Yes, it’s a day — today — that we here in the U. S. honor Labor. It lacks the ideological component of May Day in Europe, the May 1 fete toasting workers of the world. But the idea is basically the same, to pay tribute to working stiffs of all persuasions.
What better way to spend Labor Day than to watch a classic film or two which celebrate the labor movement and the plight of those who toil for a living? Here are a few suggested titles:
Why not try 1980’s Nine To Five, a comedy about three secretaries (Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton) dealing with dimwitted bosses. Another comedy is the more recent Gung Ho, the 1986 social comedy starring Michael Keaton as a corporate minion who invites Japanese industrialists to revive his hometown manufacturing plant only to find himself mired in social and cultural misunderstandings.
One of our favorite comedies about the labor movement is The Devil and Miss Jones. That 1941 comedy with Jean Arthur, Charles Coburn (pictured below) and Robert Cummings about young employees in a department store who are trying to form a union is the perfect combination of entertainment and social messaging.
But perhaps you prefer drama. The obvious choices include the 1940 classic The Grapes of Wrath, 1979’s Norma Rae and 1982’s Silkwood. All are first class films with first class performances and solid direction.
Best is Grapes of Wrath based on the John Steinbeck novel. It tells of an impoverished Oklahoma family migrating to California and stars Henry Fonda in an Oscar nominated performance and Jane Darwell as Ma Joad, the family’s pillar-like matriarch (Darwell won an Oscar for her unforgettable handling of the part).
The movie adaptation was the proud project of producer Darryl Zanuck at 20th Century Fox. His biographer Mel Gussow wrote: In ‘Grapes of Wrath,’ Zanuck has taken an urgent problem (as he was to do later with racial discrimination, religious prejudice, and insanity) and dramatized it, making it palatable to a wide public, not by softening it but humanizing it. In 1939 it took considerable daring and courage for Zanuck to film ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ — while it was hot — and to do it so faithfully and movingly.
Norma Rae stars Sally Field in another Oscar-winning performance as a poor Southern textile mill worker who embraces the union movement.
Silkwood directed by Mike Nichols stars Meryl Streep as a real life whistle blower who spills the beans about working in a plutonium processing plant, and pays a steep price. And let’s not forget Nichols’ terrific 1988 office satire, Working Girl, starring Melanie Griffith and Harrison Ford. One of the director’s best.
Frank’s pick as the most cutting Labor Day movie ever is writer/director Mike Judge’s often overlooked 1999 comedy, Office Space, starring Ron Livingston. It’s about a group of frustrated computer specialists locked in their cubicles and tormented by a nightmarish corporate boss played with superb realism by Gary Cole. The movie’s official tagline? “Work Sucks.”
Comedy, or drama, see a classic film this Labor Day. Watch John Raitt and Doris Day in The Pajama Game.