At the time of its release, Robert Wise’s Executive Suite (1954) played as a cautionary tale about how corporate greed and scheming insincerity could effectively conspire to topple a great American enterprise. Today the film plays much more like a fatalist epitaph to the American business model that was, while reflecting on the quagmire it currently represents; perhaps because in the intervening decades the integrity of that workmanlike manufacturing colossus has been systematically reduced to bedrock. Based on Cameron Hawley’s novel, the screenplay by Ernest Lehman might just as well have been referencing the inner office chaos that had begun to infect MGM – the studio producing the film. By the mid-1950s the studio was in its slow, but steady decline into oblivion – jumpstarted with the ejection of its mogul, L.B. Mayer in 1950 and furthered by a trickle down chronic mismanagement.
This malaise was hardly exclusive to MGM, and in fact had begun to corrupt the collective brain trust all over corporate America. The message was clear enough – profits up/quality down. Gone, it seems, were the hallmarks of sturdy craftsmanship, giving way to streamlined mass production under the most deliberate cost cutting measures designed to boost profits at the overall expense of creating products built to last. In effect, Executive Suite reveals these hidden pitfalls; making goods cheaply to satisfy balance sheets and stockholders rather than the consumer base; sacrificing traditions and the longevity of a corporate reputation for immediate returns.
Lehman’s screenplay begins with an indictment of this executive board room mentality, puncturing the balloon of hypocrisy from the start, long considered as the higher up one climbs the ladder of success the more readily he or she will encounter people of forthright merit and personal integrity. “It is always up there,” begins the narration, “…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.”
The knell from the bell tower that immediately follows this narration and plays over the titles without musical accompaniment is startling, in that it foreshadows both the death of the soon to be revealed Tredway Corporation’s visionary president, Avery Bullard (Raoul Freeman) as well as the demise of all the 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 prolific and startlingly clairvoyant movies to emerge from Hollywood, and at a time when bigger budget splashy escapism in color and widescreen Cinemascope had become the norm.
Viewed alongside these glossier entertainments, Executive Suite is all the more shocking; its undiluted and sadly apocalyptic vision of tomorrow’s template for corporate America sadly come to pass. True to the 1950s, the film’s dénouement restores order to the chaos that temporarily envelopes the Tredway company, but it also reveals a fundamental truth about most any organization – that it is only as good as its management; the workers utterly powerless to impact decisions made at the top that will undeniably affect the company as a whole. Indeed, 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 walk toward the elevators.
But who is ‘we’? Superficially, Mary is referring to the ballgame, and perhaps also to the strain now lifted from their marriage, sustained ever since the loss of Don’s mentor, Avery Bullard. By extension the interpretation can also be made to encompass Tredway’s narrow aversion of catastrophe by appointing Don instead of bean counter Loren Phineas Shaw (Fredric March) to its presidential post. Shaw has been ruthless in undermining the corporate image to save a few bucks. These cost cutting measures, while attractive on paper have regrettably done much to cheapen the public’s appreciation for Tredway’s product. We are asked to weigh the importance of today’s profits against the longevity of the company, to reconsider Shaw’s ‘get in/get out’ quick and dirty philosophy against Don’s steady hand and his desire to pour more money into innovation and technology that will benefit the company in the long run.
Executive Suite begins with Avery Bullard’s collapse from a fatal heart attack on a hot afternoon in New York City. Robert Wise has made an interesting choice to use a first person POV for Bullard (we only see his hands and briefly glimpse his body being shrouded with a tarp and carried away). The first person POV suggests the autonomy the average corporate executive in America has – removed from the daily activities of the company he is managing and making decisions based on numbers alone rather than the living realities in its daily operations. Moments before his untimely demise, Bullard had sent a cablegram to his corporate offices in Millburgh, Pennsylvania to call for an executive meeting that hints Bullard has made his decision to appoint a new executive Vice President who will oversee a new trajectory of his company.
After his death a bystander steals Bullard’s wallet. Thus, when the police and ambulance arrive they are left to deal with a ‘John Doe’. The absence of any proper identification is counterintuitive to the purpose 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 off of 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 company’s official reaction to the press. Shaw also releases the 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 fact, his 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 dictate the future of the company. Bullard’s private secretary, Erica Martin (Nina Foch) prepares for the selection of candidates. Shaw considers himself the frontrunner, 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 a wily ally in Caswell in exchange for being allowed to purchase 4,000 shares of stock to cover his short sale, thereby sparing him utter 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 but realizes that with Shaw at the helm his department will likely be shut down. However, on the home front Mary encourages Don against sacrificing his dream. 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 a tawdry detail; that Dudley is having a torrid liaison with his secretary, Eva Bardeman (Shelley Winters).
For the next few hours all of these hostile rivals will face off in a game of corporate chicken – each vying for control of the Tredway Corporation. At the height of all this backroom backstabbing Don confronts Julia about her decision to sell to Shaw – accusing her of destroying her father’s legacy to get back at her dead lover; once her father’s fair-haired boy. The two struggle. But Julia suddenly realizes that 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 stands behind 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 and the two proudly start out for the elevators to celebrate.
Executive Suite is by far the most intelligent film to critique and entertain the commercial mindset in mid-century America – mildly excoriating the distinctive shift in ‘assembly line’ attitudes that even then had begun to mismanage the future of America’s manufacturing sector. Lehman’s script is a minor masterpiece, taking what could so easily have become very dull subject matter and personalizing the more global issues into ripe character studies. The salvation of Tredway is also a blessing for Don and Mary and all the underlings who believe in the preservation of traditions that have made the company what it is, but that seem puerile and wasteful to Shaw and his business cronies, merely fascinated with fattening their own pockets. 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 endurance in renewable fiscal responsibility to that next generation of America’s workers. Cleverly written, perfectly cast and expertly played, Executive Suite remains a must see - absolutely.
Warner Home Video’s DVD is very solid. 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’re limited to vintage short subjects and a theatrical trailer. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)