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The president of Tredway Corp. has unexpectedly died. Long live the new president. But who will the exec be? There's no official line of succession...and so the shady deals and insider back-stabbing begin. Boardroom and boudoir politics play out in this star-packed tale of corporate machinations directed by versatile Robert Wise (The Sound of Music, The Set-Up). A bottom-line opportunist (Frederic March) and an idealistic manufacturing VP (William Holden) emerge as leading candidates for the top post. But while power-suited men maneuver, a woman (Barbara Stanwyck) may have the most clout. She's the founder's daughter and the company's major stockholder...and may be the velvet power behind the Tredway throne.
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The actual "drama" is so light. The tension isn't thick. The 'plot' is dragged out with no end in sight. There are no interesting characters. Emotions are toned down. The script isn't clever or interesting. Everybody is in a bad mood. It's all somber and sober. It's like watching a funeral in slow motion. I couldn't watch even half of it.
You won't be surprised to learn that a TV show spin-off of this dull flick died quickly. Note that nobody else has ever since Executive Suite tried to make a similar movie--certainly no remake. There are dramatic business films out there like Wall Street. They have so many qualities that are absent from Executive Suite.
Who might like this? Business school students. Owners of large furniture companies.
Based upon a best-selling novel (well worth reading, by the way), the story begins simply & starkly: the head of a major company (whom we never see face to face) drops dead in the street without leaving a chosen successor. The board of directors must then choose one from among themselves, with the prototypical 1-percenter (Frederic March) positioning himself to claim the throne. If this means insider trading, blackmail, or whatever else is necessary, he'll do it to get what he wants. Yet he's not just a paper-thin villain twirling his black moustache -- clearly this is how he sees the world, as an accountant's ledger -- and he obviously believes that what he's doing is best for the company & the stockholders, the only ones who really matter to him.
Reluctantly opposing him is the younger research & development man (William Holden), someone who isn't afraid to get his hands dirty in the manufacturing plants & who knows the workers as actual human beings. At first he only wants to support another board member, someone to oppose Frederic March; but as the story progresses, he sees that none of the men he thought might fill the bill can actually do the job. At last he's driven to seek it for himself, even as events move more & more against him.
But that's just the barest outline of the plot. The all-star cast isn't just there for name value -- every character has a part to play, a personality to reveal, a sub-plot of his or her own to resolve. And while the 1950s business world was very much a man's world, we're given several supposedly subsidiary female characters who turn out to possess a lot of will, drive, and integrity -- often more than the men they work for & sometimes love. Even the slinky mistress/arm candy who might easily be dismissed as a blonde bimbo turns out to have a sardonic wit, acting almost as a Greek chorus to her hedonistic executive lover.
Which brings up the script, written by Ernest Lehman. It's a marvel of precision & insight, deftly letting us know everything we need to know about the characters & the story with a minimum of exposition. A single line of dialogue often reveals the true nature of its speaker, so much so that we know more about him than he does himself. Often a minor character who appears for just one brief scene & gets just 2 or 3 lines of dialogue serves to highlight an entire aspect of the film's world, as when the employees who fear losing their jobs momentarily talk with William Holden. There are no faceless ciphers here; everyone is a human being, with a life & a struggle to make something of it.
I have the earlier studio edition of the DVD, which features an informative & thoughtful commentary track by Oliver Stone -- I'm not sure if the Warner Archive re-release features it as well. But if you can find a copy with the commentary, you won't be disappointed. Stone talks in depth about the film, both as cinema & as social portrait, pointing out how American business took the predatory approach that dominates & destroys the country now.
In many ways, the film strikes me as similar to the scathing TV dramas Rod Serling wrote, with his harried, ulcer-eaten, conscience-stricken mid-level businessmen -- his film "Patterns" would make a good double feature with this film, in fact. It's not an attack on business per se -- if anything, it's a plea for an honest, human business model -- and as such, it's all the more timely today. Most highly recommended!
The linear plot focuses on the sudden death of Tredway Corporation president Avery Bullard on a Friday afternoon. With no succession plan in place - a gap felt by many companies today - six VPs are all possible candidates to take over - perennial also-ran Alderson, oily Caswell, weak-willed Dudley, retirement-ready Grimm, power-hungry Shaw and up-and-comer Walling. Each has his own advantages and obvious shortcomings, with the additional complication of Julia Tredway, the chief stockholder, who is also the daughter of the company founder and as it turns out, Bullard's frustrated mistress. What follows are the weekend machinations of the men, culminating in a Monday morning showdown in the corporate boardroom where the successor is named. What I like most about the film is Wise's no-frills approach toward what could have been a rather by-the-numbers story about company politics. He takes the predictably episodic aspect of following the five men and integrates the threads tightly and seamlessly. Wise uses no music to highlight the drama, which ironically allows the histrionics to work on their own, and a neat first-person POV to open the film dramatically.
The heavy-duty cast does well in economic turns that epitomize the concept of ensemble. As Walling, William Holden was at the height of his film career in 1954 (he was also in Sabrina,The Country Girl and The Bridges at Toko-Ri that year), and he provides the comparatively youthful charisma to get away with the high-minded speech at the end. With her trademark frog-throated sincerity, June Allyson plays Walling's dutiful wife with efficiency. Walter Pidgeon also makes his moments count as Alderson, especially in the cathartic scene when he comes to accept his own limitations. As Dudley, Paul Douglas plays another variation of the bearish, brash role he played in Joseph Mankiewicz's A Letter to Three Wives, while a young Shelley Winters is surprisingly low-key as his secretary/mistress.
Louis Calhern turns his dignified persona inside out as Caswell, and Nina Foch brings a palpable sense of desperate grief to the role of Bullard's executive assistant. Dean Jagger has precious few moments as Grimm, while Barbara Stanwyck moves securely into Joan Crawford-at-Pepsi territory and gets to have a major meltdown as Julia. The final scene she has with Allyson speaking about the role of the tolerant wife is a dated piece of pre-feminist whimsy. Yet, out of this impressive gallery of scenery chewers, the best performance comes from Fredric March, who brings uncompromising, Machiavellian malevolence to a simmering boil as Shaw. The last scenes move so quickly that the ending feels a bit pat, but no matter, this movie still makes the backroom world of corporate politics utterly fascinating.
The 2007 DVD, released as a single disc or as part of the five-disc, six-film Barbara Stanwyck - The Signature Collection, boasts an enthusiastic commentary track from maverick filmmaker Oliver Stone, who views the film as a cultural milestone as well as a cinematic one (his own Wall Street is obviously inspired by it). As was typical with theatrical screenings back in the 1950's, there are a couple of vintage 1954 MGM shorts included - one an 11-minute live-action Pete Smith featurette, "Out for Fun", and the other is a Tex Avery cartoon, "Billy Boy". The original theatrical trailer completes the DVD extras.