Friday, October 14, 2011

Money Madness and Movies

Many Americans are feeling outraged by what they see as the vast inequalities manifested by Wall Street. We at the Bijou try not to express political leanings (although we will lean left or right to reach for the popcorn), but we do want to point out that banking and finance make for some wonderful films. Join Bijou blogger Victoria Balloon as she takes a look at movies that are snapshots capturing corporate politics and banking history in America.

Then read on as Bijou colleague Bob Campbell offers up a second look at an archived post on Richard Ney. Perhaps not well-remembered as an actor (Mrs. Miniver (1942), Midnight Lace (1960)), Ney was extremely successful as an investor, money manager and investment advisor. His analysis of the stock market and the manipulation used by inside traders at the New York and American Stock Exchanges is still discussed today, and in light of recent news, continues to be relevant.

In recent weeks Gallup analysis showed that in October of 2010, Americans expressing a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in banks fell to an all-time low of 18%. Hollywood, however, has always known that “corporate fat cats” and “banking plutocrats” make for crowd-pleasing villains. Every now and then a film shows a banker as a mild-mannered upstanding pillar of the community, such as George Benedict, father of Andy Hardy’s love interest, Polly, but more often than not bankers in film bring to mind Lionel Barrymore’s portrayal of Henry F. Potter, whose underhanded schemes threaten to bring down Bailey Building and Loan in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).

Although many of the movies seem dated because of their references to past cultural practices or then current events, it is the films’ datedness that makes them fun to watch. We have some inside tips on four films you can take to the bank.

In American Madness (1932) Tom Dickson, the President of Union National Bank, has always been fair in his handling of the bank, its employees and its clients, but the bank's Board of Directors accuse Dickson of being soft in approving “questionable” loans and want him removed from his position—at any cost. When the bank is robbed of $200,000, loyal employee Matt Brown is implicated as the thief. Despite the cashier’s shady past and reluctance to defend himself, Dickson believes Brown is innocent. Dickson must both save the bank and come to grips with what he discovers about his marriage.

This film was made in the last year of the Herbert Hoover presidency. In 1933 one of the landmark reforms of the first hundred days of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency was the creation of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), which guarantees the funds of depositors (currently up to $250,000 per depositor per bank). Banks have failed since 1933, but the disastrous “bank runs” that characterized previous times, shown so graphically in this early Frank Capra film, have not been repeated.

Veteran stage actor George Arliss plays both father Mayer Rothschild and eldest son Nathan in The House of Rothschild (1934), the story of the rise of the Rothschild financial empire and the five brothers who guided its international success. The film is an excellent example of the kind of big-budget production offered by producer Darryl Zanuck and 20th Century Fox as well as a pre-World War II look at anti-Semitism. In addition to Arliss, the film features a notable cast, including Boris Karloff, Loretta Young, Robert Young, and C. Aubrey Smith.

Despite the film being a period piece, one must remember that Hollywood has always valued cinematic effect over historical accuracy. Still, it is a glimpse into the kind of power struggles that happen when money meets politics. Even to this day the Rothschild family is the target of many conspiracy theories regarding world wealth, financial institutions, and government influence.

Considered by many W.C. Fields’ finest feature film, The Bank Dick (1940) (released as The Bank Detective in the UK) showcases Fields in his prime as grumpy alcoholic Egbert Sousé (accent on the “e”). Unemployed and endlessly tortured by his family, Sousé is given the job of bank detective when he unwittingly catches a bank robber. Con men, phony mining companies, embezzlers and bank examiners are no match for the acerbic side-of-the-mouth utterances and inebriated wit of Sousé.

Fields wrote the screenplay under the pseudonym Mahatma Kane Jeeves (“My hat, my cane, Jeeves”), giving free-rein to his brand of loosely-jointed slapstick. Director by Edward F. Cline had been an actor in Sennett's Keystone Kops films, and it shows in the film’s climactic car chase. We can’t lie – this film is in no way educational, but it is lots of fun!

Judy Holliday is unstoppable in The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956). When the board of directors of multi-billion dollar company International Projects gets chairman of the board Edward L. McKeever (Paul Douglas) an advisory position at the Pentagon, they’re thrilled at the possibility of lucrative government contracts. They’re not so thrilled by the questions small stockholder Laura Partridge (Holliday) keeps asking, such as why the board has such high salaries. The board hopes to distract and silence her by giving her a job as a secretary, but Laura has other ideas!

It’s a bit far-fetched to think that global capitalism can be overthrown so easily, but this Hollywood treatment of the corporate and financial culture of the Eisenhower years is an upbeat look at the power of one vote. Holliday is vibrant in one of her last films, and her wide-eyed honesty pitted against cynical politicking makes for sweet escape.

It’s ironic that, with its multi-million dollar budgets, movie moguls, and trading of actors like commodities, Hollywood should point fingers at the corruption and greed of banking and big business. Eventually Hollywood explored its own ethical failings with movies like Sunset Blvd (1950) and The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). It seems that wherever money and power are, there will always be temptation.

You can watch three great clips from The House of Rothschild over at Turner Classic Movies. Please note that Producer Darryl F. Zanuck did not shy away from controversy, and he meant for the portrayal of anti-Semitism to be villainous.

In the past 30 years there have been some great movies about banking and finance. All Top has a Top 10 List of Classic Banking Movies, all of which are available for purchase at Movies Unlimited, along with American Madness and The Bank Dick. Most of these films deal with the inner workings of Wall Street, which by the sheer size and complexity of its operations seems opaque to all but those well-versed in finance. Read on to find out about an actor turned investor who revealed those inner-workings – to the dismay of many.

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