Saluting workers in film

Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda in “9 to 5.” (The Everett Collection)

Published: Friday, September 2, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, September 1, 2011 at 4:47 p.m.

Today's worker is a lone lemon that someone is trying to turn into a full glass of lemonade: thoroughly squeezed.

The hours are growing, but the pay isn't. And there's the recurring fear: What if I lose this job? What then?

Whether you have a job now or are working full time to land one, it has been a turbulent, trying few years.

This Labor Day, we all need a pat on the back and probably a hug.

These 10 movies salute workers of all different stripes, from the factory worker and the farmer to the office worker and the stay-at-home parent.

1. ‘On the Waterfront' (1954)

On the docks, the corruption flows as freely as the shipments. Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is content to run with mob boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) and his ilk until the murder of an honest worker plays upon his conscience. Life gets more complicated for Terry when he falls for the victim's sister (Eva Marie Saint). Brando gives the finest performance an actor can give in one of the best movies ever made.

2. ‘Norma Rae' (1979)

When Norma Rae (Sally Field) decides to help organizer Reuben (Ron Leibman) try to unionize the textile mill where she works, she comes out the other side a different person. The scene where she holds up a sign that reads “UNION” in front of the other workers is iconic. But equally powerful is a quiet moment when she talks to her children about what town folk may start saying about her and explains why she is fighting this fight. A great challenge can bring out such extraordinary things in an ordinary person.

3. ‘Human Resources' Subtitled (1999)

In this French father-son story, college student Franck (Jalil Lespert) goes to the factory his dad has worked at diligently for 30 years to be an intern in the personnel department. Franck arrives at a delicate time for the factory, which underwent layoffs the year before and is now considering messing with workers' hours. Franck is now with the suits. The dad, with the workers. It is a touching and painful thing to see a father want so much more for his son even at his own expense.

4. ‘Modern Times' (1936)

In his last silent film, Charlie Chaplin trips from one job to the next in between jail stints: factory worker, night watchman at a department store, waiter. While it's all wonderful, the best bits are in the beginning, when Chaplin is working on an assembly line and keeps falling behind until finally he goes right into the machine, his body bending this way and that over the moving parts. As usual, Chaplin is quietly brilliant.

5. ‘Edge of the City' (1957)

When Axel (John Cassavetes), a white man trying to outrun his past, takes a job on the docks, he is quickly befriended by Tommy (Sidney Poitier), a black worker who is warm and welcoming. When Axel ends up on a crew run by a corrupt man, Tommy enters a tense tug-of-war, where race is an undercurrent, as he tries to protect his pal.

6. ‘Baby Boom' (1987)

Businesswoman J.C. Wiatt (Diane Keaton) relishes her “Tiger Lady” nickname at work, but has considerably more trouble with another label: “Mom.” When J.C. unexpectedly inherits a baby from a dead relative, the go-getter finds it hard to keep up her breakneck pace at work and ends up moving from New York to Vermont. Country life suits J.C. about as well as a bike would a goldfish. But it is there that she finds romance with the good Dr. Cooper (Sam Shepard) and a great idea for her own business: gourmet baby food.

7. ‘Mr. Mom' (1983)

When Jack (Michael Keaton) loses his job, he trades places with his wife (Teri Garr). As Caroline becomes a rising star in the advertising world, Jack takes care of their three children, navigating school drop-offs and grocery stores, battling a possessed vacuum cleaner and trying to convince one son to abandon his cherished security blanket. This is reality for so many families, and this movie represents it hilariously.

8. ‘Places in the Heart' (1984)

In this Depression-era tale, Edna Spalding (Sally Field) tries to keep her family together and save her farm when her husband is killed. With the help of Moses (Danny Glover), a black man she meets who is seeking work, Mrs. Spalding sets out to use her land for cotton. If they can beat everyone and get their cotton in first, then they will make enough money to avoid foreclosure. As Mrs. Spalding finds out the hard way, picking cotton is back-breaking, finger-mangling work, but the challenges are no match for her steely spirit.

9. ‘9 to 5' (1980)

Violet (Lily Tomlin), Doralee (Dolly Parton) and Judy (Jane Fonda) have the distinct displeasure of working for Mr. Hart (Dabney Coleman), a sexist, patronizing, creep. Things unravel quicker than a $2 shirt when Violet accidentally grabs a box of rat poison instead of sugar when making Hart's coffee and mistakenly thinks he drank it. How the trio deal with Hart when he tries to blackmail them over the incident is probably responsible for more women's smiles than George Clooney himself.

10. ‘Desk Set' (1957)

It's man vs. machine ... or rather woman vs. machine here ... when Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy) arrives in Bunny Watson's (Katharine Hepburn) reference department to see if his “electronic brain” machine will work there. Rumors swirl that the machine will put them all out of work. However, Bunny is not someone who can be easily duplicated or replaced.

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