Madison Avenue (1962) is a less slick, more cumbersome Mad Men ancestor that does not expose the hypocrisy and shallowness of the world of corporate advertising as much as it merely makes a polite nod to its existence. It is a plodding movie, but there is something striking about the way Dana Andrews chain-smokes, wields a ready cocktail (as does everybody in this movie), and openly and publicly leers at women, condescends to them, and conveniently uses them whether he knows them or not. If we were watching the television show Mad Men, we might grin and shake our heads at the faux-1960s parody before us. But Madison Avenue was made in 1962 and it’s the real thing. What may shock us more is not the behavior we titter over on Mad Men, but that we know full well it was filmed with absolutely no intent to shock us. Nobody in the theater in the 1962 was surprised by any of it, and probably didn’t notice the sexism, or stop to count the cocktails.This is our annual post in anticipation of Labor Day. We’ve covered two similar films in the past here: Executive Suite, and I Can Get it for You Wholesale. We do not encounter in Madison Avenue any hint of the contributions of organized labor, as we do a bit the previously mentioned films, but since Madison Avenue, the New York advertising institution, plays such a huge role in our economy, for better or worse, it’s worth a look—and so is this movie, even if it does not have the energy and bite of the other films.
Dana Andrews is a cunning ad man. We get his measure in the opening moments of the film when he in the office of a client—the CEO of a milk association, played by David White, who most of us remember as Larry Tate on Bewitched. Mr. Andrews leers at Mr. White’s nubile secretary, speaks all the sycophant kiss-ass bilge he can to David White, and heartily sips a glass of milk to please his client with the rapture of a baby enjoying it for the first time. Andrews is an up and coming man, we are told, but he is due for a heavy fall.
His boss, sneering, cigar in hand, played by Howard St. John, stabs him in the back over a new account because he feels threatened by Dana’s success and wants to keep him under his thumb. Dana spends the rest of the movie trying to steal back Mr. St. John’s top account.
To do this, he enlists old girlfriend Jeanne Crain and uses her shamelessly, which she knows. She’s disgusted with him, but stuck on the guy. She remarks sardonically, “I just got promoted from a person to a contact.” There is the point of the movie in a nutshell. She’s a reporter for a Washington newspaper, and against her better judgment, does a favor for him by setting up a series of articles that will promote Dana’s new client, a small Washington-area dairy. This is his first steppingstone to swiping the big client—David White—back from Mr. St. John.
Dana starts by attaching himself like a barnacle to a small, dying ad agency run by Eleanor Parker. Her only employee is played by the wonderful Kathleen Freeman, who, as Dana Andrews says, “She greets people as if they were stepping into an open grave.”
One of my favorite scenes in this movie is when Dana is led by Miss Freeman back to Eleanor Parker’s office. He passes slowly through a large, dim room with empty desks and drafting tables. We see this business is failing, with almost all employees let go, and the lights turned down to save energy. It is deathly quiet. I think there may be nothing more haunting and depressing than a business that looks like it’s going under, or already has. Haunted houses are not more ominous.
This scene, and a couple scenes that show the New York City skyline from the enormous windows of an executive office—which denotes power as much as Eleanor Parker’s dingy office denotes failure—are really the only times that setting moves the story along. This movie was shot in CinemaScope, and really didn’t need to be. Most of the action takes place in a bar. Because of this widescreen camera process, we have very few close-ups—they didn’t look good in CinemaScope—and we have actors placed several feet apart from each other when delivering their lines. The space needs to be filled up, you see, so CinemaScope becomes the master of the film instead of the director.
As for bars, if we’re not in the bar, we’re talking about going to a bar at the airport, or downtown. Even a later bowling alley scene has the neon sign “Cocktails” right over the shoulders of the actors. In 1962, it seems people needed a lot of refueling.
Dana, taking stock of Miss Parker’s office, decides to join her firm like a rainmaker promising a shower to a desperate farmer. His message is hardly friendly; it is downright rude, but strikingly honest and ultimately helpful to her:
“You need light walls behind you, maybe one of those French grays that looks neutral that vibrates with life; low, modern furniture, paler than your hair; thick, cream-colored carpets; indirect lighting, with a few hidden spots directed at you. That’s an old stage trick. Concentrate light, you concentrate attention.”
Then he proceeds to tell her what a mess she looks like. “You look like a refugee from a nursing school or a novel by Louisa May Alcott.” He suggests a new outfit, makeup, a little blush and lipstick two shades darker. He wants soft wools, nothing frilly, that fits well but not too tightly, with the sheerest hose she can find and high heels. No jewelry, or very little. “The average businessman wants the deal, not the dame. When a man is doing business with a woman, he doesn’t want her sex thrown at him. It’s distracting. On the other hand, he resents it if she throws her sex out the window.” He writes her a check to fix herself up.
Just when we may despise him for his arrogance, he treats Kathleen Freeman with greater tact, moving her from the receptionist’s job—because he wants an attractive, younger woman there—and appoints her as his personal secretary. No young chippie for him to sit on his lap. He’s got work to do and realizes she has experience. He gives her a raise, and they become pals. His one gesture of flirtation is to tell her that “Thelma” is a very pretty name. We see it makes her whole day.
Miss Parker, after initial resentment, takes Dana’s advice and comes into the work the next day in a whole new outfit, her hair coifed, and ready for action. They converge upon the owner of the dairy, a simpleton, child-like oaf who inherited it from his father. He is played in a very cute and deceptively deft way by Eddie Albert. They meet him in his executive office. He plays with toys, and wears a white milkman’s uniform, because he likes to take his own route for fun. The business of the company is left to sour-faced Henry Daniell, who is kind of wasted in the small role.
Mr. Albert’s shy reticence soon turns to bombastic egoism with every speech he’s encouraged to make before members of his industry. He sounds like a fool, but he speaks with absolute belief in the blather he says. Confidence, it seems, is the path to power, and real substance doesn’t matter. His business increases, but more important to him, his fame and power increases and soon we see he may be invited to run for public office—shades of A Face in the Crowd (1957) here, another great movie showing the hypocrisy of the advertising world and political evil of manipulating public opinion. (But as we see, not even ad men are immune to the spell of their own message -- Dana confesses he smokes too much because he got hooked on the habit when he worked for a cigarette account.)
Eleanor, who, after some vigorous chasing of Dana realizes he’s not the marrying kind, transfers her intentions, if not actual affections, to Eddie Albert who looks as though he’s going places. She began as an earnest and hardworking ad woman, who like Mr. Albert, inherited the family business, but given a taste of the glamorous life, wants to keep it by hook or crook. In a strange way, they really are meant for each other.
The movie culminates with a series of double-crosses. Jeanne Crain wants to take Dana down by writing an exposé on his tactics and the nefarious ad world. Dana, realizing he’s responsible for foisting Eddie Albert on the American public, plots to knock him out of high position even at the cost of his own career. That move, and his relationship with Kathleen Freeman are the only indications we have that deep down, Dana is a mensch.
He tells Mr. Albert, “I’m tired of inflating balloons. I’m tired of seeing good men held back while mediocrity like you are catapulted to the top.”
And of Miss Parker, he regrets that he, “kicked her up the ladder, now all she wants to do is kick other people in the face.” Curiously, all the people Dana has touched in this movie are the worse for it. Ironic for man who’s supposed to have the Midas touch.
Dana Andrews was in his early fifties when he made this film, and looks older than a freewheeling bachelor cad who is supposed to be up and coming in his career. The two leading ladies are in their late 30s, and all of them are nearing the end of the film careers (though Eleanor Parker gets to make one more big splash as the nasty countess in The Sound of Music- 1965). The 1960s will belong to younger actors with fewer moral dilemmas.Only plucky, indispensible Kathleen Freeman would have a longer active career in film, TV, and the stage as a character actor we’re not supposed to notice but we always do. She was working on Broadway in the musical version of The Full Monty in 2001 (a role for which she was nominated for a Tony), when she died of lung cancer only five days after she resigned her part. She was 82.
That’s a trouper.
We never really know where Dana stands with Jeanne Crain until the last few moments of the film, when he proposes. I don’t think we really believe him at this point, but Jeanne does.
One other scene I like occurs in a bowling alley, where Dana brings an out-of-town client to entertain him. The client is played by our old pal Grady Sutton. Here’s our previous post on Grady. It’s also nice to see that Mr. Sutton actually got screen credit; he usually did not.
In way, I suppose it’s appropriate that Dana’s unresolved relationships keep us off balance, because that reflects his personality, and the CinemaScope-required arm’s-length distance between characters also suggests the isolation and lack of warmth, of genuine connection between the characters. We just can’t seem to get close to these people, but maybe it’s for the best. There’s really not much there. Both reflect Madison Avenue and the modern world where insincerity, shallowness and opportunism are the way to prosper. Mad Men is intentionally nostalgic; Madison Avenue is unwittingly prophetic.