The Big Screen version of Boom and Bust
Sacha Pfeiffer: This is On The Media's midweek podcast extra. I'm Sacha Pfeiffer sitting in for Brooke Gladstone. It was 13 years ago this month, September of 2008 when news broke that the Wall Street investment firm Lehman Brothers had collapsed, setting in motion the financial crisis that devastated the world's economy.
Speaker 1: The Dow tumbled more than 500 points after two pillars of the street tumbled over the weekend.
Speaker 2: It's such a blow to investors, whether you're a big trader or whether you have a 401(k).
Speaker 3: The Dow traders are standing. They're watching in amazement and I don't blame them.
Speaker 4: I have never live looked at the Dow Jones Industrial board and seeing a 600-point loss.
Speaker 5: What in the world is happening on Wall Street?
Sacha Pfeiffer: On the 10th anniversary of the collapse, Brooke examined the arc of our attitude toward business and money through the medium of film.
Brooke Gladstone: Per Hansen is a professor of business history at the Copenhagen Business School and the co-author of a new study Making Sense of Business and Community in Hollywood Films, 1928-2016. Films that sound a little like this.
Linus: A new industry moves into an undeveloped area, factories go up, machines are brought in, a harbor is dug, and you're in business. It's purely coincidental, of course, that people who never saw a dime before suddenly have a dollar, and barefooted kids wear shoes, and have their teeth fixed and their faces washed.
Gordon Gekko: Greed will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.
Jordan Belfort: Let me tell you something, there is no nobility in poverty. I've been a rich man and I have been a poor man and I choose rich every fucking time.
Brooke Gladstone: From Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times in 1936 to The Big Short in 2015, Hansen sifted through 81 films to map out the trajectory of America's volatile relationship with the boardroom and the big board on Wall Street because, as you might have guessed, how we see the world shapes the world and how we behave in it. Thus the power of film.
Per Hansen: Anthropologist Grant McCracken argues that we all have what he calls a cultural blueprint, a roadmap for understanding and acting in the world. Films provide a blueprint for the viewers to help them in a world that is very often difficult to navigate in.
Brooke Gladstone: You divided the history of business-related films-- which spans practically the history of film, into several categories. You did notice a trend from cautious idealism to disillusionment, to cynicism, to whatever it is we have now.
Per Hansen: That is true. Early movies from 1928-1949 focus on the role of the community on Main Street, while finance, and big corporations are the villains. This is related to the Great Depression and all the misery that was going on at that time and the role of finance in the Great Depression.
Brooke Gladstone: The classic case you cite is It's a Wonderful Life from 1946. The central Christmas film expresses goodwill toward men through an ailing savings and loan, which has been targeted by an avaricious Lionel Barrymore, who is resistant to Jimmy Stewart's passionate pleas.
Jimmy Stuart: What did you say just a minute ago? They had to wait and save their money before they even thought of a decent home. Wait? Wait for what? Until their children grow up and leave them, until they're so old and broken down? Do you know how long it takes a working man to say $5,000? Just remember this Mr. Potter that this rabble you're talking about, they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community.
Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn't think so. People were human beings to him, but to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they're cattle.
Per Hansen: If you are an evil capitalist you could say, like Mr. Porter, you're alone and nobody likes you. Peter Bailey, who established the savings and loan, even though he didn't focus on money, and wasn't a rich man, he was a rich man in a different way because he was part of this local community. That's the basic message of this whole film and a number of other films from the same period.
These films are taking place in the Great Depression in the 1930s. That being part of something bigger than yourself is much more important.
Brooke Gladstone: Now, some of these films express that view a little more didactically than others. You mentioned the 1954 film Executive Suite. We have a clip where the board of Tredway, a furniture company, is about to elect a new president. Don Walling, the head of production, is up against LP Shaw, the finance and accounts manager. At the decisive board meeting, Shaw argues that a company is answerable first and last to its stockholders. Walling disagrees and you say this is a teachable moment.
Don Walling: Now, let's assume Shaw that you're the man running the Treadway Corporation your way. Would you be satisfied to measure your life's work by how much you raise the dividend to $4 or $5 or $6 or $7? Would that be enough? Is that what you want engraved on your tombstone when you die, the dividend record of the Treadway Corporation?
Speaker 9: Are you suggesting that earnings aren't important?
Don Walling: I'm suggesting no such thing and you know it. Shaw is right when he says that we have an obligation to our stockholders, but it's a bigger obligation than raising the dividend. We have an obligation to keep this company alive. Not just this year or next, but the year after that. Sometimes you have to use your profits for the growth of the company, not pay them all out in dividends to impress the stockholders with your management record.
Brooke Gladstone: Then something happens in the '60s and the hopeful tone changes.
Per Hansen: One of the very early films that reflect this is The Apartment with Jack Lemmon. We see Jack Lemmon in a big company where meritocracy is nowhere to be found. The only reason he's getting promoted in the company is because he lends his apartment to his bosses who brings the office girls and commit adultery in the apartment. It signifies the beginning of a period of this disillusionment that grows over time in the 1960s and in particular in the 1970s.
Mr. Sheldrake: Say, Baxter, you gave me the wrong key.
Baxter: No I didn't.
Mr. Sheldrake: This is the key to the executive washroom.
Baxter: That's right, Mr. Sheldrake. I won't be needing it because I'm all washed up around here.
Jack: What's gotten into you, Baxter?
Mr. Sheldrake: Just following doctor's orders. I've decided to become a mensch. Do you know what that means? A human being.
Brooke Gladstone: Something else that's marked in The Apartment and also you say more musically and how to succeed in business without really trying is that women in the workforce, they're treated like staplers.
Mr. Bratt: A secretary is not a toy. No, my boy, not a toy to fondle and dandle, and playfully handle in search of some of your puerile joy. No, a sectary is not, definitely not a toy.
Per Hansen: The point is that this is no longer a rational organization with executives that try to promote the good of society and so on. They're only looking out for their own interests.
Brooke Gladstone: Well, let's stick with Jack Lemmon then. You got Harry Stoner in 1973's Save the Tiger who wants to save his small garment factory but has a big fight with his longtime partner, Jack Gilford, because he decides he needs to torch it.
Harry Stoner: What the hell else am I going to do? Just tell me. We invented a new arithmetic last year.
Phil: We survived. We kept our people working; 71 girls, 14 salesman, secretaries, all making a living.
Harry Stoner: Phil, the government has another word for survival and it's called fraud.
Per Hansen: Save the Tiger is an important film. The '50s and '60s movies were to a high degree focused on the internal workings of the big organization. In the '70s, the perspective moves outside the offices and you're also watching Stoner's private life, the television is running and it reports on all the misery going on in the world, war and materialism, and consumerism.
You get the feeling that the society is falling apart. You have to look out for yourself because no one else does. He's a decent man but he just can't figure out how to survive and that leads him to try to have his factory burned down in order to get the insurance money.
Brooke Gladstone: As you head into the '80s, that brings us to Wall Street. Gordon Gekko-
Gordon Gekko: Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.
Brooke Gladstone: -who wore suspenders and carries around an early cell phone the size of a shoebox.
Bud Fox: Yes?
Gordon: Money never sleeps, pal.
Brooke Gladstone: He also influences people in the real world. One of them, now a law and finance professor, decided he wanted to be part of Gekko's world. Another guy, a young law school graduate, decided he wanted to work at the SEC to regulate him.
Per Hansen: Even though a lot of young people came to idolize Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko, the important message is that Gordon Gekko was sent to jail.
Brooke Gladstone: Let us lead up to the meltdown with a film from the '90s, Other People's Money. Danny DeVito as Larry the liquidator
Danny DeVito: Whoever has the most when he dies wins. Look, it's the American way.
Speaker 10: He's like something out of a comic book.
Per Hansen: Big business, as you knew it from the 1950s, is about to fall apart. There are new theoretical developments in economic theory that argues that conglomerates are no longer efficient and that's where Larry the Liquidator comes in. He buys up companies and then he splits them up in separate parts and sell them off. He doesn't really care about production.
Brooke Gladstone: If big manufacturing is falling apart, Other People's Money looks ahead to what the future of business is, which is basically creating financial instruments. Money about money, not about stuff.
Per Hansen: There's one common trait in all the movies, which is that the focus is on the bankers and that they are causing what is going on here.
Brooke Gladstone: Why don't we begin with Margin Call, which is a 2010 film based on the Lehman Brothers collapse. John told the CEO of a large investment bank, orders a manager to unload collateral debt obligations, CDOs, for billions of dollars to save the bank.
John: It's certainly no different today than it's ever been. 1637, 1797, 1819, '37, '57, '84, 1901, '07, '29, 1937, 1974, 1987. Jesus, didn't that [inaudible 00:11:29] me up good. '92, '97, 2000 and whatever you want to call this. It's all just the same thing over and over. We can't help ourselves and you and I can't control it or stop it or even slow it. We even ever so slightly alter it. We just react. We make a lot of money if we get it right.
Per Hansen: This is the big speech of the film. The difference between this film and Wall Street is that this time around, no one goes to jail, nothing happens. It just goes on and on and on and there's nothing you can do about it. The cynicism meant the disillusionment is complete.
Brooke Gladstone: What do you think about The Big Short? This is probably the most entertaining explanation of what caused the collapse and who seemed to know about it and who believed they would benefit from it and who would suffer. Steve Carell plays a character who gets an inkling of what's going on. He's sitting on a balcony overlooking Central Park deciding whether he should cash out or walk away.
Steve Carell: I have a feeling that in a few years, people are going to be doing what they always do when the economy tanks, they will be blaming immigrants and poor people.
Vinny: Mark, can we sell now? the fund will make almost a billion dollars.
Steve Carell: You know once we sell, we'll be just like the rest of them? You know that.
Vinny: No, we're not. We're not the bad guys here. We didn't defraud the American people and prey on their dreams of owning a home.
Per Hansen: Since he's cashing in on all these derivatives, he does not follow his conscience, recognizing the fact that ordinary people, that Main Street is suffering from what is going on here. The message is exactly the same as in Margin Call, but it's even more cynical.
Brooke Gladstone: Do you see another trend arising or we're still 10 years later in the post collapse film era?
Per Hansen: Maybe we are not even posted yet. In 2007, it was the financial world that was under threat and that entered in 2009, then came the economic recession. Now, we're dealing with the political consequences, but you can go all the way back to the Great Depression and look at the same sequence. It begins with finance then comes to the economic depression or the recession, and then comes to political ramifications.
If you think about nationalism in Europe and the US, this is part of the financial crisis that is still unsolved here.
Sacha Pfeiffer: Per Hansen is a professor of business history at the Copenhagen Business School and co-author of the study Making Sense of Business and Community in Hollywood Films, 1928-2016. This has been an On The Media podcast extra. Join us for the big show this Friday and don't forget to sign up for our newsletter at onthemedia.org. I'm Sacha Pfeiffer.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.