“The Apartment” And Business Ethics

In 1959, the Apartment, was filmed. It starred Jack Lemon and Shirley MacLaine. It was nominated for ten academy awards and won five.

They filmed some scenes in New York and intended to make much of the film there but Jack Lemon became very ill after at all night shoot in Central Park. So, they filmed most of it on the lot in Hollywood.

It’s beautifully filmed (I like black and white) and there is a great deal of subtlety in the details of the background that add to the message of the film

Why do I use it in class? First, it’s a view of an America that has ceased to be. An America whose history has tremendous resonance for our own.

Lessons from the film. (Not in order of importance.)

1. There is no normal in America. Every year we think this is normal, that everyone should do this. It’s how it is and you can’t change it. Well, it’s changing anyway. The only normal is constant motion in the direction of a new normal. It’s an important lesson because some of my students feel like they can have no effect in this world and thus should retreat to a private world of friends kept at a distance and media individualized to kill time and give a brief, fraudulent feeling of fulfillment.

2. I want my students to see the changes in how women are treated and how they adapted. Women were relegated to certain jobs and they realized their only avenue to improving their lot in life was to marry well. Many of the women in the film are just temporary forms of entertainment for all intents and purposes.

3. One of the strangest qualities of the film, and the director himself pointed this out, the Jack Lemon character, for the most part, is the architect of his problems and yet we feel sympathy for him and identify with him. And again, the Shirley MacLaine character largely chooses her own fate and we feel sorry for her.

There’s a big lesson here – we often feel sympathy, often a sense of identification and sometimes, even envy, with the unethical. I tell my students about the time one of my students came to me with this story of woe that virtually demanded sympathy. And I felt that way, until I noticed a sentence in this long story of suffering. So, I stopped him and said, “You did what?” There then followed a not very effective explanation. You see, he was a criminal. He broke the law. He was in the mess because of his own decision making. He did not deserve my sympathy. Yet, I was confident that every student he regaled with his tale of suffering felt bad for him.

If we are going to practice ethics, we are going to have to be tougher than that. People who do bad things, who treat other people cruelly, who act without honor or scruples, deserve moral condemnation. That will not change because you’re related to them, because they are friends, really attractive or you like their story. Practicing ethics is tough and it means being tough on other people who do wrong.

If you know what should be done and let it have no effect on your actions, you are acting unethically. You have failed to act ethically.

4. The role of minorities in the film is important. I believe that if film goers in 1960 believed that the film was inaccurate in its portrayal of women and minorities, it would not have been a success. Blacks in the film appear twice in the film, once a shoeshine boy and then, a group waiting to clean the offices at the end of the business day. My eagle eye students found a black man working among the mistreated proles in the huge office background and, once again, at the Christmas party (same guy). It just goes to proves that when lecturing it’s safer not to let them talk!

If my students ability to find a minority in the background when I couldn’t was bad enough, they really got me on the Eastern Europeans. I missed the fact that his neighbors and landlady were of the same ethnicity His landlady and his neighbors are all immigrants and recent ones. (The film is only fifteen years after the close of the Second World War.) They were warm and kind to the Jack Lemon character although judgmental about his ethical failings. (I did not realize the importance of this until it was pointed to out to me. Now, in my defense, I did realize the importance of his neighbor, the doctor, but I didn’t get the big picture.)

I was never able to figure out whether the restaurant hideaway was Chinese or Japanese. It seemed like one of those ethnic groups running a restaurant with some kind of Tahitian background. But basically we can conclude from the film that orientals are okay as long as they are serving food.

Generally, how did the film portray the different groups. The white corporate types were greedy, licentious, petty, and lacked any self perception whatever. Blacks are in the background, soulless workers who pretty things up. Chinese (possibly Japanese) are allowed certain profession but corporate life isn’t one of them. The Eastern Europeans are authentic human beings. They are tolerant and kind but willing not just to make moral pronouncements but willing to call attention to them. They openly criticize the Jack Lemon character for his (not real) sexual adventures. They have a moral center. Aside from our two main characters, they are the only real human beings in the film. And to be blunt, our two major characters only arrive at human hood in the last few minutes of the film.

If there is no other reason to show the film, the movement of the main characters from caricature to humanity makes it all worthwhile.

The doctor is the moral center of the film. He issues the call to personhood to the sinner in the next apartment.

As in instructor, it’s a good choice because there is no difficulty in getting students to watch and remember the film. They enjoy it and it leaves its mark on them. That makes it more useful than many more “on point” films.

If you are going to teach, misdirection, implification and appeals to unconscious motivations are legitimate tools.

James Pilant