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A Horatio Alger Story He Never Wrote
by Jon Schuller

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The uniquely American stories written by Horatio Alger had a standard plot and standard characters: a young boy, impoverished and lonely, maybe an orphan, somehow rises above his dire circumstances. Through his own resourcefulness, hard work and faith in himself, he becomes a successful man, sometimes by accident like a daring rescue of a child or by coming to the attention of a rich person and passes his knowledge along to others to help them change their lives. Alger wrote over 100 books, essays, short stories and poems. He dedicated his life to helping others and the many societies and charities founded in his name have helped literally thousands of children to improve their lives. Some critics, of course, found his ideas quaint and repetitive, but people read his works constantly. The only element I find missing from Alger's works was that they concentrated on boys' lives and didn't feature anything about the problems of girls. The 19th century world he wrote about was male-dominated, regardless of what level of society. I'm writing today about a modern movie, set in New York City, in which the main character is a woman who decides that she isn't going to accept a certain stereotypical position in life simply because she's a female. She's smart, resilient, impatient and quite beautiful. Her name is Tess McGill, from Staten Island, played by Melanie Griffith, in the Mike Nichols' award-winning, 1988 film, Working Girl.

Tess works at a large Wall Street investment bank, where sexism is alive and well. Her boss, played by Oliver Platt gets her on a date with a colleague (Kevin Spacey) which doesn't go well as Tess publicly insults him. As a result of this episode she is re-assigned to another department headed by Katherine Parker (Sigourney Weaver) who tells Tess that sharing ideas and showing initiative are sure ways of becoming recognized in her department. Katherine hints
that it's easy to climb the corporate ladder as long as everyone plays ball together. Encouraged by this apparent honesty, Tess shares her concept of a merger/acquisition deal between a large, wealthy client, Trask Industries, and a major radio network in order to diversify Trask's already huge portfolio. Katherine entertains the idea, while later telling Tess that it wasn't accepted by the "higher ups" in the firm. Katherine heads off to a European ski vacation where she breaks her leg; then asks Tess to house-sit her apartment and hold the fort at work.

Tess goes to Katherine's apartment to clean it up and discovers notes from Katherine intending to steal Tess' ideas and submit them as her own. Back home on Staten Island, Tess discovers something else that gets her angry: her boyfriend, Mick Dugan (Alec Baldwin) is in bed with Doreen DiMucci (Elizabeth Whitcraft), one of Tess' friends. Tess decides she's through with him and moves into Katherine's apartment. She's going to pursue getting her merger idea seen and accepted no matter what. She will transform herself into an executive at the firm. She wants to meet Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford) who will help her with the deal. They meet at a party the night before but he doesn't tell her who he really is. She looks sophisticated and beautiful, having picked out clothing from Katherine's expensive wardrobe with the help of her best friend Cynthia (Joan Cusack). Cynthia gives her a Valium to calm her nerves. At the party she has a few shots of tequila and Jack takes her back to his apartment, undresses her and puts her to bed. She sneaks out the next morning, goes to the meeting and meets Trainer, surprised at who he is.

Trainer tells her that her idea is great and was accepted by the principals. They are then supposed to have a face-to-face meeting with Mr. Oren Trask himself (Philip Bosco) but Tess decides to gate-crash Trask's
daughter's wedding and propose the plan directly to him there, while pretending to be friends of the bride. Trask responds positively and Tess and Jack make a hasty exit before being discovered as phonies. She and Jack begin to realize that another merger is happening as the two of them have begun getting closer physically and emotionally, out side of the actual business deal. Jack is falling in love with Tess even as Katherine returns home. Jack had failed to tell Tess that he was going to break up with Katherine. Tess accidently leaves her date book at Katherine's apartment. Katherine finds he book, reads it and realizes that the meeting with Trask won't include her as she angrily gets dressed and jumps in a cab. She crashes the meeting, telling everyone that Tess is an impostor who is just her secretary and "stole Katherine's idea." Tess is mortified and leaves the meeting in disgrace.

A few days later, Tess is putting all of her belongings into a banker's box, about to leave the office. Her girlfriends have chipped in to collect money for her. She goes down to the main floor just as Jack, Katherine and Trask are entering the building for the final meeting. Tess is embarrassed and is knocked over by a passer-by, dropping her box on the floor. She's picking things up and confronts Katherine in front of everyone. She declares Katherine stole her ideas and Jack believes her. He says no Tess, no deal. Katherine pulls everyone into the elevator but Trask hears something that intrigues him and steps off. He goes up in another elevator with Tess and Jack. Tess shows him her original notes and how she concluded Trask Industries should get into the radio business. They all get out on the floor for the meeting as Trask confronts Katherine asking her a pointed question: exactly when and how did you come up with idea for my company to get into media. Katherine is obviously at a loss and
Trask tells her to get "her bony ass" out of the office.

Trask tells Tess he likes her gumption and the "fire in her belly." He asks her if she'd like to do the same type of things for him at his company. She smiles and says yes. Tess has a new, unexpected job. Jack packs her new lunchbox in the kitchen of his apartment and tells her to "play nice with other kids." She gets to the office and thinks she'll be a secretary again. Her office assistant tells her no, the office is yours and I work for you. Tess calls her old friends and tells them what's happened as the film closes with a long shot of New York Harbor.

Working Girl was nominated for five Academy Awards including, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress and Best Picture, made by the incomparable Mike Nichols. Carly Simon's original theme, "Let the River Run," received an Academy Award as Best Song, as well as Golden Globe and Grammy Awards. What I enjoy about the film is how Mr. Nichols let his actors create their own characters and blend together so flawlessly. Harrison Ford shows a real gift for light-hearted, romantic comedy while simultaneously making Jack Trainer a sensitive, serious man who is beguiled and captured by Tess McGill. Melanie Griffith embodies a girl who's about to take a giant step forward as a woman and a master of her own fate. She becomes stronger and smarter right before our eyes as she manipulates and conquers those around her. At the same time, she's vulnerable and needs Jack to re-assure her and, eventually, love and protect her. The supporting cast is wonderful, especially Joan Cusack and Sigourney Weaver. We see a film that boldly shows us the 1980s and how women were (and still are actually) fighting for an equal share of the workplace, corporate or otherwise. Take a look at this marvelous movie as it transports you back to another decade and that famous, unforgettable New York skyline.

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.


Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

But Can She Act? That's What I Want to Know

They're Not the Same People They Used To Be

Time Does Fly When We Watch Movies

Before Minimum or Maximum, There Was Only Prison

A Story of Bravery, Truth and Devotion

All Columns


Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 30 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).



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If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.


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