Fifty-five years ago, Esquire movie critic Dwight Macdonald justly complained, “Most of us spend half our life at work . . . but this is the dark side of the moon as far as movies go.” Recently on the Criterion Channel on FilmStruck, we paired a couple of exceptions that prove the rule with the help of two astonishing actors. In the Boulting Brothers’ I’m All Right Jack (1959), Peter Sellers is hilariously incisive as Fred Kite, the chief shop steward in an arms company who leads a wildcat strike that spreads throughout Great Britain. In Mario Monicelli’s The Organizer (1963), Marcello Mastroianni brings off the Chaplinesque pathos and the spellbinding eloquence of Giuseppe Sinigaglia, a.k.a. “The Professor,” who raises proletariat consciousness and instigates a monthlong walkout at a textile factory in turn-of-the-century Turin. Ripe for rediscovery, these marvels of midcentury social commentary offer provocative, bracing, and engaging portraits of the challenges facing organized labor in Western Europe before and after the World Wars. And because of these films’ you-are-there qualities, references that should feel dated—the pop sexuality in I’m All Right Jack and the nascent feminism at the edges of The Organizer—don’t lose any of their zing.
By far the brasher movie, I’m All Right Jack takes us on a headlong tour of worker-management-capital relations in Britain’s welfare state in the 1950s. An ambitious sequel to the Boulting Brothers’ smash military burlesque Private’s Progress (1956), the film gets its title from a piece of Royal Navy slang (“fuck you, I’m all right, Jack!”), supposedly coined by a sailor who boarded a ship from a lifeboat and pulled the rope ladder up behind him, as if all that counted was his own well-being. Rooted in the characters and situations of the source novels by Alan Hackney (the Jack book was originally called Private Life), these Boulting films share a boisterous, edgy amiability.
I’m All Right Jack’s delicious comic setup shows workers and management maneuvering with an excruciating blend of bluntness and delicacy. When Kite, the comedic core of the film, raises questions about an embarrassingly green employee, the company’s personnel director (Terry Thomas) offers to sack the man. But Kite, after consulting with his committee, backs off: “We do not and cannot accept the principle that incompetence justifies dismissal,” he says. “That is victimization.” It’s a triumph of bad faith on all sides. Letting no one off the hook, this movie lampoons unions and broadsides the self-interest of capital and management, the coarsening influence of tabloid media, and the dangers of class- and race-based tribalism.
The film’s Candide-like hero, the impoverished upper-cruster Stanley Windrush (Ian Carmichael), after stints at Oxford and in the Army, struggles to find a proper executive position, then enters the ranks of unskilled labor at Missiles, an arms company run by his roguish uncle Bertie (Dennis Price). There he learns that labor’s proclaimed trinity of dignity, brotherhood, and comradeship relies on workers performing any task at less-than-breakneck speed and pretending that shirkers playing cards are “checking” something or other. Bertie plots to inflame Missiles’ rank and file by setting ambitious new performance goals. (He has engineered a double-dealing arms sale meant to rake in a fortune for him and his pal Coxie—a sublimely sleazy Richard Attenborough—under the table.) After Stanley unwittingly executes part of Bertie’s plan when he demonstrates to an efficiency expert that one man with a forklift truck can outperform a dozen human haulers, Kite swings into action, sending Stanley to Coventry and shutting Missiles down.
As Kite, Sellers achieves a brilliant Dickensian caricature. Brushing his thinning hair back from what he clearly hopes will resemble a Lenin-like forehead, sporting a Hitler moustache and a suit so bulky it seems triple-breasted, he moves inexorably forward, his monomaniac eyes set on high beam. It’s ridiculous yet touching to hear him speak wistfully about the Soviet Union of his propaganda-fed imagination: “All them cornfields and ballet in the evening.” He terrifies owners and management, bores his wife, and mesmerizes the audience while the Boulting Brothers pull off a sly demonstration of how shop stewards became pivotal figures in postwar working life. As Andrew Marr writes in his History of Modern Britain, “they were often younger and more militant people who had filled the power gap during the years when their elders were away. They could get deals for the people around them which were better than national agreements.” Shop stewards had a built-in base because they connected local union members to regional and national headquarters. And in large or complex British companies that employed multiple unions, competition gave shop stewards even more leverage.