‘Executive Suite’: Life and Death at the Top

Executive Suite Poster:  Funny, but completely misleading.  That chick with Bill Holden is supposed to be June Allyson -- she looks more like va-va-voom Elaine Stewart from 'The Bad and the Beautiful.'

Executive Suite Poster: Funny, but misleading. That chick with Bill Holden on the upper left is supposed to be June Allyson — she looks more like va-va-va-voom Elaine Stewart from ‘The Bad and the Beautiful.’

Metro’s classy 1954 boardroom drama, “Executive Suite,” never gets the respect it deserves. The picture is engrossing from the first moment till the last shot.  It opens with sounds of traffic and pedestrians over which veteran television anchorman, Chet Huntley, announces:

It is always up there, 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.

Executive Suite Titles

BONNG!

Immediately after, you hear a great bell in a clock tower roll out a big, sonorous D:  BONNG!  EXECUTIVE SUITE

Then another BONNG!  WILLIAM HOLDEN; BONNG! JUNE ALLYSON; BONNG!  BARBARA STANWYCK BONNG!. . . and so on through the all-star cast.  It’s incredibly portentous, and even a little bit silly, in a nice way.

The director, Robert Wise, stages the opening scene in an unusually imaginative way for a big studio picture:  the POV puts us in the shoes of Avery Bullard, dynamic president of the Tredway Corporation (a furniture manufacturing concern).  He has just finished a meeting on Wall Street and is now on his way back to his headquarters in Pennsylvania.  First, he stops in at the Western Union office in the lobby.  We see only his hands as he writes out the following:

Avery Bullard sends his final wire.

Avery Bullard sends his final wire.

He hands it to the telegrapher.  We hear him say “Straight wire.”  He pays, we go out onto the street with him (we’re still in his shoes), he hails a taxi . . . then the son of a bitch drops dead of a stroke in the midday sun.  His wallet flies out of his hand as he falls; a passerby scoops it up, pockets the cash and throws his billfold away in a wire trash basket.  From this opening sequence till the last frame, it’s a non-stop joy ride, skillfully directed and acted, cleverly plotted and scripted.

Fredric March, William Holden, Walter Pidgeon:  Contenders three:  conniving bean-counter, crusading hero, weak sister.

Fredric March, William Holden, Walter Pidgeon — Contenders three: conniving bean-counter, crusading hero, weak sister.

The sudden death of Bullard leaves the top position at Tredway open for five ambitious veeps to snarl over, which makes up the balance of the picture.  Along with all the corporate jiggery-pokery and hanky-panky, it also offers a prescient commentary about the wrong path down which American business was heading in the post-War boom years, and (ahem) still is. The depiction of how businessmen work their swindles and advance their careers is necessarily simplified and steamed-up — but the central argument of the picture is sound.  It’s one of the most enjoyable movies I know.  I liked it the first time I saw it, but repeated viewings have made me like it more and more. Most unusually, the movie has no score other than the loud tolling of the clock that is housed in Tredway Corp.’s gothic deco headquarters (known as “The Tower”).  The movie’s climax is a board meeting at 6:00 p.m. the following day, so throughout the movie, dramatic scenes are punctuated by the tolling of this clock, which lets us know how near we are to the dramatic conclusion.  It’s an all star cast headed by William Holden, Barbara Stanwyck, Fredric March, Louis Calhern, Paul Douglas, Shelley Winters and several others, and they really know how to slice the bologna thin.  As the late Bullard’s secretary, Nina Foch, in the smallest of the starring roles, gives the busiest performance.  She’s quietly, desperately in love with the man she worked for.  Apparently, he never knew.  Foch makes sure as hell we do . . .

Foch -- rhymes with bosh:  Miss Foch's hands work busily a day . . .

Foch — rhymes with bosh: Miss Foch’s hands work busily a day . . .

She was the only cast member to be nominated for an Oscar, of course.  She lost.  (At the time, she was married to that puling ghoul from the Actors Studio, James Lipton.  Strike two . . . )

The script is by Ernest Lehman (who also wrote “North by Northwest” and “Sweet Smell of Success”), so it’s full of hard-boiled dialogue that’s a pleasure to listen to for its own sake.  Lehman didn’t get a nomination, unfortunately.  That year George Seaton’s adaptation of Clifford Odets’ “The Country Girl” (also starring William Holden) won best adapted screenplay.  Another Holden picture was also nominated, “Sabrina.”  “Executive Suite” was robbed.

The picture is full of great star turns.  Shelley Winters is more controlled than usual and is quite touching as the lovelorn secretary of her married boss, Paul Douglas, who always looks like an ad for Alka-Seltzer.

Paul Douglas, Shelley Winters:  'Honey, it'll be all right.'  Oh, no it won't.

Paul Douglas, Shelley Winters: ‘Honey, it’ll be all right.’ Oh, no it won’t.

I could watch Louis Calhern in anything — he’s one of Peter Arno’s beefy businessmen, half-mast eyes on a martini & palm on a blonde’s caboose. Here’s a test:  look at the four images below and see if you can tell which one is the real Louis Calhern.  I chose these pictures, and even I have trouble picking him out of the lineup.

Number One:

'Fill 'er up.'

‘Fill ‘er up.’

Number Two:

Sizzling Platter

Sizzling Platter

Number Three:

'Look, I told you I was busy.  Wait for me at the bar . . . at the bar!'

‘Look, I told you I was busy. Wait for me at the bar . . . at the bar!’

Number Four:

Makes you kind of pleased to be an American, doesn't it?

‘Makes you kind of pleased to be an American, doesn’t it?’

If you guessed Number Three, congratulations.  If you were here right now, I’d shake you a nice, bone-dry martini.  I’ll have much more to say about Louis Calhern at another time, in another post.  For now, have a look at this clip.  He always earned his salary fair and square.

William Holden is the hero of this picture, an idealistic industrial designer named Don Walling.  Near the end of the picture, he delivers a long speech before the board of directors in which he lays out the wrong direction American business is heading.  Holden handles the material masterfully.  This may be the first picture in which Holden really came into his own as an authoritative voice of reason.  After this picture, at any rate, Holden was never again a boy — even when a script required him to be.  He gives a fine performance in “Picnic,” which came out a year later — in that one, he looks great, sounds great, is great, but he’s also at least fifteen years too old for the role:  he’s a man, not a callow youth.  Holden is such a likable, attractive presence, one is willing to overlook the miscasting, but the story hardly makes sense with a man in a part written for a boy.  But the role of Don Walling is tailor-made for him . . . and incidentally, no actor ever wore a business suit better than Bill Holden.

Jiggery pokery at the top of The Tower.

Jiggery pokery at the top of The Tower.

But the performance I especially love is Fredric March’s.  As Loren Shaw, Tredway’s comptroller, March is the embodiment of sweating duplicity — a man who lives for his charts and matrices:  a skulking, heartless spinner of webs and counter of beans; the only evidence of his humanity is his visible discomfort whenever he’s in the presence of the people over whom his ambition hopes to vault.  Every time his integrity or honesty is challenged, he breaks out in a sweat as he parries the thrusts, and he habitually strokes the palm of one hand with the fingers of the other as he speaks.  He’s Uriah Heep and Richard Nixon stuffed into one gray flannel suit.  He follows every confrontation with his colleagues (which is to say whenever he comes into contact with them) with the same ritual:  he wipes his palms with his handkerchief, then dabs his lips with it, before he returns it to his pocket.  After one such collision, he disposes of the handkerchief after soiling it and retrieves a new one from his desk drawer:  his drawer is full of them.  But he’s really at his funniest when he has to express sympathy or compassion — his bloodless insincerity is a marvel to behold.

March as Loren Shaw: 'That's priced merchandise - it serves a definite purpose in the profit structure of this company. We're not cheating anyone.'

March as Loren Phineas Shaw: ‘That’s priced merchandise — it serves a definite purpose in the profit structure of this company. We’re not cheating anyone.’

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