“I don’t want her dough I want to earn it myself.”
Any long time reader of this blog will know that I love movies (and books, but book reviews are a little more difficult to do) but I’ve pretty much run out of holidays to tie to movies (yes, there seems to be a holiday for every day on the calendarbut that would be pushing it) so I’ve decided to start looking at particular themes and genres.
So I’ll first turn to a theme I’ve seen a lot of in the recent coverage of the presidential election and in movies: the rich. Specifically this obscene fallacy that rich people are all evil. Evil I tell you, EVIL! Romney’s worth $250 million, thus he must be evil! (Let’s just ignore the rich Democrats who earned their money in ways extremely less ethical than Romney’s way of earning his money, Mitt is evil because he is rich.) However those of us who deal in the real world know this is not the case: there are some very, very good rich people in the world and some very, very evil ones. There are good ones who earned their money and good ones who inherited it. But you don’t see this very much in the realm of film. You see the liberal nonsense that all wealth is ill gotten, either stolen, swindled, cheated from the poor or the result of criminal or corrupt practices.
But then again this is Hollywood we’re talking about. Take a look around most films and TV shows. The rich live in opulence that in reality most of the top 1% couldn’t hope to afford. The middle class in film seems to live in houses or apartments five times the size of what most of those really in the middle class (even the upper middle class) could usually afford to get. And the poor seems to constantly live in a state somewhere below the poverty of the third world. In short Hollywood’s idea of classes is a little skewed (and by skewed I mean ignorant and psychotic).
So the problem was that I tried to find my usual 20-30 movies. I couldn’t. There are not 20 good films that show rich people in a positive light. 10 with a few honorable mentions. So we’re stuck with 10.
So here are my criteria for these 10.
- The character must be admirable and have made their money through ethical means (yes inheritance is ethical so long as the original money was inherited).
- The character must be really rich. By that I mean they have to have enough money to retire for the rest of their life, never work another day, and still live a comfortable life style.
You’d think with such limited requirements I’d have more than 10, but no 10 is all I could find.
So let’s start with #10
“If I’m going to get stuck with a rich girl, I’ll just grit my teeth make the best of it.”
We start with one of the greatest romantic-comedies of all time, Holiday, starring Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. It is based on a play my Philip Barry, a playwright who loved to show that the rich were human (with their good and their bad) as much as every other class. The film is directed by great director George Cukor (you should know that name, he’s only the director of Gone with the Wind, The Philadelphia Story, Adam’s Rib, Born Yesterday, Pat and Mike, My Fair Lady)
The story centers around the Setons, a family of bankers of whose wealth places them in the highest levels of American society. The father is set in his ways of a misguided reverence for money. Oldest daughter Linda (Katherine Hepburn) is the black sheep and free spirit. Youngest child and only son Ned, an artist at heart, is slowly being destroyed by his alcoholism because he doesn’t have the spine to tell his father he won’t be a banker. And younger daughter Julia is very comfortable in her social strata and is looking for a man who can guarantee she will always be kept in wealth.
The problem is Julia settles on Johnny Case (Cary Grant) a successful up and coming businessman, and our first example in Hollywood of the admirable rich. A regular genius he reengineers a failing company during the Great Depression for the firm he works for (hmm…buying failing companies and through reorganization of management making them successful…sounds very familiar) into a profitable business…in the process making himself a cool million in on its stock. (in 1938 when this film was made a million would be about 15 million in 2010 dollars, so yeah he’s rich). But despite being a millionaire at 30, and all through his own work add brains, Johnny Case understands what money is actually for (something his fiancée does not). Being happy.
Johnny: But…I’m afraid I’m not as anxious as I might be for the things most people work toward. I don’t want too much money.
Edward: Too much money? Johnny: Well, more than I need to live by…You see, it’s always been my plan to make a few thousand early in the game, if I could, and then quit for as long as they last, and try to find out who I
am and what I am and what goes on and what about it…I’m sure Julia understands…don’t you, Julia?
Julia: [laughs, uncertainly]. I’m not sure I do, Johnny…
[…] Even if it turns out to be one of those fool ideas people dream about then go flat on. Even if I find I’ve had enough of it in 3 months time, still I want it. I’ve got a feeling if I let this chance go by there’ll never be another one for me. So I don’t think anyone will mind if I just have a go at it. Will they Julia? Will they dear?
This classic shows the truth that it is not money that corrupts, more that it allows the corruptible to be even more vile. Case wants to use his money to be happy because he knows that making money isn’t his primary goal in life and he won’t listen to those who say otherwise. He is not only intelligent and competent, but he is happy and ethical and won’t violate his principles.
Even if you haven’t seen the film, I’m probably not spoiling anything by revealing Cary Grant actually gets Katherine Hepburn not the other sister. Duh. And here we see that someone born to money can be just as good as Cary Grant’s Case who started with nothing and earned it all himself. She also embraces life at its fullest, cares about others, and does not compromise her values.
This film also subtly praises true capitalism in that it shows that through intelligence and work one can go from rags to riches even in the midst of the Great Depression.
Yes, Barry is fair in his depiction of the rich. From the father of the Seton family who knows only his social class and doesn’t dare offend any of its traditions (competent at his job, not evil, but not necessarily living life to the fullest), to Julia who wants protection that wealth brings and nothing more, to the pro-fascist cousins of the family (remember this was 1938 and there were many stupid enough in all classes to think fascism held the answers for economic woes). But even these are merely balance to show that the rich are not some terrible caricature or a group of white knights, they’re human and, as within any group, there is a wide variety of character.
Even the somewhat vapid Julia has an inkling of the proper nature of wealth…when trying to win Case to her side she states:
If you think that you can persuade me that a man of your energy and your ability possibly could quit at 30 […] But you haven’t any idea yet at how exciting business can be. Oh Johnny see it through, you’ll love it I know you will. There’s no such thrill in the world as making money.
This is true of some people. Some businessmen enjoy creating things, businesses, systems, products because they can. The great titans of industry from Vanderbilt to Jobs did it because they were driven to create, and they did thrill at creating wealth. Case is not one of them and there is nothing wrong with that either as while he wants to find himself, he wants to do it on his dime, not someone else’s. Julia’s problem is her narrow-minded belief that everyone has to fit into her model, and also the hypocrisy of why doesn’t she go out and build her own fortune (yeah it’s 1938 and women’s liberation hasn’t happened yet, but there were women in Congress at this point, no reason other barriers couldn’t be broken…especially in a movie starring Hepburn, a woman who broke barriers and traditions wherever she found them). So her words are true, even if coming from her they ring hollow.
As I said there are a few honorable mentions that depict the rich well, but not so well they make it onto my top ten list. The first of these is The Philadelphia Story. Another joint venture of Barry, Cukor, Grant and of course Hepburn. It’s a wonderful romantic comedy about high society. And while Hepburn and Grant are admirable and rich, the issue of wealth is more setting than theme in this film. The nature of money and why we seek it is central to Holiday, in The Philadelphia Story wealth is just a backdrop. And so while it shows some wonderful (and some not so wonderful) people it ranks only as an honorable mention on this list…although one of the greatest romantic comedies of all time in its own right.