EXECUTIVE SUITE (MGM, 1954) Warner Home Video
“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!”
- preamble to Executive Suite
Robert Wise’s Executive Suite (1954) is a superior, if glittering all-star, de-glamorization of life at the top – or rather, on top of all those imposing monuments built by the captains of industry to stroke their self-indulgent and overweening egos. What originally played as a cautionary tale about the corrosive attitude of corporate greed, narrowly conspiring to topple trademarked American institutions of yore, has since revealed itself to be a fatalist epitaph to the Achilles Heel of American businesses en masse, far too many in very steep decline. In the intervening decades the integrity of manufacturing, as both a cornerstone and colossus of the American experience, has been systematically broken down to bedrock. Consider: who in 1954, could have foretold of a nation without the monopolies of Ma’ Bell, Sears or even MGM, as the dominants within their respective fields of operation? And further still, who today remembers what it was like to have unwavering faith in a product or the industry that made it? In hindsight, Executive Suite remains the proverbial Ides of March for big business.
The movie’s abortive commentary on shoring up ‘trickle down from the top’ corruption is a crisis narrowly avoided by Ernest Lehman’s undeniably victorious ‘happy ending’ for all concerned. The good guys win. If only virtue were its own reward. If only… Yet, no such reprieve ever presented its calling card in real life – or perhaps, has, only to be repeatedly rebuked, ignored or unceremoniously paved over by sycophants, eager for their paychecks though not much else. Such ‘yes men’ continue to cater to the ‘rich dummy’ sect of Harvard graduates, having stepped off the college-bound assembly line and into these corporate boardrooms, only to realize too late they lack the ‘common sense’ wherewithal to do anything more than micromanage. These vast empires were created by less educated, though more wily and ambitious puppet masters, now either decamped or dead, and their absences since have sunk a great many time-honored titans of capitalism into the muck and mire of red ink. It is grotesquely shocking, in fact, how quickly and easily a seemingly Teflon-coated empire can become worm-eaten and rife for a corporate take-over. One need only look to the 2008-10 auto crisis to see how close to oblivion a major cornerstone of American industry came and acknowledge just how precariously little continues to separate the auto industry’s ‘recovery’ from another fiscal implosion. The uncertainty of America’s corporate future is a malaise still very much ‘with us’ making Executive Suite not simply a movie relevant to today, but foreseeable as a flashing red neon sign post about dangers never again to be abated.
Based on Cameron Hawley’s novel, Executive Suite’s screenplay by Ernest Lehman might just as well have been referencing the inner office chaos infesting MGM's boardroom since the ousting of Louis B. Mayer in 1950. By mid-decade, Metro was already in its slow, sad, and regrettably steady decline. Smelling blood in the water, the other studios, struggling in their own right, nevertheless rallied to bypass the biggest and finest of them all; MGM’s product becoming cheap and homogenized by direct comparison. The climax to Executive Suite is a showdown between two competing philosophies; the first, to insidiously promote a business acumen for the Tredway Furniture Manufacturing Corp., both of the moment, and, in the moment - simply to satisfy its stockholders; the other, a long-term investment of capital, time, effort and integrity in service to improving the company’s output, entrusting its future to the public at large, and thus ensuring its reputation for quality endures. A reputation is, in fact, a very curious commodity; once sold – or rather – sold out – never again to earn back the respect it once held dear, seemingly in perpetuity. What satisfies a stockholder in the moment does not, in fact, enrich the longevity of the corporation. Instead, it undercuts the innate and far-reaching value of any company, merely to make a quick buck today before pulling out.
The uncannily similar malaise inflicting Hollywood throughout the 1950’s was hardly exclusive to MGM, and, by late 1959 would only become increasingly corrosive to the dwindling brain trusts in corporations all across America. The message, clear enough – profits up/quality down – is thus presented in the movie by the enterprising Loren Phineas Shaw (Fredric March), who emphatically insists a corporation ‘of today’ must be a financial institution first, yielding the highest and safest return on investment to its stockholders, with manufacturing and selling as mere afterthoughts. Shaw’s viewpoint is an anathema to McDonald 'Don' Walling’s (William Holden) state of siege. If all that is required of a corporation is that it maintain the satisfaction of its stockholders – and customers be damned – then why must its President be a man of integrity? After all, with his own position and pension assured, where is his incentive to do better…even, to do right by the company itself or the employees who toil in it for him?
And indeed, Walling pointedly illustrates that only to focus on satisfying stockholders’ dividends now, such shortsightedness in grabbing for the quick and easy, will hasten the natural and steady decline of the Tredway Corp. going into the future. “Sometimes you have to use your profits for the growth of the company,” Walling suggests, “…and not pay them all out in dividends to impress the stockholders with your management record. There’s your waste, Shaw! There’s your inefficiency! Stop growing and you die. Turn your back on experimentation and planning for tomorrow…because they don’t contribute to dividends today and you won’t have a tomorrow…because there won’t be any company! The force behind a great company has to be more than the pride of one man. It has to be the pride of thousands! You can’t make men work for money alone. You starve their souls when you try it. And you can starve a company to death the same way!” Executive Suite is not readily ranked or even voted on as among the top pictures of its generation – an oversight, to be sure, since its precepts are as universal as any ever put forth in a motion picture of its time – for all time. And further the point, it remains a movie as stirring in its performances and entertainment value as in its judgment call on the sad recognition of making changes for change’s sake alone, already afflicting the social fabric of corporate America at large in 1954.
Gone, it seems, are the hallmarks of sturdy craftsmanship, giving way to streamlined mass production under the most deliberate cost-cutting measures, strictly designed to boost profits at the expense of engineering new products, not built to last. In effect, Executive Suite reveals the hidden pitfalls of becoming too rich too fast, and, making goods cheaply to satisfy spreadsheets rather than the consumer base. Sacrificing tried and proven traditions, even at the expense of the corporation’s own longevity, merely to glean an immediate return on investment, Executive Suite’s commentary on where this uniquely situated American mindset is headed is hauntingly predictive and, in our post-modern age, even more clairvoyant and disturbing. Even as the picture is rightly situated as the purveyor of a truth as yet to be fully revealed with the passage of time, it is nevertheless equally as powerless to stave off the corporate apocalypse that has long since followed it.
In Hollywood in general, and particularly at MGM, this diseased edict had already begun to take effect with the homogenized 'look' of Metro’s film output; Mayer and Thalberg’s decree to 'do things big and give them class' downsized under the newly appointed management of Dore Schary. The MGM that barely saw out the 1950’s, and, could not survive the onslaught of costlier and more uniquely tailored roadshow ‘event movies’ of the 1960’s, was an odd disconnect by design, apart from and grotesquely foreign to the Mayer/Thalberg regime and philosophy. Only in hindsight, is Metro’s malaise mirrored by the executives of the Tredway Corp.; buttoned-down conservatives, competing within an artistic vacuum; the queer amalgam of Tudor sets recycled from MGM’s Young Bess (1953, and later to reappear yet again in 1973's Westworld as 'medieval' recreations) as the uber-chic trappings of 50's postwar Americana; ancient exemplars of the all-American middle-class household, circa the Eisenhower era.
Lehman’s screenplay for Executive Suite begins with the aforementioned indictment of this executive board room mentality, puncturing the balloon of its hypocrisy from the start. The knell from the bell tower that immediately follows this narration, and plays over the titles without musical accompaniment, foreshadows the death of the soon to be revealed Tredway Corporation’s visionary president, Avery Bullard (Raoul Freeman) as well as the demise of all creative freedom and experimentation wrought under his tutelage. This latter interpretation is only possible through hindsight – a distance of some 60 plus years since the film’s general release and bearing out its hypotheses. In this regard, Executive Suite is one of the most far-sighted movies to emerge from Hollywood, and, at a time when bigger, splashier escapism in color and Cinemascope had become the norm. Corporate America has since 'lived down' to the morality imparted in Lehman's screenplay, best embodied in William Holden's forthright defender of Tredway's legacy; the sharp young mind of tomorrow, usurping the willfully arrogant old guard, typified by the irresponsibly neurotic and perpetually sweaty Fredric March.
Poor Fredric March; his penultimate career in Hollywood having regressed to playing morally ambiguous, to downright reprehensible second fiddles to the more prominent and rising stars in his midst. March ought to have had a more prolific career as the all-American. Certainly, his early matinee idol good looks seemed to foreshadow a promising career as 'leading man' material. But by the mid-forties the actor was already being typecast as the devious plotter. By the fifties, March is in full flourish as the thoroughly disreputable and slimy, even more sadly misguided, bastard we simply love to hate. At his most laconic, he typifies the sort of man one wishes would just step aside to make way for the seemingly more 'progressive' and promising concepts put forth by actual 'leading man' material. And truthfully, we are with Bill Holden's robust family man every step of the way, despite his briefly strained marriage to June Allyson's 'Suzie Cream Cheese’ from the suburbs, fashionably attired in poodle skirts and angora sweaters, the 'little woman' refreshingly possessing a mind of her own and wed to Allyson's inimitable charm and raspy/feminine voice.
Viewed alongside the fifties' yen for glossier entertainments, Executive Suite is all the more unvarnished and undiluted in its apocalyptic vision for tomorrow’s template of a failing corporate America. True to the 1950's, the film’s dénouement restores order to this chaos. Tredway is spared the indignation of ineffectual management. Yet, the picture also reveals a fundamental truth about most any organization. It is only as good as its management; the workers powerless to impact decisions made at the top that will undeniably affect the company as a whole and their own livelihoods in particular. In its final moments, William Holden’s man of personal integrity, McDonald ‘Don’ Walling turns to his wife, Mary (June Allyson) to inquire about his son’s little league ballgame; asking “who won?” “We did!” she merrily chirps as they stroll toward the elevators. But who is ‘we’? Superficially, Mary is referencing the ballgame, and perhaps the couple’s marriage, the strain lifted with Don’s appointment to the leadership of Tredway as the late Avery Bullard’s valiant successor. Most certainly, Tredway narrowly dodged a catastrophe by appointing Don to the Presidential post. Shaw’s bean-counting would have outlasted his own time in the ceremonial post. But these cost-cutting measures, while attractive on paper, would likely have cheapened the public’s appreciation for Tredway product in the future.
Executive Suite begins with Avery Bullard’s fatal collapse on a hot afternoon in New York City. Robert Wise has made an interesting choice to use the ‘first person’ point-of-view (POV) for Bullard (we only see his hands and briefly glimpse his body being shrouded by a tarp as he is carried away on a stretcher). This POV implies autonomy; precisely what the above-average corporate executive in America today has – isolated from all, except the top management decisions that will dictate daily activities for an entire company, and impact far too many worker bees he will ostensibly never meet; a real disconnect between the living realities of Tredway’s daily operations and the boardroom badinage threatening to eat away at his company’s innate value from the inside out. Moments before his untimely demise, Bullard sends a cablegram to his corporate offices in Millburgh, Pennsylvania to call for an executive meeting. This hints at the notion Bullard has finally decided to appoint a new executive Vice President who will oversee a new trajectory for his company’s future.
After his death, a bystander steals Bullard’s wallet. Thus, when the police and an ambulance arrive they are left to deal with a ‘John Doe’. The absence of any proper identification is counter-intuitive to the purposes of wily investment banker, George Caswell (Louis Calhern) who, having witnessed Bullard’s death from his high rise window, plots to make a quick buck from it. He orders his broker to make a short sale of 3700 units of preferred Tredway stock, assuming he will be able to cover the sale Monday morning at a ten-point discount when news of Bullard’s death reaches the exchange. But when the papers fail to report Bullard’s death Caswell decides to do an anonymous tip-off to expedite the identification of the body. News of Bullard's fate reaches Millburgh where company controller, Loren Shaw moves swiftly to coordinate the funeral and handle the ‘official reaction’ in the press. Shaw also releases the company’s quarterly reports to counteract the negative reaction stockholders are likely to have.
On the surface, Shaw is a model of efficiency. But this devious gargoyle never does anything out of the goodness of his heart. As a matter of record, Shaw’s quick thinking has all but sidelined the stature and confidence of Tredway’s treasurer, Frederick Y. Alderson (Walter Pigeon); Bullard’s right-hand man and presumed – though never officially appointed successor. What transpires over the next forty-eight hours will ultimately save or sink Tredway’s future. Bullard’s private secretary, Erica Martin (Nina Foch) prepares for the selection of potential candidates. Shaw considers himself the front runner, using his clout to call in markers, gaining the proxy of shares belonging to Julia Tredway (Barbara Stanwyck); the daughter of the founder who was having a torrid affair with Avery Bullard that went sour. Shaw also gains an ally in Caswell in exchange for purchasing 4,000 shares of stock to cover his short sale, thereby sparing his own financial ruin.
Alderson aligns his marker with Don who is Vice President in charge of Design and Development. Don would prefer to spend his time developing the company’s next generation of products at ground level. Alas, he realizes that with Shaw at the helm his department will likely be shuttered for good. On the home front, Mary encourages Don against sacrificing his dreams. Meanwhile veteran Vice President of Manufacturing, Jesse Grimm (Dean Jagger) opposes Don while bolstering the prospects for ineffectual Vice President of Sales, Josiah Walter Dudley (Paul Douglas) because of his perceived malleability, particularly after Shaw unearths Dudley’s torrid liaison with his secretary, Eva Bardeman (Shelley Winters). For the next few hours all of these hostile rivals face off in a game of corporate chicken – each vying for control of the Tredway Corporation. At the height of this backroom backstabbing, Don confronts Julia about her decision to sell her shares to Shaw – accusing her of destroying her father’s legacy to get back at a dead lover; at one time, her father’s fair-haired boy. Julia suddenly realizes Don is the right man for the job. She returns to the boardroom with a renewed sense of purpose and casts her vote for Don as president. Dudley backs Julia’s decision and prepares to take his lumps. Having swayed the rest of the board members with his impassioned speech, Don is unanimously voted in as the new President and Shaw tears up Caswell’s offer to buy back his stock. Realizing how intensely Don has fought for the company, Mary rejoices in her husband’s appointment as the two proudly start out for the elevators, presumably en route to celebrate.
If ever a movie about commerce and trade could be considered a morality play, Executive Suite is it; asking and answering the toughest questions about the definition of fiscal responsibility and what it actually means for the next generation of America’s workers. Executive Suite is by far the most intelligent film to critique, as well as entertain the commercial mindset of mid-century corporate America – mildly excoriating the shift in ‘assembly line’ attitudes that even in 1953 had already begun to mangle America’s manufacturing sector. Ernest Lehman’s script is a masterpiece (as most Lehman screenplays are), taking what could so easily have become very dry subject matter and personalizing its global issues with ripe character studies. The salvation of Tredway is as systemic as the underlings blind-sided belief in the traditions that have made the company what it is. These seem puerile to Shaw and his cronies, merely fascinated with fattening their pockets. But they endure as precepts, today, long since forgotten, set aside, or perhaps, never entirely invested in at the outset. Cleverly written, perfectly cast and expertly played, Executive Suite remains a must see - absolutely.
Warner Home Video’s DVD is very solid. But I would champion the Warner Archive to get behind Executive Suite on Blu-ray. I cannot imagine much work needs to be done to get the film ready for hi-def. The gray scale exhibits exceptional tonality and a very clean transfer relatively unobstructed by age-related dirt and debris. There is some minor edge enhancement. Film grain infrequently looks gritty rather than natural. Otherwise, few will be able to argue with the results. Ditto for the mono audio, well represented for this primarily dialogue-driven showcase. Extras are the singular disappointment. We get a fascinating audio commentary from Oliver Stone, insightful and well-informed. For the rest, we are limited to vintage short subjects and a theatrical trailer. Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)