Specialty: Hollywood's Labor Days -- The best movies about working folk

Specialty: Hollywood’s Labor Days

Labor Day marks the end of summer, the beginning of school, the return to work with a vengeance. But it was created to celebrate ordinary working people, the rank and file of the American economy. Considering the central role work plays in our lives, it’s startling how rarely it appears as a theme in movies. But when Hollywood does deign to turn its lens on regular working folks, the results can be riveting. Here are some of the best pictures about the fight for our daily bread:

Metropolis (1926)
There are several versions of this famous German silent on video; the carefully restored 1984 release (with a score by Giorgio Moroder) is best. Its virtues, however, do not include Moroder’s irritating synth-rock score. Director Fritz Lang’s beautifully stylized vision of a hellishly industrialized future is as powerful as ever. In his depiction, the workers have become a literal underclass, toiling, like the machines they tend, far below the great city of Metropolis. The plot, an ambiguous take on humanity versus mechanized greed, creaks with age. But as a commanding visual opera, Metropolis should be seen (if not heard). A-

Modern Times (1936)
Nearly a decade after the advent of sound, Charles Chaplin was still making silent masterpieces. In a series of vignettes on the theme of labor, the Little Tramp literally gets caught in the cogs of industry, inadvertently leads a pro-union march, and finds happiness with a street urchin (third wife Paulette Goddard never looked more gorgeous, dirty hair and all). Much of Modern Times’ poignant charm lies in its essentially dark look at how assembly line workers are alienated from the products they toil to make. A-

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
John Ford’s sermon — via Steinbeck’s novel — on dignity, the dust bowl, and driving west is a fair bit of preaching. But, like Muley’s few words over Grampa’s roadside grave as the tenant-farmer Joads make their westward trek, it has real power. Ford gives The Grapes of Wrath a lean, hard-lived feel, especially the Oklahoma scenes. Henry Fonda’s performance as Tom is convincing, although his ”I’ll be there” speech at the end is either cloying or stirring, depending on your mood. Ford’s characteristic vision of the working-class family as society’s bedrock received no finer paean from him. B+

Norma Rae (1979)
There’s no mistaking this textile-worker-helps-organize-mill story for anything but a message movie. But it’s also an absorbing portrayal of blue- collar people with deeply individual histories. Sally Field, who won an Oscar playing the title role, is tough as nails. As Reuben, the union rep who champions her, Ron Leibman does an almost equal job. B+

Swing Shift (1984)
It’s 1941: America is about to be turned on its head. Behind the heroes overseas stands a phalanx of home-front soldiers, the women called upon to fill the factory jobs left vacant by their men. Goldie Hawn is not convincing at first as a ditzy blond who can do nothing for herself, but she grows more credible as a riveter. The focus on how housewives work their way to a new self-respect has gel on the lens only when it comes to the love angle between Hawn and Kurt Russell, a trumpeter with a 4F heart. The more interesting affection is between Hawn and Christine Lahti, a dance-hall singer and tough broad whose soft spot is wayward Fred Ward. Director Jonathan Demme lavishes attention on them and the period sets. The neat ending doesn’t quite account for postwar readjustment, but this remains a fine entertainment. B-

Matewan (1987)
John Sayles’ 1977 novel, Union Dues, told the story of Virginia’s 1920 Mingo County coal wars and the heroic role of union organizer Joe Kenehan. Ten years later, the author-director brought that bloody passage in our working history to the screen in Matewan, named after the town that became a battleground. The movie is infused with Sayles’ fierce feeling for the hard lives and harder deaths of these miners. Haskell Wexler’s stunning photography and a superlative cast, including the director as a hard-shell Baptist preacher, contribute to the movie’s striking realism. A full-bodied heir to The Grapes of Wrath, Matewan too suffers from two-dimensionality in parts-the strike- breaking goons are so unremittingly evil it’s hard to get interested in what they’ll do next. But it’s impossible not to be gripped by the wipeout showdown at the end. B+

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