Monday, September 6, 2010
Executive Suite - 1954
Robert Wise is the director, and we start from the first moments of the film with bold credits flying toward the audience while an ominous sounding bell tolls…for whom? For everybody, it seems. Maybe even us.
The bell sits in the tower above the executive suite of the title, in a downtown stone monument of a building that serves as the corporate office of a furniture company. We are not yet in the days of suburban industrial parks. We are downtown where the action is.
Then he hails a cab out on the sidewalk and crumples to the ground, dying instantly of a heart attack. We see, through the camera and his eyes, the swirling buildings, and the clear sky above
“The Man With the Cloak”) an executive in the firm, who, sensing an opportunity, sells a chunk of company stock he cannot cover. It doesn’t matter, because he knows that when the news gets out of the Big Boss’s death, the stock will plummet.
Once it does, he can buy it back for next to nothing. In the weeks to come, the stock will rise. He will make a tidy profit.
His cheap sell-out scheme lays out before us the message of the film. We get there, by and by.
It is fun to see Mr. Calhern’s meltdown when the Big Boss, whose wallet was stolen by a passer by when the ambulance arrives, is taken to the city morgue as a John Doe, and wrecks the timing on Calhern’s game.
Paul Douglas is the hail-fellow-well-met head of sales, who settles deals on the golf course and a bribe of a bottle of scotch. It is the charming façade of a spineless company man. His mistress, and secretary, played by feisty Shelly Winters provides the ego boost he needs, along with other comforts. Until he lets her down, and she shows more pride and mettle than he has.
There is William Holden, as the Bright Young Man, who works in product development and represents the idealism that the Big Boss and his partners once had, but have abandoned in the lure of making an even bigger profit.
“Strangers When We Meet” for more examples of that), and raises their all-American boy, played by young Tim Considine.
I wonder if the furniture in his ultra modern house was made by his own company, and if it’s the good stuff or the cheap knock-off stuff, and if he got a discount?
Check out Walter Pidgeon’s home and we get an eyeful of traditional furniture, a nice contrast that tells us a lot about these two men, their perspectives and their eras. Furniture is not just set dressing in this movie. Look at the medieval design of the woodwork in the executive suite. The stained glass windows behind Holden during his big speech make him seem like an evangelist.
They all have their own agenda. Mr. Holden pouts because his latest product development test got messed up. The Big Boss, who once promised him free reign to improve their furniture, let the ball drop and fell under the spell of business ideology such as Fredric March’s character, Mr. Shaw, where profits are to be doled out to stockholders and not reinvested in the company.
Holden complains, “Improve the profits but never the product. That’s Shaw’s philosophy,” he says of Mr. March. “To him, the whole company’s just a curve on a chart.”
Dean Jagger, a hands-on man like William Holden, who helped start the company, resents Holden’s supposed “golden boy” (so to speak) position with the Big Boss. Mr. Jagger practically invented furniture, he seems to say, “And I didn’t need the boy wonders and the slide rule experts to show me how.” (See this previous post for our discussion on slide rules. My gosh, there’s a link for everything in the post.)
Mr. Jagger is so fed up, he is planning on retiring, and let the company crumble. I love Holden’s admiring smile across the boardroom table when Jagger says he is taking a weekend trip to sail on his boat and eat Maryland crab. It’s a small touch but says volumes about mutual appreciation and comradeship that can exist in companies as well as enmity.
Long Beach Airport), to humiliate him by catching him in a tryst with Shelley Winters.
Walter Pidgeon’s wife complains that he has been living in the Big Boss’s shadow, and urges him to make a play for the top job.
They argue details, but March has clearly assumed control. Walter Pidgeon, ever the gentleman from the old school, is aghast that Mr. March does not intend to close the factory out of respect for the deceased.
Time is money.
Suddenly the plot shifts from what will happen to these board members, to what will happen to the company.
To save it from the nefarious clutches of Fredric March and his ilk, Holden, the reluctant hero, must convince Walter Pidgeon to anoint him heir. Holden must dicker and pontificate in the boardroom in a tense scene to shake them up and win their confidence, rather like a politician. And he must shame Barbara Stanwyck, who holds a controlling vote, into dropping her self pity for two seconds to consider the lives of others and the legacy of this furniture company that bears her family name.
The workers are worried the plant will shut down now that the Big Boss is gone and things are so unsettled. Some complain about the junk furniture they manufacture, a far cry from the good old days when they were proud of their product.
Holden has no answers. But we know where they went. We’ve already arrived.
Have a look at this link to a New York Times story from July about the Harley-Davidson motorcycle manufacturer enjoying soaring profits, more than triple from a year ago. Reaping the profits, specifically, are the shareholders. The workers reap pink slips. Around 1,500 people will be let go by the end of this year. As the article notes, many other manufacturing firms reaping profits this year did so by trimming the fat, which in business terms always seems to mean people, and do not intend to use their profits to rehire anytime soon.
It’s endemic, this cutting the fat. Check out those self-service checkout lines in grocery stores, the ATM in the bank lobby while two tellers work in a bank that has eight empty teller windows, even the new self-service checkout stands in libraries. Cuts down on the need for librarians to check out your books. All for your convenience isn’t it? Yours or theirs?
So much convenience and so few jobs.
“Convenient!” Mr. Pidgeon blasts Mr. March, “That’s always been your attitude…to make everything as convenient as possible for yourself!”
It is interesting, and somewhat astonishing, to note that what we might lament as the failure of industry in this country and corporate greed today had roots as far back as 1954, specifically the notion that the product will become inferior and the jobs will be lost if the only object is profit for the shareholders.
We were enjoying one of the most energetic and profitable business booms of all time in the early 1950s. But here in this film, we see the veneer crack a little. In industry and in the cheap line of furniture this company has been making, shaving off quality to bolster the bottom line.
William Holden gets thrust to the top of the heap when he decides to take the responsibility to point out how lousy things have been run in the company. He assumes a leadership role by doing this, thereby anointing himself.
While we listen to his words, our minds may wander a little bit from the plot to what is going on in our own lives.
Fredric March spells it out succinctly, “I believe that a company is answerable first and last to its stockholders.”
Mr. Pidgeon protests, “I get it. Manufacturing and selling don’t count anymore.”
Mr. Holden agrees with Pidgeon, “Sometimes you have to use your profits for the good of the company, not paying them all out in dividends to impress the stockholders with your management record.”
Mr. March contends, with a nod to the brooding Miss Stanwyck at his elbow, that the Big Boss ran things that way. Holden comes back with a remark that seems to speak directly to us.
“He was wrong, the way a lot of people are wrong these days, grabbing for the quick and easy, the sure thing. That’s just a lack of faith in the future.”
He talks about workers on the line who prefer to take a pay cut to post to other jobs in the company, just to avoid working on the really cheap crap they’ve been making because it damages their pride.
He tells Barbara Stanwyck that they must put out product that she will be proud to bear her family name.
Do we still have that kind of pride? Willing to take a pay cut to avoid demeaning ourselves? As for pride in family names on companies, in a world where most of our big corporations are acronyms or just a meaningless jumble of vowels and consonants arising from many names over the course of many takeovers, do we really know what company we’re dealing with when we buy that item?
Though the movie ends on a hopeful note (except for Fredric March, whose sickened expression after losing the presidency of the company is priceless), we may not be able to help brooding on the old lady laborer, who walks out of the factory with the swarm of other workers after punching out, to ask William Holden about their future. They know the company is in trouble.
“Everything’s going to be all right, isn’t it?” She asks.
“Don’t you worry about it,” he tells her with a comforting smile.
“But you weren’t here in ’33, you don’t know how it was…”
I wonder, do we know now?
William Holden only guessed at catastrophe for the company and the nation in a booming 1954 when the net dividend for the stockholders was starting to become the benchmark for the health of the company, not the quality of its goods or services, not how many people it employed or if those employees were able to earn a sufficient living.
This is what makes this film fascinating. It can speak to us through a span of more than five decades and still be relevant, yet not relevant because of any timeless quality of human behavior…relevant because its subject is so ironically and unexpectedly topical.
Topical despite that they were in a boom, and we are…where we are, where we were headed back then with decades of deregulation in our future, and industrial flight to overseas plants to improve the net dividend for the stockholders.
By the way, happy Labor Day.