The Taxman Cometh
© Christine Alice Corcos 2001-2004
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since May 10, 2001
As the annual deadline looms (www.irs.gov) and some of us have to mail in a check with our tax returns, there is a natural tendency to want to see someone obtaining revenge over the dreaded Internal Revenue Service. Like its citizens, America=s film capital has often cast tax lawyers, tax accountants, and the IRS as completely believable screen villains. Nearly all the crimes of which the IRS can accuse us have been dramatized in the movies or on television, and on occasion the government gets fleeced instead of the taxpayer.
Among the crimes or activities we can see dramatized are tax fraud, failure to pay taxes, attempts to set up tax shelters, attempts to transfer funds toAoffshore tax havens@ or Anumbered Swiss accounts@ in order to hide income, and attempts to raise the money to pay the back taxes that the IRS wants to collect.
Tax frauds are the focus of The Firm (1993), based on a John Grisham best seller, one of the releatively few tax films to feature a tax attorney. in Handle with Care (1958) a law student uncovers tax fraud. Lobster Man From Mars (1989) and Mel Brooks= wonderful The Producers (1968) both hinge on elaborate schemes to raise money for ostensibly legal projects that are intended to fail. The Producers actually provides a blueprint, with Zero Mostel as a down-on-his-luck Broadway mogul and Gene Wilder as the accountant and tour guide. The plan is to produce a play that=s bound to close after one night, thus allowing Mostel to keep the investors= money. The play they decide on is ASpringtime for Hitler@, a truly tasteless musical about Adolf=s good side.
When the IRS comes knocking to collect back taxes, it is quite insistent as the plots of many movies demonstrate. Indeed, the desire to pay off the IRS can result in further crimes on the part of the taxpayer. In Bachelor in Paradise (1961) Bob Hope is the best selling author who dashes off a book to pay the agency, much to the annoyance of his neighbors who turn out to be the topic of his latest opus. Everyone is familiar with Scarlett O=Hara=s plan to pay the taxes on Tara in Gone With the Wind (1939), but paying property taxes is also the theme of the 1994 fantasy Dragonworld in which a mythical beast convinces a Scottish castle owner to set up a theme park to pay the Inland Revenue. And the 1980 romp The Blues Brothers features John Belushi as an ex-con who tries to raise $5000 to pay the back taxes on the orphanage where he was raised.
Robin Hood to the Rescue
Collecting taxes, especially those that are unowed, or the result of an unfair government=s desire to gouge its citizens, is a popular theme. It seems that everyone likes to indulge in the thought that any government is a direct descendant of the Sheriff of Nottingham and bad Prince John (http://www.britannia.com/history/monarchs/mon28.html). Thus Robin Hood movies are perennial favorites, from a string of eponymous feature films beginning in 1912 and continuing through the 1991 Kevin Costner vehicle Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, to satires and parodies of the theme such as Mel Brooks= Robin Hood; Men in Tights (1993). Robin Hood inspires cowboys (Robin Hood of the Pecos, 1941) in which good guy Roy Rogers mounts a rebellion against an evil bureaucrat, teenagers (Robin of Lockesley, 1996), and little old ladies (Margaret Rutherford in 1952's Miss Robin Hood ). Frank Sinatra plays Robin as the owner of a speakeasy just trying to make a living in Robin and the Seven Hoods, which argues that even criminals can be cute. Insider information is the tool that two Wall Street janitors use to get rich in Working Trash (1990).
Pay Yourself First
Income tax advisors can lead their clients astray, which can lead to tragedy, as in the pilot for the television series Moonlighting (1982) in which star Cybill Shepherd loses all her money and has to go into the detecting business, or comedy, as in Income Tax Sappy (1954) in which the Three Stooges (!) take up client counseling.
Them Thar Revenoo-ers
Robin and the Seven Hoods is just one of a long line of tax-themed films that feature bootlegging, or illegal stills, usually somewhere in the hills of some Southern state, which the IRS is sent to shut down. The Mating Game stars a bewildered Tony Randall as an IRS agent out to find out why Debbie Reynolds= dad Paul Douglas hasn=t paid taxes for years. As in most comedies in which the IRS is the villain, the locals run rings around the IRS man to hide their activities.
The IRS and Its Brethren
Foreign films also sometimes target their respective tax agencies, as in the French farce Le dīner de cons (1998) in which a tax inspector comes to the rescue of an arrogant businessman who wants to contact his estranged wife. In the Japanese film Marusa no onna (1987) a female tax agent gets a longed-for promotion but discovers its costs when she tries to catch up with a prominent tax cheat.
Bibliography For Further Reading about Tax Law and Popular Culture
Paul L. Caron, Tax Myopia, Or, Mamas Don=t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Tax Lawyers, 13 Va. Tax Rev. 517 (1994).
Erik M. Jensen, The Heroic Nature of Tax Lawyers, 140 U. Penn. L. Rev. 367 (1991).
See also Law, Tax, Accounting and Popular Culture (this website).