation Pollock when novelist Sloan Wilson, and then Hollywood, told them they were depressed because their new office lives could never live up to the thrill of charging a machine gun nest.
Corporate Snake Pit
The film version of Wilson's "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" (1956), starring Gregory Peck, was a prequel piece of sorts to the 1967 film version of the Broadway musical "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," which skewers the snake pit of 1950s corporate America (and, by that, we mean Manhattan, as screenwriters apparently were unaware at the time there were other cities in the United States) with satirical glee.
The same idea, but executed with a darker heart, is 1960's "The Apartment," which asks: What would you do to get ahead in your job? If you're the morally indifferent Jack Lemmon, it's lending your apartment to your callous boss (Fred MacMurray) for workday trysts with the needy elevator operator (Shirley MacLaine).
This era has taken on a stainless-steel shimmer in the memories of current filmmakers, as seen in the likes of "Quiz Show" and "The Hudsucker Proxy" (both released in 1994), which make 1958-62 Manhattan seem like the snappiest, smartest, best-dressed time and place ever.
On television in the early '60s, World War II vet Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke) commuted from suburban New Rochelle to his job as a television writer in Manhattan on "The Dick Van Dyke Show." The show was a comedy, so office politics were setups for punch lines, rather than grievances and sexual harassment suits. It should be noted that Rose Marie played a writer colleague of Petrie's, rather than a subordinate secretary.
Hollywood has turned a clearer eye toward the workplace with time. In "Dragnet," which ran on television from 1952 to 1959, then 1967-70, the Los Angeles Police Department was flatteringly depicted as noble, fastidious and a good place to work. The 1997 film "L.A. Confidential" showed the postwar L.A.P.D. as corrupt, racist and thuggish.
(Talk about employee-unfriendly workplaces: HBO has cornered the market with "The Sopranos," where your boss whacks you for talking to the wrong guy; "Deadwood," where no workplace is complete without a rifle, pistol, blade, Indian raid, shin-deep mud, tuberculosis epidemic or the clap; and "Rome," where, if you are a member of the class that had to work, it is as a slave.)
In recent years, the concept of workplace has changed, thanks to technology.
For instance, even though we can now live in space, we have learned, from "Star Trek" to "Star Wars" to "Alien" to "Apollo 13," that space is not a good place to work. Oh, sure, the travel's great. And, if you were Capt. Kirk, there were certain perks. But your workplace is a pressurized tin can powered by a bomb careering through a vacuum at absolute zero, fried by radiation. Your workday could end at any moment -- for good -- thanks to a pea-size meteorite or a Klingon.
Much as "Nine to Five" reflected an era-change 25 years ago, the '80s ethos was shown through the lens of "Wall Street," "The Boiler Room," "Glengarry Glen Ross" and "Bonfire of the Vanities," all of which portrayed work as only a means to an end, that end being the Caesarean troika of wealth, power and sexual domination.
Thankfully, things simmered down a bit, and by the end of the '90s we were left with a raft of movies and television shows set in the cubicle. On the upside, at least there was less corporate rape and pillage than in the previous decade. On the other hand, the cubicles spawned their own brand of quiet malevolence, one that recalls the quote about the banality of evil.
"Fight Club" (1999), in its own perverse and millennial way, was about neutered male office workers revolting against their numbing surroundings. The little-seen 1990 comedy "Joe Versus the Volcano" has Tom Hanks working at a forgelike rectal probe factory where he surmises that the buzzing fluorescent lights are draining his life force through his eyeballs.
But the winner in this category is 1999's "Office Space," under-appreciated at its release but now a cult classic. Written and directed by "King of the Hill" creator Mike Judge, "Office Space" is set at a fictional software firm, Initech, and just gets so many details right about soul-sucking cubicle life, where we have replaced one form of workplace discomfort -- say, falling into a batch of molten pig iron -- with others, such as filling out reports, talking to consultants, enduring copier paper jams and eating lunch at the next-door Tchotchke's, an Applebee's rip-off where the help is annoyingly perky.
Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) spoke for a generation of workers when he said: "Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about mission statements."
On the other hand, it sure beats hearing, "Row, ye bastids!" and getting scourged every few minutes. Those slave ships, they could've used a stronger union. Or at least better movies.