Friday, July 22, 2016

There's no business like business

I watched Executive Suite tonight. It's got a reputation, and was somewhat honored when it came out back in 1954. This is merited in some ways. In other ways it dates badly.

The plot is somewhat internecine but at heart comes down to this: An industrialist named Avery Bullard dies suddenly on the street. His death sets off jockeying and wheedling for who will take his place at the furniture company he runs. One candidate is a bean counter who only sees the company as a way to return maximum profits to the shareholders. There's another, more idealistic side, finally settling on the young VP of manufacturing.

The movie is directed by Robert Wise, who'd go on to film the iconic-yet-strange musical West Side Story and honor Shirley Jackson's novel in The Haunting. To his credit, he makes some bold choices. The film gets along without a musical score, the opening and closing credits accompanied only by a tolling bell. Bullard's death is an eyecatcher too, with a bit player whose face is never seen expiring as he hails a taxi.

It's well cast, too, with William Holden doing what he can with the idealist, Frederic March sinking his teeth into the cold controller, and Walter Pidgeon (whom will eventually show up in another post of mine) giving fine support as an affable treasurer. Shelley Winters is good too as the unhappy mistress of an executive who's being used. (Shelley was still in her sex symbol phase when this was made.)

Women in general don't get to do much in this film, though. It's basically a soap opera, so you expect the actresses to have meaty roles. But it's about business, so women only get to be wives and lovers and in a few cases secretaries.

Then there's the business milieu itself. The company deals in manufacturing, and Holden's character wants to invest in better methods. At one point a foreman rails against the shoddiness of the product they put out now, saying that Bullard would have broken the chairs and desks, declaring them not good enough. Holden gives a similarly kinetic performance in the boardroom when the final vote is about to be taken. So he wins, and March the professional miser loses.

Doesn't matter. In a few decades the company will still be outsourcing production to China.


susan said...

'maximum profit to the shareholders'

It seems weird to consider that even as far back as 1954, the beginning of boom times for business in the US, that profits for shareholders was already a powerful theme rather than the quality of workmanship or the well-being of the people who made the products. If I ever saw this film it was so long ago that I've forgotten it but it does sound like a very relevant take on how manufacturing would continue to change for the worse as the profit motive strengthened. From your review it sounds as though the cast was very strong too.

Ben said...

The cast, I would say, is overall stronger than the writing. Or not even the writing, just the fact that the whole problem seems to get reduced to one nasty guy, basically, and maybe a couple of opportunists. But maybe I'm expecting too much.