Film Review from the March 1959 issue of the Socialist Standard
Room at the Top, directed by Jack Clayton
Those who doubt that contemporary society fails to satisfy the needs of the majority of people should look at the ways in which so many cherish remote hopes of escaping from their position in it. It is natural to want to break away from wage slavery. The chances are slim, but the likelihood that one’s subject position in the present order of things will continue without respite until one’s dying day, is a dismal contemplation. How many dreams, we wonder, are sealed down with the football coupon?
The new film Room at the Top, which is based on the best-selling novel by John Braine, portrays a young man who is fed up with the compromise and blows to his self-respect imposed in holding his Town Hall clerkship. Determined to get out of the rut of the grim northern industrial town he was born into, he goes to settle on the fringe of a world of big houses, spacious gardens, expensive cars. Once there, he pursues his aim of making the right social contacts in order to gain the highest rung of the ladder of success.
Lucky Break Story
“The Top” for him is really that no-man’s land where higher paid members of the working class mingle with the smaller industrialists and the like. But fortunately for our social climber, the daughter of one of the bigger fish is a member of the local dramatic society and this gives him his chance to break in.
This is another cherished notion for those who find it unpleasant to face dreary reality. Known as the "lucky break,” here it takes the form of marrying the boss’s daughter. Stories in popular magazines rely heavily on these situations, but some of today’s best-selling novels, widely acclaimed by the critics, fall back on them, too. The trend in this field is for boys of the working class, who have achieved grammar school education, to be recognised by employers as superior to the pampered products of their own class. Acceptance and promotion to executive positions soon follow and the boy moves up in the social scale.
The storm of praise that greeted Room at the Top when it was published in 1957 revealed the critics agreeing that this was the stuff of which contemporary dreams are made.
Signs of Success
The ambition to “get on” and achieve a higher status in life helps to give stories such as these their wide popularity. It is recognised that only money can bring this status in such an acquisitive world as we live in. The desire for recognition in this sense is reflected in the outward signs necessary to prove to the world and oneself that you are a success. The competitive nature of the Capitalist way of life breeds the feelings of insecurity and isolation that make people strive for this kind of success.
The process is endless. The same forces that make a £10-a-week person believe that he can only be contented on £15, will still make him, once he gets it. dissatisfied on less than £20. Not to mention the sacrifices that might have to be made in order to get it. This does not mean that we should not aim to get as much from Capitalism as we can. It does mean that this approach to the satisfying of human needs is a limited one. It cannot solve the predicament with which human beings are faced in Capitalist society.
Better Human Beings
For the fact is that the working class cannot opt out of the ill effects of Capitalism without deciding to get rid of it. Reformers in spite of good intentions and with the best will in the world and the support of electors, have made plain the futility of trying to obtain beneficial results from a system that is basically harmful. Success for a few at the expense of failure for most is all that this profit-motivated system can offer. In the long run the solution for the individual is the solution for mankind as a whole: to organise the world in accord with the needs of humanity.
What are these needs? To live in harmony and peace in a world where the interest of the individual is aligned to that of society as a whole. Socialists realise that only with a foundation of common ownership can society create the conditions for the betterment of human beings.
Anyone can sympathise with those like the character in the film who want to get away from the squalor of their childhood days. But if they do, let them remember that the system which causes their and other people’s problems will still be there. The economic structure that leads to slumps and wars and sets man against man in the struggle, not only to get to the top, but to avoid being shoved to the bottom, is unaltered. The competition for more things, higher status, greater power, will remain with its ill effects.
A positive alternative
Dreams of success today have their counterparts in the nightmares of failure. The evidence of mental ill- health indicates the high number of people unable to cope with modern modern life. The inability or reluctance to face the facts of life in a class-divided, money-collecting system indicates the failure of the social organisation. Let us see it for what it is and consider the positive alternative that Socialism offers.
It is obvious that room at the top is strictly limited. For the majority of people the lower portion of the social pyramid is where they must remain until society is changed. The important thing for workers is to recognise the need for such a change. To work for that end is the most worthwhile task of our time.