Cinderella, which I revisited this week, is perhaps the archetypal example of the “rags-to-riches” fictional trope. It is a powerful trope because of the hope it inspires. It is the ultimate story of beating the odds against a brutal and unjust system, of someone coming good in spite of the numerous obstacles standing in the path of their success. And with every successful story that gets told, whether real or fictional, it furthers the possibility that we may someday get to count ourselves amongst the lucky few who rise from poverty and obscurity into wealth, success, and fame. Of course the more Marxist amongst us might point out that this is largely an illusory myth meant to keep the masses in place as only people who are extremely talent and simultaneously lucky truly have the ability to rise above the pack in an unjust system. But for the purposes of this list, we will consider those people buzzkills. Largely correct buzzkills, but buzzkills nonetheless.
The rules for this list are simple (because who doesn’t love rules?):
- The movie has to (obviously) tell a rags-to-riches story. This has to be the primary purpose of the story. It cannot be the arc of a side-character or a minor plot-point of the main character. The movie has to be primarily concerned with the plight of the central character(s) as they seek to change their destiny (or stumble into their “riches” by accident).
- The manner in which the “riches” are gained need not necessarily be legal or fairly gained. In addition a movie need not end with the protagonist still in possession of said “riches”.
- While “rags” most obviously means poverty, I’m also allowing movies where people move from obscurity to fame.
One more thing: You may notice that the Disney classic Cinderella does not make this list. Not that I want to be that guy to plug his other articles (except that I am most definitely that guy), but in my revisit of Cinderella you will see why this is not an unintentional oversight. Now on to the list:
10. ROCKY (1976) dir. John G. Avildsen
What is intriguing about this movie, other than being the ultimate underdog tale, is that this is a movie about two rags-to-riches successes. The first success is Apollo Creed who clearly is someone who took his shot at fame and fortune and seized it. And as is so often the case, now that his riches has been seized he extends an opportunity to a presumed chump for his own selfish goals of consolidating that fame and fortune. Unfortunately he handed this chance to the “Italian Stallion” Rocky Balboa who has the perfect combination of natural talent, desperation, and a strong enough lack of self-awareness to realize he doesn’t belong. The end result is the best boxing match in film history.
9. THE MUPPET MOVIE (1979) dir. James Frawley
This film-within-a-film is the origin story of the Muppets that we never knew we wanted. And as with all things Muppets, it begins with the world’s most famous frog Kermit who gets discovered because some talent agent just happened to be walking by a swamp as Kermit strums his banjo and sings “The Rainbow Connection” lackadaisically. And with that we are treated to the best “getting the gang together” movie ever as Kermit slowly but surely recruits Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, and of course, Miss Piggy among many, many, others. As with all prequels, there is no surprise where these folks end up but the joy is in seeing exactly what left-turn way they get there.
8. FUNNY GIRL (1968) dir. William Wyler
Funny Girl perfectly encapsulates the story of so many female rags-to-riches stories in that they find their path to success hindered by their less talented and jealous lovers who seemingly cannot handle their girlfriends and wives being better than them. Fanny Brice is obviously a star-in-the-making (a fact made all the easier to believe because she is portrayed by the iconic Barbra Streisand), and is well on her way to fulfilling all of her potential by starring in Ziegfeld Follies yet finds her career almost derailed by her gambling husband who almost ruins her success by his shady ventures and bad investments. “Don’t rain on my parade” indeed.
7. WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971) dir. Mel Stuart
Of all the movies on this list, the story of Charlie Bucket and his discovery of the fifth and final Golden Ticket to allow him a tour of the mysterious chocolate factory of Willy Wonka is the most classically a “rags-to-riches” story. That Charlie is a poor paperboy who lives with two parents and four grandparents and can barely afford to but the chocolate bars that hide these Golden Tickets is all the more inspiring especially since the other four are procured by spoiled and rich kids who obviously have the economic power to game the system. That he is the one who outlasts them all by being decent, honest, and kind and inherits Willy Wonka’s factory as a result may go against all economic theories of success but it is inspiring and magical nonetheless.
6. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014) dir. Wes Anderson
Thanks to Ralph Fiennes enigmatic performance as the hotel’s concierge M. Gustave, it is easy to forget that this is also the story of Zero Moustafa, the lobby boy of the hotel who embarks on a great adventure with Gustave in the midst of a tyrannical war and ends up eventually with a hotel on the other side. Unfortunately this reward comes through much pain and does not bring much joy to Zero and is part of what makes this easily Wes Anderson’s most morally complicated movie. And fortunately for us, this also makes it one of his best.
5. GOODFELLAS (1990) dir. Martin Scorsese
Proof that the path from rags to riches need not necessarily take a legal path, the rise of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) from a life to petty crime to a key player in the mob looks almost enticing thanks to the superbly assured and slick direction of Martin Scorsese. Although mob life has never looked more glamorous, Scorsese also takes great pains to make sure we also see exactly how perilous that life and the riches gained by it are as Hill finds himself increasingly hemmed in from all sides by both the feds and his fellow mobsters. Yet if anything Goodfellas shows exactly why so many choose to face those perilous risks in the first place.
4. ALL ABOUT EVE (1950) dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Eve’s (Anne Baxter) journey to the top is defined by single-minded viciousness. Of all the rags-to-riches people on the list, she seems to know without a shadow of a doubt that the game is rigged against people like her reaching the top and the only way to combat that is to kick, claw, and scratch your way there. And this is exactly what she does as she first becomes the personal assistant to Broadway star Margo Channing (Bette Davis) and then through some truly ruthless passive-aggressiveness sneaks and connives her way to take Margo’s place. And the fact that everyone around her basically knows what she’s trying to do and is unable to outmaneuver her honey-soaked arsenic is what makes this movie so much delicious fun.
3. THE RED SHOES (1948) dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Obviously this movie qualifies for this list because its rags-to-riches story is a move from obscurity to fame. Here the prodigious Vicky Page (Moira Shearer) is thrust into the world of the Ballet Lermontov by her aristocratic aunt. Before she knows it she rises from a mere ensemble player to the star partly thanks to her enormous talent and partly because of her amorous relationships with both the Ballet’s director and conductor. Yet it is never clear if her push to the top is driven by a need to succeed or by pure love of the art, if this is a life she chose for herself or one she was nudged into. And therein lies the true tragedy of the story.
2. THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007) dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
Among the many other things that There Will Be Blood is, it is a damning indictment on the American dream and to the lip service we pay to religion in order to baptize that dream. Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a frightening creature in that he is simply a faithful follower of the doctrine of American exceptionalism and manifest destiny. His his quest for liquid goal turns him into the ultimate utilitarian using both underhanded tactics and pious religiosity with equal vigour if it gets him closer to his riches. He is the ultimate hero of capitalism, and that should make us shudder.
1. CITIZEN KANE (1941) dir. Orson Welles
What more could top this list than the epic tale of Charles Foster Kane? Whether his legendary “Rosebud” represents something he is desperately trying to run back to or run away from matters little as it is his underlying motivating force as he rises to become a rich and powerful newspaper magnate. Every loss becomes a chip on his shoulder while every success leaves him more and more peerless. His castle Xanadu is perhaps the pinnacle of modern success and yet its empty halls also serve as a reminder of the hollowness riches ultimately bring. And perhaps there was no one better to tell this story, the embodiment of the contradictions of American capitalism, than the enigmatic Orson Welles who brings the bombastic swagger required for the role.