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Reel Work: On the Job with the National Film Registry

On the Waterfront (Columbia, 1954). Prints & Photographs Division. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g01843

The following is a  guest post by Donna Ross, Assistant to the National Film Preservation Board.

Yesterday, as we enjoyed our last barbecue or beach party of the summer, work was probably the last thing on our minds. Who wants to think about labor on Labor Day? But if you had thought about the principles behind Labor Day, you might picture images from movies or television that illustrate the struggle for proper working conditions. Perhaps you thought of a defiant Sally Field standing on a desk in Norma Rae (1979) brandishing a pro union poster in front of her textile factory co-workers. Or maybe what popped into your mind was the mob-corrupted union in On the Waterfront (1954), and how conscience and the love of a good woman inspired Marlon Brando to take on the union and fight corruption. And anyone who’s seen Harlan County, USA (1976) would find it hard to erase the image of gun-toting women in rural Kentucky gathered to defend their coal miner husbands’ right to unionize.

Hundreds of labor-themed films have been produced since the dawn of cinema, and nearly a dozen of them have been named to the National Film Registry, the Congressionally-mandated forum for recognizing culturally, historically or aesthetically significant films deemed worthy of preservation by the Librarian of Congress. Dozens more are eligible to be added to the current list of 625 films. Labor-themed films represented on the Registry include The Grapes of Wrath (1940), El Norte (1983), Salt of the Earth (1954), and Republic Steel Strike Riot Newsreel Footage (1937). Other films such as Men and Dust (1940) and Wild River (1960) deal with labor issues such as workplace health and racial discrimination within unions.

Sally Field in Norma Rae (20th Century-Fox, 1979)

Even when not addressing the sociopolitical impact of organized labor, film often captures and even celebrates the average worker: Charlie Chaplin in his attempt to embrace the mechanized world in Modern Times (1936); the sexual shenanigans of the high-rise corporate culture in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960) as evidenced by the cheerful elevator girl, Miss Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) or the up-and-coming executive C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon); and the nightmarish darker side of the corporate machine that seems to swallow up James Murray in a sea of bookkeepers’ desks in The Crowd (1928). Then there are the rural professionals: farmers, singing cowboys, and town sheriffs appearing in films such as Days of Heaven (1978), Melody Ranch (1940) and High Noon (1951). And let’s not get started with all those shady detectives, scheming insurance agents and crooked cops who populate such film noir fare as Chinatown (1974), The Maltese Falcon (1940), or Double Indemnity (1944). One notable series of films features workers in a Westinghouse factory in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, circa 1904. Suffice to say we love to see ourselves at work.

Filmdom holds so many examples of the American work ethic–the good and the bad, the law-abiding and the criminal–that can be defined as culturally, historically or aesthetically significant just waiting for recognition. Why not nominate your favorite to the Registry? You may nominate up to 50 films per year, but remember they must be at least 10 years old, therefore from 2004 or earlier. Send your nominations to [email protected] before Sept. 12.



  1. Brian Cruz
    September 3, 2014 at 11:47 am

    John Sayles’ “Matewan” (1987) would be another great labor-themed choice for the registry.

  2. Janice Simpson
    September 3, 2014 at 12:28 pm

    I enjoyed your article Donna!

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