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Classic Hollywood: The movies at work

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As far back as Louis Lumière's 1895 "Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory in Lyon" 46-second short, work has been a central theme in motion pictures.¶There have been stark dramas about officer workers as drones (King Vidor's 1928 "The Crowd"), satires (Charlie Chaplin's 1936 "Modern Times"), angry explorations of the hardships of unemployment (John Ford's 1940 "The Grapes of Wrath") and the dangers of certain occupations (Ford's 1941 "How Green Was My Valley" about miners) or political statements such as 1979's "Norma Rae," which examined the struggle to unionize a factory. More recent films such as 1999's "Office Space" have skewered the world of bored computer drones. ¶ So in honor of Labor Day, here are some of the best Hollywood films about the workplace, whether it's an office, a farm — or even the circus.

The Office

"The Apartment": Billy Wilder directed and co-wrote this darkly comedic 1960 film, which won Academy Awards for best film, director, screenplay, film editing and art direction-set direction. Adult and sophisticated — especially for its time — "The Apartment" presents a seamy side of office politics.

Oscar nominee Jack Lemmon stars as one of the young worker bees at a New York city insurance company, more ambitious than most. To make his way up the corporate ladder, he gives his keys to the firm's company managers so they can have clandestine affairs in his apartment. Shirley MacLaine, also an Oscar nominee, plays the elevator operator secretly having an affair with the nasty personnel director (Fred MacMurray).

What it says about work: It's a white-collared jungle out there.

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The Factory

"The Pajama Game": This sprightly 1957 musical comedy directed by George Abbott and Stanley Donen is based on the Richard Adler-Jerry Ross Broadway hit set at a pajama factory in Iowa.

The union wants a 7 1/2-cent hourly raise (remember this was 1957) but isn't getting any satisfaction from management. The workers and the management have a standoff, but it's all presented in good fun and splashy colors. There's a big serving of standard tunes such as "Hey There," "Hernando's Hideaway" and "Steam Heat" and romance provided by John Raitt and Doris Day, who end up sharing a two-piece pajama set.

What is says about work: Union battles were a lot more fun back then.

The Circus

"The Greatest Show on Earth": Cecil B. DeMille directed this Oscar-winning 1952 best film set under the big top that's also over-the-top. But what else would you expect from the master of spectacles?

Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton, James Stewart, who is in clown face makeup, are among the stars of this entertaining Technicolor melodrama. The best aspect of the film is seeing the actual members and animals from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's Circus 1951 troupe who participated in the film at work.

What it says about work: It can quite literally be a three-ring circus.

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The Farm

"Country": Jessica Lange, who earned a lead actress Oscar nomination, and her real-life companion at the time, Sam Shepard, star in this heartfelt 1984 drama about a rural family struggling to hold on to their farm during economic difficulties that include lower crop prices, loan payments and even a tornado.

What it says about work: The land is a harsh mistress.

Retail

"The Shop Around the Corner": Workplaces often turn into mini-"Peyton Places" of intrigue, affairs, squabbling workers and high-strung bosses. And all of those scenarios play out for maximum comedic effect in this 1940 gem directed by Ernst Lubitsch.

Set in a small Budapest gift shop, the romantic comedy finds a young, hard-working salesman (Jimmy Stewart) resenting the newest clerk (Margaret Sullavan). The plot thickens when Stewart's character discovers that she's actually the anonymous pen pal he has fallen in love with through her letters.

What it says about work: Love can blossom on the shop floor.

Restaurants

"Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore": The world of the waitress was brought into the forefront in Martin Scorsese's 1974 comedy-drama. Ellen Burstyn won the lead actress Oscar as Alice Hyatt, struggling to make ends meet for herself and her son after her oafish husband dies.

Like many women of the time, the one-time aspiring singer gave up her dream for marriage. But now she's decided to leave New Mexico for California in hopes of pursuing her life's ambition. However, financial issues force her to take a job as a waitress at a Tucson diner. Though Alice is a bit unsteady as a waitress, she gradually bonds with her fellow waitresses, including the wise-cracking Flo (Diane Ladd) and begins to regain the self-confidence she lost during her marriage.

What it says about work: Your fellow workers can become a family.

Are you an aficionado of iconic Hollywood? Like our Classic Hollywood Facebook page to get more Times coverage.

susan.king@latimes.com

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