Posted by Susan Doll on November 28, 2011
Whether in the news, online, or around the water cooler, more attention was paid to Black Friday than to Thanksgiving this year. What used to be an unacknowledged tradition for mainstream America—women shopping the day after Thanksgiving while men watched football—has now become a barometer of the American economy. Retailers and their corporate masters outdid themselves in the sheer volume of advertising for Black Friday in the hopes of whipping up the masses into a shopping frenzy. Early bird sales turned into midnight sales, and shoppers revealed the ugly side to this new “holiday” in the stampedes, fights, and pepper-spray incidents that marked Black Friday 2011.
I remember when shopping in the big department stores was festive and fun. Each year, I was able to tap into the Christmas Spirit in the big department stores, which were always decked out in colorful holiday decorations, as I took my time pondering over my gift purchases. Undoubtedly, I was seeing the experience through the haze of memories of Hollywood movies, which have mythologized the department store as an important American social institution. Somewhere along the way, holiday shopping ceased to be festive and fun, but I continue to expect that my shopping experiences will be like those in Miracle on 34th Street or A Christmas Story. The ugly stories of Black Friday mayhem and madness inspired me to poke around the history of department stores and their depiction in the movies, not only in Christmas films but in all genres.
When Macy & Co. opened in 1878, The New York Times called it the “Place Where Almost Anything May Be Bought,” which defined the department store for 19th-century shoppers—who would become consumers in the 20th century. In November 1902, Macy’s moved to its present site. By this time, other department stores were thriving in major urban centers, including Sears and Marshall Field’s in Chicago, Halle’s, Higbee’s, and the May Company in Cleveland, Hess’s in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Hudson’s in Detroit. But, it wasn’t until after WWI that the stores began to regularly use decorated windows to attract customers and attractive displays to sell merchandise. The postwar boom also brought about an explosion in the advertising industry. Retailers realized that touting one’s goods in modest, explicit terms while waiting for the customer to make up his mind were no longer enough to rake in the profits. Campaigns were mounted with the help of psychologists who served as consultants to persuade consumers that certain goods were absolutely necessary for a happy and prosperous life.
Department stores reflected prosperity and modernity. Generally situated at busy intersections, they occupied the nicest downtown buildings in the city’s retail centers from which downtown property taxes were calculated. The peak development of department stores in the 1920s mirrors the growth of cities.
The department store pops up in Hollywood movies during the 1920s, helping to shape audience perception of this new institution as a place bustling with economic and social activity. There, shoppers can easily find and afford every modern convenience while securing their place in the burgeoning middle class. One common plot device was for shop girls to fall for their male coworkers who were actually wealthy men masquerading as clerks. In her last silent film, My Best Girl (1927), Mary Pickford—who had starred in several Victorian-style stories as the spunky tom-boy heroine—“graduated” to the role of a contemporary woman in a modern setting. She plays shop girl Maggie Johnson, who works in a five and dime department store, where she meets handsome Joe Grant, played by Buddy Rogers. He is really Joe Merrill, the son of the millionaire store owner, and he is in disguise as a clerk to learn the business from the ground up. Shop girl Maggie and retailer Joe fall in love while working together in the department store, a setting for both romance and upward mobility. Likewise in Safety Last (1923), Harold Lloyd’s best-known film, his character promises his girl that he will go the city to seek his fortune. He is hired as a lowly clerk in a department store, but he poses as the manager—a position that proves to his girl that he has made good.
Given their connection to prosperity and status, the department store makes for an interesting setting during the Depression. In Employees’ Entrance (1933), Warren William stars as the cold-blooded manager of a department store. He dangles promotions and dismissals over the heads of his employees, hires women based on their willingness to indulge his favors, and uses beautiful shop girls to distract his enemies. He is ruthless in business and in personal relationships and holds the futures of his employees in the palm of his hand without regard for their well-being—a feeling that many Americans could relate to at the time. In Saleslady (1938), there is a twist on the masquerade plot of the 1920s, but the storyline still centers on upward mobility. This time, it is the female lead, played by Anna Nagel, who is an offspring of the rich pretending to be a member of the working class. Mary Bacon, the granddaughter of mattress manufacturer Gramp Cannon, gets a job in a department store. She falls in love with co-worker Bob Spencer, who does not know her real identity. Bob tries to give Mary a nice home, but reaches beyond their means by buying items for “practically nothing down and very easy payments,” a Depression-era hazard. By the end, Bob has not only learned the truth about his wife but goes into business with Gramp Cannon—a wish-fulfillment conclusion that finds the working class and the wealthy coming together to solve the ills of the Depression.
In The Devil and Miss Jones (1941)—released after the Depression—labor relations are depicted much differently, reflecting a change in public attitudes and perceptions. In this comedy, Charles Coburn stars as John P. Merrick, the world’s richest man. The department store plot still depends on a masquerade, but this time it’s the store owner who goes undercover as a clerk when employees organize for better wages and conditions. He is befriended by fellow employee Mary Jones, played by Jean Arthur, and labor organizer Joe O’Brien, played by Robert Cummings. When Merrick experiences mistreatment by management at the store, he changes his attitude about his employees and institutes fair labor practices. In other words, once management truly understands the plight of the worker, then they become benevolent patriarchs who take care of their workers like family. There is also the suggestion that all must work together as equals to make a better workplace and a better world—an interesting subtext for the war years.
Though the department store becomes a battleground for labor relations in some movies during the Depression, it never completely loses its connection to upward mobility through romance. Bachelor Mother (1939) stars Ginger Rogers as a New York shop girl who finds a baby. The masquerade in this film is that she pretends to be the baby’s mother. Despite being branded an unwed mother, she lands the store owner’s son, played by debonair David Niven. However, upward mobility has a negative connotation in The Women (1941), in which conniving, working-class shop girl Joan Crawford steals Norma Shearer’s upper-middle-class husband.
While researching department stores, I discovered they were more than just retail businesses back in their heyday. From the 1920s through WWII, many of them held concerts, fashion shows, and art exhibits. Professional photographers set up temporary stations during certain times of the year to take family portraits at reasonable prices. Some of them had travel offices, where customers could plan vacations. Others had nurseries where children played under the watchful eye of a nursemaid in uniform. (That is one feature I wish department stores still offered, because too many parents tote their nagging, noisy children up and down the aisles while they shop.) Department stores were core institutions that reassured Americans that life was good. Through special services, lectures, exhibits, and entertainment spectacles, the stores displayed a certain way of life while offering for sale the necessities and luxuries that that lifestyle entailed. Small wonder that the real Santa Clause would choose to set up shop in Macy’s in The Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Contemporary Christmas movies that evoke nostalgia as part of their charm, such as A Christmas Story or Elf, tend to evoke the old-school department stores.
During the 1960s, department stores evolved into chains, building new stores in the suburbs. The stores underwent dramatic changes to adapt to new economic and urban developments, including decentralization from metropolitan areas, accommodating the popularity of the automobile through huge parking lots, and juggling challenges from no-frills retail competitors with inexpensive merchandise, called discount department stores. The connotations of department stores and discount stores evolved with the times. In contemporary films, they are often the settings for human greed and soulless consumerism. One of my favorite stories set in a department store is a 1960 episode of The Twilight Zone titled “The After Hours.” At first, it seems to be about a woman named Marsha, played by Anne Francis, trapped in a department store after it closes. She is shocked to discover that the mannequins come to life after hours and look just like the customers and store employees during the daytime—a kind of “Our Town” of nicely dress inhabitants damned to an eternal hell of meaningless consumption. Thirty-five years later, meaningless consumption was played for laughs in Jingle All the Way (1995), about a father’s desperate attempt to get the season’s hottest toy for his son for Christmas. Arnold Schwarzeneggar plays the father who left the task till the last minute and must encounter all manner of ugly behavior in the shopping malls, toy stores, and department stores.
Another plot device for modern-day department store movies involves characters who get locked in the stores overnight, or longer. Often, the character uses the situation as an opportunity to dress up in clothing from the racks and try out the merchandise—the adult consumer’s equivalent to a kid in a candy store. In Where the Heart Is, Natalie Portman stars as a pregnant, working-class teenager who is abandoned by her boyfriend at a Walmart. With nowhere else to go, she lives inside the store for several days, pretending to be a shopper during the day and browsing through the merchandise at night. She takes on guises with each outfit and bits of furnishings that she borrows, pretending to be camping one night, or relaxing at the beach the next. She tastes the luxuries of a middle-class life she herself has never known; the experience foretells the young woman’s goals and aspirations for a better life for her and her child. Just as it had way back in the 1920s , the department store offers hope that anyone can enter the middle class. Proof that we belong there is provided by the products we acquire.
Career Opportunites (1991) stars Jennifer Connolly and Frank Whaley as two people from opposite ends of the class spectrum who are locked inside a Target for the night. Like Portman in Where the Heart Is, Whaley—a janitor—tries out the merchandise, but his experience is akin to a consumer on a binge. After his spree, he discovers that Connolly, who is the daughter of the town’s wealthiest family, is also trapped inside the store. Career Opportunities was directed by John Hughes, so it is no surprise when they work out their class differences and come together. The pair even thwarts a robbery by two inept low-lifes. Like other department-store narratives through the decades, Career Opportunities still makes use of class differences among the characters, positing the department store as a locus for upward mobility or, at least, equality.
The department store, a 20th-century landmark of urban life, is also an ideologically rich setting in our pop culture for understanding attitudes, issues, and problems related to our economy and the differences among the classes. Small wonder that we have made Black Friday a new holiday to be spent entirely inside department stores in celebration of consuming.
Allen, Frederick Lewis. Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920’s. New York: Perennial Library, Harper & Row, 1964.
Faircloth, Christopher. Cleveland’s Department Stores. Arcadia Publishing, 2009.
Whitaker, Jan. Service and Style: How the Department Store Fashioned the American Middle Class. St. Martin’s Press, 2006.
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