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Books that Shaped Work in America

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Book Recommendation

Scott McGee

Scott McGee
Senior Writer/Producer, Turner Classic Movies

The history of the U.S. Department of Labor and the motion picture industry in America basically parallel each other—both have now been around for 100 years. And during that time, both have played a significant role in reflecting and shaping many aspects of our society, especially our work culture. So, in developing my recommendations, I decided to focus on books adapted into films that had a large impact on how we perceive ourselves and others in the context of work. Five that most came to mind were:

Eric Hatch, My Man Godfrey (1935) (originally named 1101 Park Avenue)
Film Adaptation:  My Man Godfrey (1936) 
One of the best screwball comedies from Hollywood, this film is also a striking look at Depression-era America in the 1930s. As the lead character, Godfrey, played by the impeccable William Powell, notes to his friend, “The only difference between a derelict and a man is a job.” Godfrey is a former blue-blood businessman who falls on hard times, then becomes a butler to a madcap family, led by struggling businessman Eugene Palette.  

Upton Sinclair, Oil! (1927)
Film Adaptation:  There Will be Blood (2007)
One of the greatest American films from the last 20 years, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s film explores how one man’s admirable ambition expressed through unceasing toil is twisted into something ugly and monstrous from greed. A towering Academy Award-winning performance by Daniel Day-Lewis makes this film one for the ages.

A.I. Bezzerides, Thieves’ Market (1949)
Film Adaptation:  Thieves’ Highway (1949)
Director Jules Dassin’s American film noir is a brilliant look at life on the American road in the years immediately after World War II. Its story about blue collar laborers—truck drivers—being driven out by a corrupt, more powerful business, is a precursor to films like On the Waterfront. The scenes of the trucks carrying much too heavy loads in trucks barely fit for the road is a reminder of the pressures workers are put under in order to maintain the bottom line, either their own or their employer’s.

Cameron Hawley, Executive Suite (1952) 
Film Adaptation:  Executive Suite (1954)
For this MGM story of a white-collar workforce and boardroom political machinations, director Robert Wise and producers John Houseman and Jud Kinberg had an all-star cast, including William Holden, Barbara Stanwyck and Fredric March. At stake isn’t just financial solvency, but a restoration of the company to its former high standards, which affect not just upper management, but the health and security of the largely unseen workers below the eponymous executive suite.   

Luigi Bartolini, Bicycle Thieves(1946)
Film Adaptation:  Bicycle Thieves (1948)
This landmark of world cinema directed by Vittorio de Sica (also known as The Bicycle Thief) is the definitive example of Italian neorealism. Shot on the streets of Rome with a cast of mostly nonprofessional actors, this is a heartbreaking story about a long-unemployed laborer whose one chance at gainful employment is undermined by the theft of his bicycle.  

Scott McGee is a Senior Writer/Producer in Studio Production and Programming for Turner Classic Movies and hosts the TCM Podcast online video series.

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