From the November 2008 issue of Research Magazine • Subscribe!

November 1, 2008

Brokers & Other Monsters

If you generally feel good about being a financial advisor, it's probably not because of the glowing depictions of the field you've seen in movies and on television. Over the decades, Hollywood's portrayals of stockbrokers and advisors have been, by and large, not very flattering, with many villains, snobs and oafs chewing up the scenery. Brokers as heroes, or even as admirable people providing a valuable service, have shown up less frequently.

This negative tendency has such well-known, relatively recent examples as the films Wall Street (1987) and Boiler Room (2000), but it runs as far back as the era of silent, black-and-white movies. In the 1916 film Each Pearl a Tear, an unscrupulous broker not only engages in financial manipulations but also lies about the whereabouts of a pearl necklace he has loaned to a young woman, all as part of an effort to steal her away from his male secretary, with whom she is in love.

Of course, brokers and advisors are hardly alone in getting such unfavorable treatment. Negative portrayals of businesspeople in film and TV are a phenomenon repeatedly confirmed by academic studies and decried by conservative and pro-business commentators. "Unfortunately, the prevailing vision of vicious tycoons has become so deeply embedded in the popular culture that it is now difficult to imagine any alternative presentation of the captains of industry and finance," wrote film critic Michael Medved in his 1992 book Hollywood vs. America.

Some business sectors have fared worse than others in their screen lives. Big Oil (exemplified by J.R. Ewing of Dallas) and Big Pharma (The Constant Gardener) are among those painted in some of the darkest hues. But finance, broadly defined, has had more than its share of knaves, exemplified by Mr. Potter, the rapacious banker in It's a Wonderful Life and Gordon Gekko, Wall Street's ruthless corporate raider.

There have been some positive portrayals of brokers and other financial people, of course. The 2006 film The Pursuit of Happyness, based on a true story, shows a heroic striver overcoming financial distress to become an advisor, and gives the impression that this is a profession worth joining. The film is also unusual in taking note of the evolution of stockbrokers into more wide-ranging advisors; in one scene, the protagonist inquires about a client's financial goals and suggests tax-free municipal bonds.

Unflattering depictions of finance and business undoubtedly derive in substantial part from political attitudes in the entertainment industry. Oliver Stone's left-wing perspective is apparent not just in Wall Street but in most or all of his movies. Plus, populist distrust of finance has a long history in America, predating even Hollywood. The current financial crisis may help bring more anti-Wall Street sentiment to film and TV.

But simple laziness and expediency are probably important factors as well in the profusion of bad brokers on screen. Formulaic thinking often occurs in "creative" meetings. What sold previous scripts tends to get tried again and again. Furthermore, there's little worry about a backlash, since businesspeople typically do not make too much of a fuss about how they are portrayed.

Moreover, there is no denying that some of the material for the negative portrayals is culled from the headlines. A movie such as Boiler Room would not have gotten past the storyboards if sleazy sales tactics and outright fraud were unheard of in the brokerage industry. Still, the sweeping and one-sided nature of the grim characterizations suggests a considerable disconnect from reality.

Consider what Ben Younger, the writer-director of Boiler Room told the New York Post after the release of his film about a scummy brokerage house: "I thought I was just depicting the boiler rooms, not all of Wall Street. But now I know that there's 50,000 people out there who think this movie is all about them, and the reason is all these firms are completely the same."

One would be less likely to hear a filmmaker opining that, say, all doctors or all lawyers are "completely the same." Both of those professions have had numerous positive as well as negative portrayals in pop culture over the decades. Indeed, fictitious attorneys run the moral gamut from the almost saintly, as in the 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird, to the literally demonic, in 1997's The Devil's Advocate. Advisors may at least be pleased that no one has yet shown them setting up a Satanic 401(k).

The Early YearsBesides the above-mentioned Each Pearl a Tear, a number of other silent black-and-whites featured brokers as important characters. A pattern was established early of brokers being not only nasty but also strangely powerful, often possessing some evident ability to manipulate the stock market so as to ruin their enemies.

In The Wife He Bought (1918), a broker named James Brieson contends with Steele Valiant, the vengeful son of a man he's ruined, who threatens to reveal Brieson's embezzling activity unless Brieson's daughter Janice agrees to become Steele's wife. In the 1919 film This Hero Stuff, a decorated World War I veteran returns to a small Nevada town, determined to avoid the fanfare over his wartime heroism; instead, he ends up rescuing a kidnapped mine owner from a bunch of thugs led by a local stockbroker.

Some other early movies set a pattern whereby brokers were not so much villains as dullards, interested only in money and undeserving of the heroine's affections. In The Way of a Man with a Maid (1918), shipping clerk Arthur falls in love with stenographer Elsa, whose expensive tastes have led her to date Sankey, a rich but overweight broker; eventually, Elsa accepts Arthur's marriage proposal and resolves to economize. In The Strong Way (1917), broker Geoffrey Farrow is a callous, unfaithful husband to Eunice, who married him under her mother's pressure to relieve her family's financial distress.

Not all early presentations of brokers were negative, although even the positive ones tended to present brokers basically as examples of rich people, without saying much about their particular line of work. In The Pretenders (1915), Dick, a broker wearing rugged clothes on a rural vacation, is mistaken for a hired hand by Elsie, whom he wrongly thinks is a farmer's daughter; after much confusion, the couple is united.

In The Cheat (1915), which made Cecil B. DeMille into a famous director, broker Richard Hardy is more appealing than his extravagant socialite wife, Edith, who gambles away funds she's collected for the Red Cross. The real villain of the piece, though, is a Japanese ivory trader, Tori, who brands Edith with a hot iron after she fails to provide sexual favors in exchange for a loan. Richard admirably steps forward to take the blame after Edith puts a bullet into the evil Asian. (Tori became a Burmese when the film was reissued during World War I, to curtail the offense to then U.S. ally Japan.)

Roaring into DepressionIn the 1920s, celluloid stockbrokers continued to show up mostly as scoundrels and schlemiels. In 1922's Wildness of Youth, a broker again is the romantic rival who fails to get the girl (and this time gets killed in the process). In You Can't Fool Your Wife (1923), broker Garth McBride veers into an extramarital relationship with a surgeon's wife but mends his ways after being operated on by (gasp) the same surgeon.

As the market roared to new heights, audiences went to Stocks and Blondes (1928), the story of Tom, a young broker who becomes arrogant as his wealth increases due to mysterious stock tips; they're actually coming from his showgirl wife, Patsy, who in turn gets them from Tom's former boss, Powers. Suspecting that Patsy's having an affair, Tom spurns her for drink and women, and the powerful Powers responds by ruining Tom in the market. Fortunately, the young couple reunites for a simpler life.

On October 30, 1929, the showbiz newspaper Variety published what would be a famous headline: "Wall Street Lays an Egg." Soon, Tinsel Town was churning out movies reflecting the new reality. In Clancy in Wall Street (1930), a plumber hits it big on stocks and aspires to high society, then returns to his roots after getting wiped out. In The Crash (1932), broker Geoffrey Gault loses most of his money and his attractive wife Linda, though she eventually returns to him, prioritizing love over financial clout.

In Ups and Downs (1937), a tap-dancing elevator man becomes a brokerage partner and also gets the girl, after giving sound advice on buying elevator stock; this film, perhaps the decade's most favorable depiction of finance, was just 21 minutes long. Fast and Loose (1939) shows a financial advisor engaged in crimes involving a literary manuscript. In Johnny Apollo (1940), a broker goes to prison for embezzlement, and regrets to see his son turning to crime and ending up in the same prison.

Get Me RewriteDepictions of brokers were relatively thin on the ground in the post-World War II years. Maybe this reflected muted public interest in the stock market, which after all took a quarter century to get back to pre-Crash levels. But financial pros gradually became more visible on screen again, if not more appealing.

The 1957 film Twelve Angry Men identifies one of its jurors as a broker; he is a stuffy, callous type who tells the others that he never sweats. In the 1963 romantic comedy, The Wheeler Dealers, broker Molly Thatcher is a sympathetic character, but is ordered to sell dubious shares in Universal Widgets by her sexist boss, Bullard Bear.

The recurrent theme of advisors as also-rans in the mating game made it to the small screen with a 1970 episode of It Takes a Thief. Titled "Nice Girls Marry Stock Brokers," it shows a young woman, having witnessed some of a secret agent's life, deciding not to marry her broker boyfriend.

On a brighter note, the 1972 TV movie Second Chance was about a wealthy broker who transforms a Nevada ghost town into a community for people who need another shot at doing things right in life.

The 1980s brought The Boss' Wife (1986), in which a young broker is tempted by the title character, and Hiding Out (1987), in which another young broker pretends to be a high school student to hide from criminals.

Most memorably, though, the decade brought Wall Street, in which young broker Bud Fox sinks into insider trading while his ruthless mentor Gordon Gekko opines that "greed is good." There is also an older broker who tries to tutor Fox on ethics (and who director Stone based on his own father, who was a broker). But the take-home lesson of the movie does not appear to be that most advisors are focused on doing an honest job.

On the other hand, it could be worse -- and in some movies, it has been. In Wolves of Wall Street (2002), a young advisor joins a firm called Wolfe Brothers, where he finds that not only must he be cutthroat to get ahead, but that he's now liable to turn into a werewolf during the full moon. That is not going to look good on a resume.

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Kenneth Silber is a senior editor at Research. His work on science, economics and history has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Wall Street Journal.

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