Monday, June 23, 2008

EXECUTIVE SUITE (1954) is one of those perfectly distilled 50's movies. Peter Biskind's excellent book on fifties films SEEING IS BELIEVING devotes and entire chapter to it and, I must say, it deserves the attention. I saw the film for the first time last week and immediately re-watched it once "The End" had flashed on the screen. EXECUTIVE SUITE could never be made today because a) they don't really MAKE memorable films anymore and b) the business world has changed to much in the over half century since the film was made. Trust me, nothing bores me quite like financial matters. This makes my enjoyment of EXECUTIVE SUITE all the more remarkable. In fact, it's true the film is about big business but it's REALLY about the backroom machinations rampant in anything from political thrillers to an Agatha Christie whodunit. There is also more than a little hint of KING LEAR. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman and director Robert Wise somehow manage to make a movie about boardrooms almost rivetting. The cast is second to none: Barbara Stanwyck, William Holden, June Allyson, Fredric March, Walter Pidgeon, Shelley Winters, Nina Foch, Dean Jagger, Louis Calhern and Paul Douglas form one of the most boffo casts ever put together. And the film is also noteworthy (and slightly shocking) in it's complete -- and I do mean COMPLETE -- absence of a musical score. Even the opening credits is without music; the tolling of a clocktower bell accompanied by real ambient sound is used.
Basically, the film is about Avery Bullard: a bigtime captain of industry who rules the Tredway Corporation (a huge furniture manufacturing giant) like a feudal king. We never actually see Bullard as the camera takes his POV the entire time he's alive. Which isn't long. Bullard drops dead in the street (filmed on the actual Wall Street) hailing a taxi. The only problem is he has never named a successor and he had five Vice Presidents sitting on the board who are all equally entitled to the presidency of the company. Immediately before Bullard (notice most of the characters names are "telling") dropped dead, he had sent a telegram back to Tredway calling a mandatory board meeting at 6:00 PM. Prior to that, Bullard had been in the office of an investment banker (Edgar Stehli) along with one of his aforementioned VP's: George Caswell (the perfectly cast gruff and sneaky Louis Calhern). Caswell looks out the office building window and sees an ambulance taking the dead Bullard away. With the stock market only open for another scant 43 minutes, Caswell orders all his Tredway stock to be sold. Short. This way, once Bullard's death makes the papers Tredway stock will fall dramatically in price and Caswell can buy it back for much cheaper. This is a Friday and the stock market won't open again until Monday obviously. Of course, to further stir the pot (or plot), a passerby steals Bullard's wallet so the dead magnate cannot at first be identified. Then there's the intriguing question: 'Why did Bullard call the executive meeting in the first place?' Was he going to name his successor? Or was there some other reason? The film nicely leaves that question unanswered as yet one more mystery in EXECUTIVE SUITE.
Back at Tredway, Bullard's telegram arrives in the executive suite ordering his secretary Erica Martin (the superb Nina Foch) to call the 6:00 board meeting. Everyone is still unaware of their president's death. Most of the VP's are annoyed at this last minute meeting for various reasons. Those VP's? Bullard's number two man Alderson (Walter Pidgeon) is a nice but inadequate fellow who is probably fit for the number two spot but not as the head honcho. VP Loren Shaw (an excellent Fredric March) is the heartless and cold comptroller of the company who is only concerned with the bottom line. William Holden nicely plays VP McDonald Walling who is in charge of research and development; Walling goes way back with Bullard and has always had a free hand to develop new, artistic creations -- UNTIL beancounter Shaw gained Bullard's ear. Now Tredway is making increasingly shoddier product (it is referred to as cheap, embarrassing and junk at various points during the film) and Walling has been getting frustrated at the downturn of Tredway's "integrity" as a company. Walling's wife Mary (a surprisingly sexy this time June Allyson -- who knew she was rockin' some hot abs?!?!) urges him to quit rather than "die a slow death" at Tredway. Another disillusioned VP is Jesse Grimm (crusty Dean Jagger) in charge of manufacturing; Grimm is planning to retire and chuck the company. Next we have pat-you-on-the-back sales VP Josiah Walter Dudley (Paul Douglas) who has had to sell the rather inferior product not on its merits but on the quality of his scotch and his winning personality. Married Dudley is having an affair with a secretary (an unusually reigned-in performance by Shelley Winters who shines in her rather small role) and is planning on sneaking off for a romantic weekend when Bullard's board meeting is called. The last major player is Julia Tredway (a slightly manic Barbara Stanwyck) who is the daughter of the company's founder and consequently owns a HUGE HONKIN' CHUNK of Tredway stock. Tredway's father apparently jumped out the window during a past financial crisis and Bullard took over the company and served as a father figure (or possibly MORE -- that's never made clear) for Barbara Stanwyck's character. Unfortunately, in recent years Bullard has grown distant from Julia causing her to look longingly out office highrise windows from time to time as if contemplating daddy's choice for herself.
Suspense is ratcheted up nicely as we are kept waiting for SOMEBODY to find out that Bullard is actually dead. The VPs wait in the boardroom for Bullard to arrive and eventually give up and leave. When Bullard's death is finally made public, the scramble begins among the VPs as to the naming of a successor. The shady deals and backroom handshakes are too labyrinthine to go into here but everybody is trying to curry everybody else's favor as a power struggle ensues between those who want Fredric March's soul-less beancounter as president and those who don't. Alliances form back and forth and the final climactic scene involving the vote really leaves you guessing. AND it's a real nail biter as well. Illicit sex is dealt with matter-of-factly which is strange for a film of this vintage; the dalliances between married businessmen and secretaries are shown rather realistically without averting the camera's eye. There is also conflict aplenty -- June Allyson wants William Holden to choose family over work, Fredric March releases a rosy financial statement undercutting Louis Calhern's stock manipulations, Dean Jagger is out on a pleasure boat somewhere and won't come back for the vote, Barbara Stanwyck gives Fredric March her proxy and then shows up at the vote anyway...
EXECUTIVE SUITE shapes up with twists and turns aplenty providing lots of drama in the board room. It's quite like a gripping courtroom drama only without the court room. This is the cutthroat world of high finance and everybody's got something up their sleeves. Performances are uniformly excellent by the entire cast. My only slight quibble is that the final resolution of the film seems a little rushed. But with this tiny quibble hardly worth mentioning, I highly recommend you take a look at this film and see who does what to whom and why.


Weaverman said...

I know I saw this as a kid and remember being bored which means nothing as my attention span was probabably short and focused on action. But it does probably explain why I've bypassed it several times since. Needs to be checked out by me again. The cast is truly amazing!

Cerpts said...

I tell ya if I had seen this movie even 5 years ago I probably wouldn't have gotten into it either. As I say, nothing bores me more than the "financial world" but this flick is so much more than that. I think you'll be surprised.