Friday, March 2, 2007

THE MAN IN THE GRAY FLANNEL SUIT (20th Century-Fox 1956) Fox Home Video

Based on the best seller by Sloan Wilson, director Nunnelly Johnson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956) is a rather stoic, occasionally compelling melodrama about the inner struggles of an honest man and his determination to do right by both his family and the illegitimate child he fathered while a soldier stationed in Italy during WWII.

The film stars cinema's genuine paragon of masculine integrity, Gregory Peck as Tom Rath, an ad executive with limited earning potential whose career is given real boost after being hired by wealthy businessman, Ralph Hopkins (Fredric March).

Tom's wife, Betsy (Jennifer Jones) is perhaps more shrewd about money matters than her husband. She senses a change in Tom since his return from the war, but cannot fully comprehend or even appreciate the horrors he has endured in Europe. 

What is paramount to Betsy is 'the good life'; a bigger house, better schools for the children, more money in the bank. So, what's wrong with that? Well, nothing - except that Tom is unwilling to sell himself short simply to become a corporate 'yes' man.

At his new job, Tom and Ralph famously hit it off. Ralph quietly admires and respects Tom's devotion to his family - something Ralph sacrificed long ago on his rise to the top but now wishes he could regain. What is there now for Ralph but the memory of a beloved son killed in the war, his estrangement from socialite wife,Helen (Ann Harding) and painfully strained relationship with spoiled daughter, Susan (Gigi Perreau), made even more problematic when Susan announces she is in a relationship with a much older divorcee.

To quell his own familial anxieties, Ralph slowly begins to monopolize all of Tom's free time. He assigns Tom to craft a speech for him that will help launch a Manhattan based charitable organization dedicated to mental health while quietly encouraging the leading physicians to appoint him chairman of the organization. Tom works feverishly on this assignment. But his sincere approach is hampered by calculating corporate stooge, Bill Ogden (Henry Daniell) who thwarts five of Tom's first drafts, then substitutes one of his own in its stead.

Ralph seems satisfied with the submitted speech, but Tom warns it does not truthfully represent the real integrity of either Ralph or his company. Upon closer inspection, Ralph agrees. He is even more impressed with Tom's abilities and his rationale against the corporate politicizing of his own life's work.    

So far, the screenplay by Nunnally Johnson has remained relatively faithful to Wilson's novel. But Johnson is too literal perhaps in preserving this source material, the last two acts becoming mired in meandering subplots; the first involving Edward M. Schultz (Joseph Sweeney), a caretaker at Tom's mother's estate who claims that the late Mrs. Rath bequeathed all of her worldly goods to him after his many years of servitude. 

In the meantime, Betsy is not at all pleased with Tom's growing absence at home. The sacrifices he makes for work are depleting rather than enriching their life together. And lately Tom has been particularly aloof towards his wife - she having grown more brittle and impatient in her demands of him.

In more recent days, Tom has been approached by Sgt. Caesar Gardella (Keenan Wynn), a fellow officer from his old army days who confides in Tom that the woman Tom had an affair with in Italy during the war has since given birth to his child. The woman asks nothing for herself, but would like Tom to take responsibility for the son he has never met.

Curiously, Nunnally Johnson's screenplay vilifies Betsy Rath as a rather malevolent matriarch; a very money hungry woman and rather unsympathetic wife. Only after learning of Tom’s extramarital affair in Milan does a more contrite Betsy reform her ways, developing a miraculous backbone of compassion that encourages her husband to set up a trust fund for his estranged son. 

Tom agrees. He can see more clearly the parallels between his own dysfunctional home life and Ralph's. Determined not to let his family suffer from his own success as Ralph's obviously has over many years, Tom tells his boss he has decided to commit himself less to work and more to his primary responsibility of being a stand up family man.

The Man In The Grey Flannel Suit was a huge hit for Fox. Yet, viewed today, it fails to illicit the same impact. Chiefly problematic are the rather unnecessary and lengthy pair of flashbacks that flesh out Tom’s first meeting and romance during the war with Maria Montagne (Marisa Pavan). 

Neither is particularly necessary to understanding or even appreciating the outcome of the present struggles Tom Rath is facing, especially since Keenan Wynn's Caesar kicks off the first flashback by essentially telling Tom - and the audience - what occurred after Tom came home from the battlefields. Also, the subplot involving Edward Schultz's claim on Mrs. Rath's property is dispensed without much fanfare; a minor nothing that seems inserted, rather than integrated into the main plot. 

And then there is Charles G. Clarke's leaden approach to the cinematography that represents Cinemascope at its least engaging - utilizing a series of long takes and medium long shots infrequently interrupted by extreme close ups that all but accentuate - rather than mask - the widescreen format's relative shortcomings. 

In the end, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit is passable entertainment because of Gregory Peck's performance. Although Peck is at the peak of his powers, his acting alone isn't quite enough to sustain the movie's 151 min. run time; a fact woefully apparent when we are presented with transitional scenes absent of his formidable acting prowess. 

Fox Home Video’s DVD is very satisfying. Although colors still leave something to be desired, the overall image quality is sharp. Contrast levels are a tad weak. Blacks are mostly dull gray. Whites are relatively clean but suffer from a strange, slightly bluish tint.

Matte process effects and rear projection are quite obvious. Age related artifacts have been greatly tempered for a relatively smooth visual presentation. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital with directionalized dialogue and effects. Extras are limited to one of the worst audio commentaries by James Monaco that I have ever heard.  Monaco's reflections on the movie are superficial at best. At one point he even talks about his father having the same automobile Tom Rath drives in the film. We also get the original theatrical trailer.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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