Remember Shopping? The Department Store in Movies

By Susan Doll

While re-watching the 1933 melodrama Employees’ Entrance, which is set in the fictional Monroe Department Store, it occurred to me that the role of the department store in our culture has shifted. The pandemic has turned the pleasure of casual shopping into an anxiety-ridden mad dash in and out of the store before the Coronavirus or prickly co-shoppers strike us down. Even before the pandemic, the Internet had stolen away millions of consumers from the malls and department stores, which used to be hubs for socializing and mingling. As suggested by Employees’ Entrance, our relationship with department stores over the decades can be traced in popular movies.

When Macy & Co. opened in 1878, The New York Times called it the “Place Where Almost Anything May Be Bought.” Other big-name department stores followed, including Sears and Marshall Field’s in Chicago, Halle’s, Higbee’s, and the May Company in Cleveland, and Hudson’s in Detroit. The Roaring 20s brought about an explosion in the advertising industry, which served the department stores well. Campaigns were mounted with the help of psychologists who served as consultants to persuade consumers that certain goods were absolutely necessary for a happy and prosperous life.

The department store pops up in Hollywood movies during the 1920s as a place of wonder bustling with economic and social activity. There, shoppers could easily find and afford every modern convenience while securing their place in the burgeoning middle class. One common plot device was for shop girls to fall for their male coworkers who were actually wealthy men masquerading as clerks. In her last silent film, My Best Girl, Mary Pickford plays shop girl Maggie Johnson, who works in a five and dime department store, where she meets handsome Joe Grant, played by Buddy Rogers. He is really Joe Merrill, the son of the millionaire store owner, and he is in disguise as a clerk to learn the business from the ground up. The department store becomes a setting for both romance and upward mobility. Likewise, in Safety Last, Harold Lloyd’s character promises his girl that he will go the city to seek his fortune. He is hired as a lowly clerk in a department store, but he poses as the manager — a position that proves to his girl that he has made good.

During the Depression, the department store took on negative connotations. In Employees' Entrance, Warren William stars as the cold-blooded manager of Monroe’s. He dangles promotions and dismissals over the heads of his employees, hires women based on their willingness to indulge his favors, and uses beautiful shop girls to distract his enemies. He holds the futures of his employees in the palm of his hand without regard for their well-being — a feeling that many American workers could relate to at the time. In Saleslady, there is a twist on the masquerade plot of the 1920s, but the storyline still centers on upward mobility. Anna Nagel plays Mary Bacon, the granddaughter of mattress manufacturer Gramp Cannon. She gets a job in a department store where she falls in love with co-worker Bob Spencer, who does not know her real identity. Bob tries to give Mary a nice home, but reaches beyond their means by buying items for "practically nothing down and very easy payments," a Depression-era hazard. By the end, Bob has not only learned the truth about his wife but goes into business with Gramp Cannon — a wish-fulfillment conclusion that finds the working class and the wealthy coming together to solve the ills of the Depression. 

In The Devil and Miss Jones, released in 1941, labor relations are depicted much differently, reflecting a change in the economic fortunes of the public. In this comedy, Charles Coburn stars as John P. Merrick, the world's richest man. The department store plot still depends on a masquerade, but this time it’s the store owner who goes undercover as a clerk when employees organize for better wages and conditions. When Merrick experiences mistreatment by management at the store, he changes his attitude about his employees and institutes fair labor practices. In other words, once management truly understands the plight of the worker, they become benevolent patriarchs who consider employees to be family.

The department store may have been a battleground for labor relations in some movies, but it never completely lost its connection to upward mobility through romance. Bachelor Mother stars Ginger Rogers as a New York shop girl who finds a baby. The masquerade in this film is not deliberate: Everyone assumes she is the baby’s mother. Despite being branded an unwed mother, she lands the store owner’s son, played by debonair David Niven. In contrast, upward mobility has a negative connotation in The Women, in which conniving, working-class shop girl Joan Crawford steals Norma Shearer’s upper-middle-class husband.

Department stores were more than just retail businesses back in their heyday. From the 1920s through WWII, many of them held concerts, fashion shows, and art exhibits. Professional photographers set up temporary stations during certain times of the year to take family portraits at reasonable prices. Through special services, lectures, exhibits, and entertainment spectacles, the stores displayed an attractive way of life while selling the necessities and luxuries that that lifestyle entailed. Small wonder that the real Santa Clause would choose to set up shop in Macy’s in The Miracle on 34th Street. Contemporary Christmas movies, such as A Christmas Story or Elf, often evoke nostalgia by including scenes in old-school department stores.

During the 1960s, firmly established department stores were challenged by no-frills retail competitors with inexpensive merchandise, called discount department stores. The connotations of department stores began to change after the rise of these discount retailers, later called big-box stores. Department stores became settings for human greed and soulless consumerism. One of my favorite stories set in a department store is a 1960 episode of The Twilight Zone titled “The After Hours.” Marsha, played by Anne Francis, gets trapped in a department store after it closes. She is shocked to discover that the mannequins come to life after hours and look just like the customers and store employees during the daytime — a kind of “Our Town” of nicely dressed inhabitants damned to an eternal hell of meaningless consumption. Thirty-five years later, meaningless consumption was played for laughs in Jingle All the Way in which Arnold Schwarzeneggar desperately tries to find the season’s hottest toy for his son among rabid shoppers who have definitely forgotten the meaning of Christmas.

Big-box stores also became the settings for movies, including tales of characters locked inside overnight. Characters used the opportunity to try on clothing from the racks or try out other merchandise—the adult version of the kid in a candy store. In Where the Heart Is, Natalie Portman stars as a pregnant, working-class teenager who is abandoned by her boyfriend at a Walmart. With nowhere to go, she lives inside the store for several days, pretending to be a shopper during the day and browsing through the merchandise at night. She takes on guises with each outfit she borrows, pretending to camp one night, or relax at the beach the next. She tastes the luxuries of a middle-class world she has never known, acting out her aspirations for a better life for her and her child. Like department stores of the 1920s, the big box store at the turn of the millennium offered hope that anyone could move into the middle class.

When the pandemic is fully in our country’s rear-view mirror, I wonder how the department or big-box store will be depicted in popular movies. Will it once again be a place of middle-class dreams and casual socialization, or will it be a relic from the past?


A graduate of Northwestern University’s film program, Susan has been an instructor of film studies at several universities and colleges. She currently teaches at Ringling College of Art and Design. Parallel with her teaching career, she has worked as a researcher and writer in pop culture-related topics for Encyclopedia Britannica, Publications International, Facets Multi-Media, Field Museum of Chicago, and Turner Classic Movies. She is the author of Elvis for Dummies, Understanding Elvis, The Films of Elvis Presley, Marilyn: Her Life and Legend, an interactive children’s book titled I Love Lucy, and Films in Florida (co-authored).



Rob Bush's picture

I used to enjoy walking through department stores perfume and makeup departments, because they were always populated by very attractive, young women. Not so much anymore.

Speaking of getting locked in a big-box store overnight...Career Opportunities from 1991 is set overnight in a Target with poor, dorky kid Frank Whaley connecting with beautiful, rich girl Jennifer Connelly. Wish fulfillment? Absolutely. Who wouldn't want to get locked in a Target overnight with 1991 Jennifer Connelly?