Hollywood has always styled itself as the dream factory, and there’s no dream more potent and fundamental than the sudden attainment of wealth, of possessions, of happiness.
From the humble street-thief who stumbles on a cave of riches to the girl at the supermarket checkout who becomes an overnight singing sensation, rags-to-riches tales have been a part of storytelling tradition since the very beginning. Indeed, many of the stories we learn as children – Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Oliver Twist, even Harry Potter – trace the same trajectory.
Film is the perfect medium for a rags-to-riches story – those glittering gowns and grand ballrooms really spring to life in glorious Technicolor. The result is a very pure form of escapism, offering a transcendent vision of a better existence, from the wildly fantastical (poor man sells his soul for unlimited wealth; LA hooker romances dashing tycoon) to the marginally more believable (Wall Street trader rigs the stock market for personal gain; buck-toothed Zanzibari outsider invents operatic rock).
It’s notable but unsurprising that the majority of the films on our list stem from Hollywood: after all, what’s the American Dream but a rags-to-riches fantasy? Many of Tinseltown’s founding fictions follow the same template, from Scarface (1932) to Citizen Kane (1941) via all three versions of A Star Is Born.
But the unchallenged king of the form has to be director Frank Capra, whose overlooked Pygmalion retelling, Pocketful of Miracles (1961), gets its Blu-ray premiere this month.
Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932)
Director: Jean Renoir
What if you’re comfortable in your rags, and don’t much care about the riches? Jean Renoir’s sly satire follows irascible, hedge-bearded drifter Boudu (Michel Simon), who tries to commit suicide by throwing himself into the Seine only to be rescued and adopted by comfortable middle-class bookseller Lestingois (Charles Granval). Helping himself to Lestingois’s wine, his hospitality and ultimately both his wife and his mistress, Boudu is an unstoppable force, a modern satyr who challenges bourgeois convention at every turn and ends up accidentally winning a fortune on the lottery.
Some of its politics may have dated poorly – the idea that Boudu would be happier in poverty is dubious, as is the film’s rather spiteful attitude towards women – but the scenes of physical comedy and fierce anti-establishment parody are still thrilling.
The Bride Wore Red (1937)
Director: Dorothy Arzner
As the only female director working inside the studio system in the 1930s (and as a gay woman in straight Hollywood), Dorothy Arzner offered audiences a unique perspective. Her films may not always have worn their politics openly, but even the title sequence of The Bride Wore Red – in which a porcelain statue of a noble, square-jawed Joan Crawford revolves proudly for the camera – feels intriguingly different.
Cold but beautiful, brittle but defiant, the figurine perfectly reflects Crawford’s character Anni Pavlovitch, a Russian immigrant singing for tips in an Italian bar when she’s hired by a drunken aristocrat for a social experiment. He’ll give Anni all she needs to set herself up for two weeks as a wealthy contessa, thereby proving to his smug friend Rudi (Robert Young) that breeding is not innate, and that wealth is nothing more than an accident of birth. The satire may end up a little softened by the end, but Crawford’s Anni – all effortless glamour and unflagging self-confidence – is a marvellously modern heroine.
Director: Max Ophuls
Like an eager puppy chasing cars, bright-eyed young model Leonora Eames (Barbara Bel Geddes) sets out to trap a millionaire – only to discover that she has no idea what to do with him once she’s got him. Even for the great Max Ophuls, Caught is a savage piece of work, trapping its characters in a dark web of jealousy, betrayal and bitterness.
Rosy-cheeked midwestern girl Leonora falls for Robert Ryan’s brash industrialist Ohlrig, only to realise he’s a sadistic, thoughtless bully incapable of happiness. Can James Mason’s gruff, down-to-earth backstreet doctor save her from this gilded cage? A film so unrelentingly cruel that it somehow manages (spoiler alert) to weave a happy ending out of the heroine’s near-fatal miscarriage, Caught is every bit as dismissive of American exceptionalism as its precursor, Citizen Kane.
A Face in the Crowd (1957)
Director: Elia Kazan
Unruly mobs pop up a lot in the films of Elia Kazan, from the unionised dockers of On the Waterfront (1954) to the small-town thugs who terrorise Montgomery Clift in Wild River (1960). It’s been suggested that they’re intended to represent the leftists and former colleagues who excoriated Kazan after he named names in the HUAC witch-hunts. But then how to explain A Face in the Crowd, in which the fervour whipped up by drifter turned political kingmaker Larry ‘Lonesome’ Rhodes is of an explicitly conservative bent?
To be fair, no one in Kazan’s film comes out smelling of roses: Rhodes (Andy Griffith) is a manipulative creep, his business partner Marcia (Patricia Neal) is naively blind to his faults and the various corporate and political interests who take advantage of the pair are uniformly venal, corrupt and exploitative. Unsurprisingly, the film feels disturbingly pertinent today.
The Insect Woman (1963)
Director: Shohei Imamura
She may not attain the dizzy heights of wealth enjoyed by some of the other folks on this list, but the heroine of Shohei Imamura’s bruising tale of Japanese womanhood has a lot further to climb. Born in grinding rural poverty to a feckless, abusive family, Tome (Sachiko Hidari) slowly, painstakingly drags herself out of the mire, working as a union organiser during the Second World War, then as a housemaid, a prostitute and finally as a madam, where she earns enough to buy herself a decent flat and employ a stable of equally grasping girls.
With an original title that literally translates as ‘Entomological Chronicles of Japan’ and an opening credits sequence depicting an insect laboriously struggling over mounds of earth, Imamura’s film is clinical in its depiction of life’s cyclical unfairness and inescapable brutality.
The Jerk (1979)
Director: Carl Reiner
“I was born a poor black child…” The first film to take full advantage of Steve Martin’s frantic, absurdist stand-up persona, The Jerk sends up the rags-to-riches template in fine style, as hapless doofus Navin Johnson invents a revolutionary new spectacle attachment and achieves his lifelong dream of owning a house with 3 swimming pools.
A reformed comedy performer himself, recently deceased rabble-rouser Carl Reiner marshals the mayhem with consummate skill: joke for joke this is one of the funniest films ever made, from a father’s advice to his son (“This is shit. And this is Shinola”) to the perils of hitch-hiking (“St Louis?” “No, Navin Johnson!”); from the sweetest song ever written about a Thermos flask (“with vinyl, and stripes, and a cup built right in!”) to the greatest dog name ever (“Mister, don’t call that dog Lifesaver. Call him Shithead”).
Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)
Director: Michael Apted
Sparked by the popularity of the on-stage jukebox musical, rags-to-riches rock biopics have enjoyed a major renaissance in the 21st century. From Ray (2004) and Walk the Line (2005) to Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) and Rocketman (2019) – not to mention loving pastiche Walk Hard (2007), fictional remake A Star Is Born (2018) and an upcoming film about (seriously) Vanilla Ice – it feels like every wannabe who ever grabbed a mic will soon have their own toe-tapping biopic (wake me when we get to Never Gonna Give You Up: The Rick Astley Story).
But the grandmammy of them all is this fond, loosely fictionalised portrait of country music’s great survivor, Loretta Lynn, who rose from a shotgun shack in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky to become one of the Grand Ole Opry’s grandest attractions. Hand-picked by Lynn herself, Sissy Spacek delivered a thunderous, full-throated performance, scoring herself a richly deserved best actress Oscar.
Trading Places (1983)
Director: John Landis
One of the smartest American films of the 1980s, Trading Places walks a razor-fine line between condemning rapacious capitalism and unashamedly worshipping money. Plot-wise it’s The Bride Wore Red in pinstripes, as venal financiers the Duke brothers arrange to have one of their most promising young executives (Dan Aykroyd) cast down and replaced by a mouthy street bum (Eddie Murphy), all for a one-dollar bet.
The dialogue is consistently brilliant (“Mother always said you were greedy.” “She meant it as a compliment!”), but it’s the characters and the performances that make Trading Places sing. The genuine warmth between the 2 leads is infectious, even if their ultimate goal is to make huge amounts of cash by scamming the stock market. A brief spot of blackface remains decidedly problematic, but viewed in its correct historical context this is a clever, cake-and-eat-it pastiche of Wall Street wealth.
Raise the Red Lantern (1991)
Director: Zhang Yimou
What good is vast wealth if you’re not free to enjoy it? In Zhang Yimou’s oppressive, stately 1920s-set Chinese melodrama, a young woman from a bankrupt family is chosen as concubine by a powerful warlord, only to find herself languishing in a pampered hell of plush throw-cushions and endless spiteful backstabbing.
Gong Li is luminous as Songlian, who arrives at the luxurious palace of Master Chen (Ma Jingwu) to take up the role of fourth mistress. In regular competition with mistresses 1 to 3 and otherwise left to her own devices, Songlian gradually loses her sense of purpose and retreats into solitude. A tragedy in fine silks and gorgeous fabrics, Zhang’s film is both a merciless study of courtly intrigue and a mournful portrait of domestic depression, as a vibrant girl slowly loses her will to live.
There Will Be Blood (2007)
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Does wealth corrupt Daniel Plainview, or is he a sadistic, self-absorbed sonofabitch to begin with? Ostensibly adapting Upton Sinclair’s 1920s leftist satire Oil! but only really keeping the good bits, Paul Thomas Anderson delivered an operatic sideswipe at American greed, anchored by one of the all-time-great screen performances.
As self-proclaimed oilman Plainview, Daniel Day Lewis punches holes in the screen, blithely hopscotching all over the sacred line between serious drama and berserk Shatner-esque pantomime, making you feel every single bellowed syllable. We don’t actually witness very much of our hero’s rags-to-riches journey – it’s largely covered by a 16-year ellipsis, during which Daniel moves from a tent in the desert to a California mansion. But we’re left in no doubt that the pursuit of money has left him a broken man.