Monday, September 6, 2010

Executive Suite - 1954

We mark Labor Day in the U.S. today with a look at “Executive Suite” (1954). It’s not just a retro look, but an echo from America’s mighty industrial past that drifts with some uncomfortable resonance today.

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.

The action starts right off with the unseen CEO leaving his New York branch building at the end of the workday on a Friday. His perspective is the camera’s perspective. We see who sees him, who makes eye contact and who does not, as he leaves the world over which he is king.

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

Looking down upon him from an upper floor is our old friend Louis Calhern, (whom we last saw as the rogue here in “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.

Such is the behind-the-scenes maneuvering of the board of officers on this company, and there will be much jockeying for position to see who gets voted to be the new Big Boss. It is survival not of the fittest, but of the least principled.

Among the likely candidates is Dean Jagger, one of the old boys who helped build the company, but who is now regarded as too old to take the helm. Likewise Walter Pidgeon, the longtime partner of the Big Boss, who resents not having been named as second in command a long time ago.

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.

Fredric March is a standout in this film as the smarmy numbers cruncher, who worms his way into other’s private affairs to get information to use against them. It is a magnificent performance, a virtuoso of snideness, ingratiating artificiality, and backstabbing. We see his grim confidence behind his sneer. We see his resentful insecurity when his wiping his sweaty palms with his handkerchief.

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.

Holden’s supportive wife is played by June Allyson, who maintains their junior executive suburban home with its Scandinavian design furniture (see this previous post on “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.

Finally, we have Barbara Stanwyck as the heiress whose father founded the company. Until recently it seems, she was also the mistress of the Big Boss. She is depressed and vulnerable in the aftermath of the death of the powerful man who rejected her, selfishly indifferent to what affect his death will have on the company.

Rounding out the cast we have Nina Foch, who as private secretary to the Big Boss, is the major domo of the Executive Suite, making sure meetings run smoothly, privy to all the secrets and keeping her mouth shut.

It’s an engrossing film, character-driven (which we get from the start when each main character is “introduced” to us when Nina Foch knocks on their office doors to remind them of a big meeting. Thus, we see their character names on their doors and identify their faces).

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.

Fredric March tails Paul Douglas to the airport (see this previous post on the 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.

A great scene with Mr. Pidgeon, in an attempt to do just this by returning to the office to draft public announcements on the Big Boss’s death and funeral arrangements, discovers the presumptuous Fredric March already there and handling everything himself with a condescending air.

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.

Mr. Holden is worried about the product, and about the workers. When he leaves the plant at the end of the day, after the whistle has blown, an army of laborers files out the gates with him. We see he is a man of the people. He knows many of them by name. Note the American flag in the background, over his head like a halo. This symbol as well as the workers crowding at his elbow already seems to anoint him.

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.

“Why did he allow it?” one disgusted laborer asks Holden, and then the other pivotal question, “Where do we go from here?”

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.

The climax of the film is a boardroom showdown between factions, intentions, and ideals. Where Nina Foch, by the way, takes notes in shorthand. Is shorthand taught anymore? I suspect it has gone the way of the dial telephone and antimacassars.

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.”

His soliloquy about let’s run a better company starts to sound like Mickey Rooney exhorting the gang to put on a show, and some of his remarks might sound just as naïve to us. Holden talks about putting out a line of product that “has beauty and function and value.” Yeah, right.

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.


ClassicBecky said...

Your review is really insightful regarding the movie itself, and you put an interesting and unfortunately true spin on business then and now. I've always liked the movie particularly because of the wonderful actors involved, especially Frederic March, Walter Pidgeon and William Holden. Dear little June Allyson plays yet again the supportive wife, although at least in this movie her husband actually talks to her about business and seems to listen to her opinion. Excellent article. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Welcome, ClassicBecky, and thank you so much. It's true, you can't beat the ensemable acting in this movie. It holds up well.

Nick said...

Another old movie blog? Can never have too many! Good blog!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, Nick.

Sylvia said...

Great commentary on this movie. I saw the movie on TCM today.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Sylvia. Glad you got the opportunity to see it.

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