Women at Work

"I have a head for business and a body for sin." -Working Girl

Although May 1 signals the arrival of May Baskets and spring, it is also recognized by most nations as International Worker’s Day. On May 4, 1886, Chicago police fired on striking workers demonstrating for fair wages and an eight-hour work day.

To commemorate this event, known as The Haymarket Massacre, May 1 was selected as a day to honor workers around the world.

The U.S. government ultimately selected a day in September as our “Labor Day,” hoping to put some symbolic distance between Haymarket and our celebration.

As women gained an increasing role in the nation’s workforce, Hollywood started to notice. Over a half century, that attention has spawned a remarkable collection of movies focusing on female triumphs and tribulations on the job.

With that in mind, here are four cinematic celebrations of women in the workplace.


“His Girl Friday” (1940)  

"Walter, you're wonderful in a loathsome sort of way."

Director Howard Hawks was a master at jumping genres, but whether western, musical or adventure film, he was obsessed with the code of the professional.

In this classic screwball comedy, Rosalind Russell plays ace reporter Hildy Johnson, a brash, whip-smart woman excelling in the male-dominated newspaper business.

A typical “Hawksian woman,” she smokes, drinks, wins at poker and can out-maneuver any man in the joint, including her boss and ex-husband Walter, played by fast-talking Carey Grant. She can talk just as fast, as demonstrated by some of the most rapid-fire exchanges in any Hollywood comedy. When she tells Walter she’s quitting her job to marry a mild-mannered insurance man, Walter sets out to ruin the relationship so she’ll stay in the paper business. Of course, there’s more than professional preservation at work here.

Walter’s still crazy about Hildy, and she might just feel the same way, but it’s going to take a minor miracle for Walter to win her back. Recognized as one of the best American comedies, a new transfer by Columbia Classics restores the film to it shimmering, crisp black and white. The result is pure movie magic.


“Norma Rae” (1979) 

"You're underpaid; you're overworked. They're shafting you right up to your tonsils. You need me."

Sally Field won an Oscar for her portrayal of Norma Rae Webster, a single mother of two who was employed at a South Carolina textile factory.

It’s punishing work, as evidenced by cinematographer John Alonzo’s naturalistic, handheld camera underscored by the hammering sound of the machines. You can almost feel the heat and smell the factory oil as workers go deaf, suffer accidents and withstand oppressive management demands.

When New York labor organizer Reuban Warshowsky, played with high-strung charm by Ron Leibman, shows up to start a union, an unlikely friendship with Norma begins to bloom. What could easily become melodrama never does, due to director Martin Ritt’s commitment to character and realism. 

The script is based on the true story of Crystal Lee Sutton, a young woman who inspired the film’s most iconic moment by standing on a table in the factory with a sign saying “union” until the workers turned off their machines. The film now plays like a period piece, some 35 years later, but the characters are as vibrant and human now as when the film was released. It’s compelling from start to finish, bittersweet, funny at times, and a testament to the timelessness of the human spirit. Like “His Girl Friday,” this movie was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, recognizing it as “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” It is all three.


“Nine to Five” (1980)

"I'll tell you what I'm talking about: I'm no girl. I'm a woman."

One of the highest grossing comedies of all time, this movie was also one of the first films to directly address issues of office inequality and sexual harassment — and in doing so earned itself a place in pop culture history. Viewed more than three decades later, its themes still resonate even if its jokes often fall flat, ranging from campy fantasy sequences to cartoony slapstick (including sped-up physical action: always a red flag for me). 

Colin Higgins’ direction (like in his previous films “Foul Play” and “Silver Streak”) makes for a bumpy ride that stalls out between jokes, often looking and sounding more like an episode of “The Love Boat” than a studio movie. But when things work, it’s because of the chemistry and commitment by its three stars (Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton and Lilly Tomlin) and a hilariously loathsome villain (Dabney Coleman).

It soars due to its all-too-true sexism and the workplace humiliation its heroines are forced to endure. It also deftly addresses female competition and insincerity, but once the ladies bond and team up against their boss, the wish fulfillment comes on full force, delivering underdog triumphs and poetic justice.

“Nine to Five” is a movie that will always be remembered fondly, but it remains an uneven viewing experience. That said, Lilly Tomlin’s honest, surprising, often understated performance is still something to behold. And there’s always that catchy theme song.


“Working Girl” (1988)  

Here is a very rare thing: a romantic comedy that isn’t condescending to its audience or characters. Like the best of Billy Wilder’s classic movies from the '50s, director Mike Nichols treats everybody involved like grown-ups, eschewing cartoony clichés for visual elegance, subtle performances and a knowing attitude about sex.

A determined secretary longs for a career in business and, after her boss steals her ideas, takes matters into her own hands. The classic “3 Ds of comedy” (desire, deception and discovery) are all in play here and made for a huge box office success.

Oddly enough, I doubt this picture would get made in today’s “PG-13” world. Much of its power lies in its soft “R” rating, which allows the movie to feel uninhibited but never crass. It’s an adult movie in the best sense. The script is beautifully put together, the plotting is sure-handed and forward-moving, allowing room for all the actors to work emotionally and honestly. Even the small roles are great, featuring Kevin Spacey, Nora Dunn, Olympia Dukakis, Alec Baldwin and Joan Cusak.

But it’s the lead performances by Melanie Griffith, Harrison Ford and Sigourney Weaver that make the movie work. All are charming and human, each possessing strengths and flaws. Its '80s fashions make for a nostalgic time capsule, but the movie remains emotionally timeless.

We know determined Tess (Griffith) deserves to succeed and (like all romantic comedies) will wind up with the guy, but something about the tone creates a tiny sense of doubt, which makes the stakes feel real and allows us to dread the possibility of failure. Here’s a romantic comedy with genuine dramatic tension. It’s absolutely worth revisiting.


Great line: “I have a head for business and a body for sin.”


Mitch Brian is a filmmaker and assistant professor at UMKC. He appears with Jason Heck as THE DVD GURUS on KCUR’s “Up To Date” with Steve Kraske. Archived shows can be found at KCUR/UpToDate.org.