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Friday, November 9, 2007

A Smile and a Shoeshine, Part 2 (originally published 6/00)

Few things in life are as soul-crushing as rejection. Most of us will go out of our way to avoid even the prospect of it. And yet those who earn their living as salespeople are virtually guaranteed to be subjected to a daily dose of rejection. For those who are thick-skinned enough to take it, and who have an aptitude for selling, a career in sales can be extremely lucrative. But for those who fall into it and then find that they can't handle the emotional toll it can be a black hole, offering meager income potential while sapping their initiative for finding other work.

Small wonder, then, that so many dramas about salespeople are bitter stories about broken characters, the prototype being Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman." "The Big Kahuna," a recently released film about three industrial lubricant salesmen, is cut from the same cloth. As we saw last week, it is the most recent in a long line of similar movie dramas about the difficult life of a salesperson.

Still, not every movie portrayal of the selling life is a tragic one. Salespeople have appeared as central characters in a great many screen comedies through the years as well. For a sampling of how filmmakers have presented the lighter side of salesmanship, look for these titles on home video.

"Big Business" (1929). In one of their last silent comedies before turning to talkies, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy appear as door to door Christmas tree salesmen. When prospective customer James Finlayson overreacts to their sales pitch by destroying their sample tree, Stan and Ollie unhesitatingly swing into retaliatory mode. One thing leads to another, and pretty soon a small but intense war has erupted, with Finlayson destroying the boys' merchandise, and their car as well, while they lay waste to his home. This is Laurel and Hardy at their best. The sure-footed pacing and Swiss-watch timing of these comedy masters is a joy to watch.

"The Fuller Brush Man" (1948). Red Skelton's career really took off as a result of his role as a Fuller Brush salesman in this high-octane comic romp. When Red is implicated in the murder of one of his prospects, his efforts to track down the real killer are rather more successful than he intended. Next thing he knows, he's running from a gang of thugs in one of the most outlandish chase sequences since the era of the Keystone Kops. This full-tilt approach to building gags no doubt derives in part from the fact that screenwriter Frank Tashlin began his career making cartoons for Warner Brothers.

"The Music Man" (1962). Meredith Willson's beloved musical is built around one of the favorite stereotypical salesman characters: the smooth talking con man. Robert Preston is brilliant as "Professor" Harold Hill, who sells small town rubes on buying musical instruments for their children, then takes a powder before the promised delivery date. His plans go awry in the town of River City, Iowa, however. He falls for the local librarian, and before long he finds himself actually going through with his bogus plan to start a band for the local kids.

"Used Cars" (1980). The most thoroughly stereotyped salespeople of all must surely be used car salespeople. Here's a comedy that pushes that stereotype to its absolute limits. Before director Robert Zemeckis and producer Bob Gale teamed up to create the "Back to the Future" trilogy, they produced this jaundiced look at salesmanship at its most nakedly venal. Kurt Russell plays Rudy Russo, a car salesman engaged in an all-out war with the dealership across the street. The other dealership is owned by the twin brother of Rudy's deceased boss, whose dying wish was that his car lot should on no account be allowed to fall into his brother's hands. Rudy is determined to do whatever it takes to keep the lot open, whether by fair means or foul. The tactics he ultimately resorts to have to be seen to be believed.

If you think about it, it's really not so surprising that so many filmmakers seem to have authentic insight into the life of a salesperson. What do you suppose is going on in those screening rooms at Cannes, anyway? Seminars on the art of cinema? Filmmakers understand salesmanship because they practice it every day - or they don't survive.

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