"It is always up there, close to the clouds, on the topmost floors of the sky-reaching towers of big business. And because it is high in the sky, you may think that those who work there are somehow above and beyond the tensions and temptations of the lower floors. This is to say that it isn't so."
Heigh ho, heigh ho, it's off to work we go. Work takes up a large portion of all of our lives. Even away from the salt mines, whether we are a boss or a nameless cog in the wheel of industry, its influence is pervasive. The subject of the corporate life is endlessly fascinating to explore, and entertainment in the 1950s gave us many interesting takes on business power, how to obtain it, how to use it, as well as the struggle to balance work and home life. Rod Serling's 1956 teleplay Patterns examines personal responsibility in a power struggle. Broadway (1953) and Hollywood's (1956) comedy of a shareholders revolt, The Solid Gold Cadillac brings a romantic comedy to the boardroom. Jean Negulesco directed 20th Century Fox's glossy Woman's World from 1954 and soapy The Best of Everything in 1959.
MGM assembled one of their all-star ensembles for Ernest Lehman's character study, Executive Suite in 1954 directed by Robert Wise. Each actor in the cast was familiar to the audience and exceedingly skilled. We get to know these people over the course of a 24 hour period when the charismatic chairman of the Tredway Corporation, a large furniture manufacturing concern, is felled by a heart attack. Initially, the body of Avery Bullard is unidentified leading to an attempt at stock manipulation by Board member George Caswell (Louis Calhern) who witnessed the body being removed by ambulance.
A note here about blonde babe Lucy Knoch who plays the bored and ignored, and much younger than her spouse, Mrs. George Nyle Caswell. I had for many years, since my first viewing, considered this character as Caswell's live-in girlfriend. It was only on a recent viewing that I noticed the character's billing as "Mrs.". Was this censor appeasement or was I a particularly cynical teenager? Consider this exchange:
George Caswell: "Do me a favor, will you? Read the funnies."
Mrs. Caswell: "There aren't any in The Times. Don't you know that?"
George Caswell: "Then read "Situations Wanted". You may need one."
The relationship could be read either way.
Fredric March, Paul Douglas, William Holden
Prior to succumbing to the attack, Bullard had telegraphed his head office to call a meeting at which he would name an executive vice president as the position had been vacant for several years. Assumed to be the first in line is dyed-in-the-wool company man Fred Alderson (Walter Pidgeon). His ambitious wife (Virginia Brissac) certainly feels entitled to the promotion. Long-time head of production Jesse Grim (Dean Jagger) views it all with the detachment of a man who has decided to retire. Loren Shaw (Fredric March) is a bean counter with one eye on the bottom line and the other on a corner office.
Glad handing salesman Jos Dudley (Paul Douglas) is in the running, but only by virtue of his status as a vice president, not his suitability. If his affair with his secretary Eva (Shelley Winters) was known, Dudley would be counted out. Research and development ace Mcdonald Walling's (William Holden) focus is purely on design. Don's wife Mary (June Allyson) thinks the toxic atmosphere at the company is harmful to her husband and their family (Tim Considine). Two women in Bullard's life face an extra emotional upheaval at his death. Executive secretary Erica Martin (Nina Foch) only shows the cracks in her professional facade to Don Walling, who instinctively understands. Julia Tredway (Barbara Stanwyck) the daughter of the founder of the company, who was used and perhaps loved by Bullard in his rise to the top also finds a level of understanding from Walling.
Ernest Lehman's screenplay was his first of ten nominations (six wins) from the Writers Guild of America. The movie is filled with idea, but little "speechifying", until it is necessary and appropriate in Walling/Holden's plea to the Board of Directors. The ideas of dreams vs. power, innovation vs. stagnation, personal life vs. professional are all expressed in the lines and attitude of the characters.
Paul Douglas, Shelley Winters
We learn about Shaw/March's struggle from a disadvantaged background when Caswell refers to Shaw as a "Night School CPA". We see Shaw's nervous wiping of his hands as his reach exceeds his grasp. We learn of Old Man Tredway's suicide and Julia Tredway's affair with Bullard in throwaway lines from newspapermen "Be careful what you write about Tredway. We don't want to get sued for libel." Mary recalls when Don first came to the company how he and Bullard would plan and talk for hours, but how it all changed. Dudley/Douglas as a philandering salesman may be the character most easy to relate to as he's not a mastermind, just a henpecked and overworked slob caught up in other's schemes. Alderson/Pidgeon has moments of epiphany as to his place in the grand scheme of Tredway Industries moments of spite against Shaw and moments of great character as he soldiers on. It is a quiet performance that sneaks up on the audience. There is no musical score to bring attention to these matters, it all comes from the actors and their words, and their sure-handed direction.
Robert Wise was nominated Best Director by the Directors Guild of America. The Black and White cinematography (George Folsey), art direction-set decoration (Cedric Gibbons, Edward Carfagno, Edwin Willis, Emile Kuri) and costume design (Helen Rose) were also nominated.
Nina Foch, William Holden
Nina Foch's bereft secretary tells so much with a look, a tone and her proprietary handling of the late executive's office. Ms. Foch mentioned in interviews that the role, as written, showed little to her, but Robert Wise convinced her that she could bring Miss Martin to life. Nina Foch was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress and won Supporting Actress from the National Board of Review.
The cast of Executive Suite was awarded a Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival for Best Ensemble Acting. Fredric March was nominated for a BAFTA as was the film. The outstanding ensemble and the still relevant problems faced by the characters make Executive Suite a movie well worth classic status and multiple viewings. There will always be a new performance to enjoy and a thoughtful perspective on an old problem.
TCM is showing Executive Suite on Tuesday, September 2nd at 1:00 pm.