With the Academy Awards coming up on Sunday, March 2, it’s a great time to look at films in which business plays a role. That covers a wide swath of films, so we’re dividing them into three categories: classics, contemporary and documentary.
Each film has a business component. Some take place in the business world, others feature business men and women, and still more look at specific episodes and how the people involved dealt with them. Here are 10 classic movies with lessons for anyone interested in business.
1) Metropolis (1927). Visually stunning, this silent film is a futuristic look at humans and machinery. Some experts consider it to be the most influential silent film. Even now, Metropolis looks contemporary and the questions it raises about automation versus labor are all-too-current. Once you’ve viewed it, you’ll see elements of Metropolis in scores of subsequent movies.
2) Dodsworth (1936) An overlooked masterpiece, Dodsworth, based on the book by Sinclair Lewis, tells the story of a just-retired industrialist, Samuel Dodsworth. Played by Walter Huston, the patriarch of a great Hollywood clan, Dodsworth reassesses his life, work and marriage during a long trip to Europe. Just when all looks bleakest, Dodsworth’s business instincts come back the surface as he considers becoming an entrepreneur once more.
3) Citizen Kane (1941) Often atop lists of the best films of all time, Orson Welles created the legendary character of media mogul Charles Foster Kane. He barrels through the business world, creating an empire, then seeing it all deteriorate into personal and professional havoc. We won’t spoil the end, but it may be the most famous line in all moviedom.
4) Mildred Pierce (1945) Joan Crawford won an Oscar for the title role of ambitious businesswoman whose Achilles Heel is her greedy daughter Veda. It was rare for Hollywood to show such strong women characters, as well as diversity, especially in work settings. Crawford wasn’t the first choice for the role, but she used it to launch a comeback. Bonus: you’ll want to be on shoulder pad alert for the amazing fashions.
5) I Know Where I’m Going (1945) Almost unknown in the U.S., this British film depicts a determined young woman at the end of World War II who knows where she’s going: marriage to one of the country’s most powerful business tycoons. But as the trip to her wedding is repeatedly delayed, her focus shifts from the material to the ephemeral. Fantastic special effects filmed without green screen.
6) It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) Now a Christmas classic, there are significant business teachings in this film, starring Jimmy Stewart. Many critics saw parallels to the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s and 1990s. It’s also a story of a community’s support for a family business in the face of a heartless banker, and teaches lessons about the value of friendship.
In this clip from Executive Suite, 1954, executive McDonald Walling (William Holden) starts busting furniture, making his point before the board (Dean Jagger, Barbara Stanwyck, Fredric March, Paul Douglas et al).
7) The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946) What happened to returning servicemen after World War II, as they tried to re-enter daily life? The landscape wasn’t easy for all of them, and this beautifully written movie looks at three veterans and their efforts to get back to normal. You’ll see banking, small business, entrepreneurship and the rarely discussed challenges faced by the wounded. (Be ready to cry at the end.)
8 The Man In The White Suit (1951)Alec Guinness stars in a satirical tale of a product innovation that threatens the interests of society at large. The white suit is a brilliant technological advancement that would mean the loss of jobs for union members and profits for the mill owner. Which side is right? This film foreshadows many late-20th century developments.
9) Executive Suite (1954) Here is a snapshot of the post World War II business world, Hollywood style. A CEO suddenly drops dead. Which scheming underling will get his job? What say does his widow have? And what happens to his executive assistant, who knows everything about the way the company is run?
10) The Best Of Everything (1959) Man Men creator Matt Weiner says his show was inspired by this movie, which shows the publishing world in the late 1950s. You’ll see echoes of the original Sterling Cooper in the sets, clothes and drinking. You’ll also see women and the challenges they faced as they try to balance their personal and professional lives.
Micheline Maynard is a Reynolds Visiting Professor of Business Journalism at Arizona State. A lifelong film buff, she is the editor of the crowd-funded journalism project Curbing Cars: Rethinking How We Get Around, and former Detroit bureau chief for the New York Times.