Executive Suite (1954)

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Executive Suite is a story of the high rise corporate jungle where on a daily basis it’s a Darwinian experiment not only pitting company against company but, on a microscale, man against man. After all, in the most cynical sense, that’s what free market capitalism is.

Top to bottom, the film boasts rich reservoirs of talent from sure-handed director Robert Wise and screenwriting newcomer Ernest Lehman who would soon be a hot commodity in the industry thanks to the likes of The Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and North by Northwest (1959).

It also proves to be an All-Star cast if there ever was one,  stacked with at least 10 easily recognizable names rounding out a lineup which could go toe-to-toe with any other drama of the decade on talent alone. Such a bevy of stars hearkens back to the golden years of MGM in the 1930s before television was ever a thing and they had as many stars as there were stars in the sky.

Today Executive Suite admittedly doesn’t get much coverage as a drama because, in spite of its vast ensemble, it’s not necessarily grandiose or vibrant, even compared to later Wise successes like West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). However, this in no way should downplay its striking qualities and there are some compelling ones.

Out of all the stylistic choices, one of the most noticeable ones and, subsequently, unusual decisions for the era is the absence of any form of traditional musical scoring. In this regard, we could say the scenes are not manipulated by any amount of sonorousness. What we see is making some claim at authenticity with street noise in lieu of diegetic sound and Chet Huntley introducing our narrative set in the upper echelons of a skyscraper.

Though a bit gimmicky by today’s standards, Wise does immediately catch our eyes with an extended POV shot taking on the perspective of an unseen big wig name Bulliard, the formidable head of Tredway Furniture Co. He’s coming back to town and has slated a meeting for that same evening, upon his return. Except something highly unsuspected happens. One might blame the taxing strain of his work but he winds up dropping dead in the street. Some scrounger conveniently picks up his discarded wallet, making any form of identification more difficult for the police.

The company is thrown into an uproar following his sudden and untimely death, especially because there is no true contingency plan as the deceased had no single, hand-picked second-in-command.

Nina Foch is the secretary managing a vast network of information, funneling down to all the executive suite. She is the runner between offices and boardrooms, relaying the information to all the necessary contacts as Bulliard’s right-hand assistant.

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They gather for their impromptu meeting. There’s Frederick Y. Alderson (Walter Pidgeon), a career man who has been by the side of his friend Mr. Bulliard for many, many years now. Loren Shaw (Frederic March) is a relatively new addition to the company but as chief controller and a shrewd numbers man; he’s been able to up the annual earnings at Tredway as of late.

J. Walter Dudley (Paul Douglas) is the charismatic head of sales who could talk anyone into buying just about anything. He’s that good. Of course, his dirty little secret is he’s been embroiled in an affair with his secretary (Shelley Winters).

The ambitious young family man Don Walling (William Holden) holds a more hands-on position in the factory, overseeing design and development while the old warhorse, Mr. Grimm (Dean Jagger), is in charge of manufacturing. However, with their product going down in quality to cut expenses, he’s got an idea to retire. He holds no pride in his work anymore.

Between all these men and the opportunistic snake-in-the-grass, George Caswell (Louis Calhern), we have the gathering of the top brass and quality acting talent. It’s a bountiful proposition getting all these people in a room together. And when the news breaks it’s essentially an exhibition of “who died and made you king” as the factions scramble into action, assembling to vie for some form of supremacy.

Shaw is the first man spurred into action in the wake of Bulliard’s death because though Alderson holds private aspirations, he resigns himself to acquiescence. But that doesn’t mean they’re going down without a fight. Walling plays the number games late at night trying to figure where everyone stands. He confides in his wife (June Allyson) and plays catch with his son but his work-life balance is suffering. His wife worries the instability will bury him professionally.

It’s true the names are continually interchanging thanks to dirty politics and a plethora of finagling, leveraging, and leaning to line everything up for the impending nominations session to be undertaken on a closed ballot.

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In a man’s world, it’s fitting that Barbara Stanwyck would be the only woman with any sway on the meeting of the mind’s thanks to her stock holdings in her father’s company, which Bulliard helped appreciate. She doesn’t have much screentime but her very financial capital makes her crucial to the picture as an unpredictable swing vote. Her wild card and some late arrivals obscure the resolution to the last possible instant in thrilling fashion.

It’s true Henry Fonda was up for a part in the movie and that inkling gives me a rather obvious realization. Executive Suite does play like a bigger, loftier version of 12 Angry Men (1957). Especially in its most crucial minutes. Far be it from me to say people sitting around a boardroom table cannot be interesting because once more I was invested in what decision was arrived upon and I knew it took every one of those actors around that table to make it stick.

Someone has to rise to the occasion and that person is William Holden, positioned as the initially hesitant one, dismissed as still inexperienced, and yet he has a vision the others lack. He’s not a tired old man. He’s not driven solely by profits or bitter over past affronts.

He’s looking beyond to new territory and a future where the company can prosper not simply because of penny-pinching but an actual pride in the quality of the product they can offer their customers. If you wanted to make a sweeping statement, you could say he, even momentarily, redeems the American Dream, a symbol of the American everyman with his white picket fence, beautiful wife, and high ideals. That is until the next board meeting happens. But I would like to think he is capable as a leader for change. It’s true we need people like him in this world of ours.

4/5 Stars

The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

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The people making the decisions, at least some of them, undoubtedly knew that this title implied some sort of sordid melodrama, a Douglas Sirk picture anyone? And yet I do admit despite the emptiness in the title, there’s some truth to its implications. Hollywood often is this gaudy, outrageous, maniacal monster looking for people and things to gorge itself on.

Except this is no Sunset Boulevard (1950) or Ace in the Hole (1951) for that matter. It’s not quite as biting or even as tragic or twisted as Wilder’s films but that’s what comes with having Vincente Minnelli at the helm. But rather than critique that decision in any way I think someone like Minnelli thinks about such a picture in a way that Wilder never would. That in itself makes for interesting creative deviations.

First, the camera setups feel impeccable, like a Hitchcock or Ophuls, finding the perfect moments to bring attention to a shot and the precise instances to sit back and allow things to unfold. It’s utilizing a bit of a flashy framing device like a Letter to Three Women (1949) or All About Eve (1950) but in this case, it relates the story of one Hollywood producer through the eyes of the people who worked with him.

Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas) is a man whose father was one of the most hated men in Hollywood and also one of the most successful. Jonathan buries his father and with hardly a penny to his name looks to rise out of the ashes his dad left behind. He just might make good too. So as such, it’s another exploration of Hollywood top to bottom, starting very much at the bottom.

That’s part of what makes this story compelling as we watch an ambitious man claw his way from poverty row and B pictures using a joint partnership with another up-and-comer (Barry Sullivan) to slide his way into a gig as a big-time producer. It’s at these beginning stages where they succeed in making a name for themselves under producer Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon).

For Sullivan, he is so closely tied to the business, it’s almost as if he’s wedded to the picture industry.  It’s both his life and obsession every waking hour. So when he’s done with one and waiting for the next he has what can best be termed, “the after picture blues.” He’s still trying to adopt his philosophy for women and apply it to his films — love them and leave them.

In passing, we get an eye into the bit players and the small-timers working behind the scenes just to make a decent day’s wage whether assistants or agents or pretty starlets moonlighting as companions at night. There’s even a very obvious current of sexual politics where women are naturally assumed to be at the beck and call of any higher up to pay them any favors. It’s the grimy, sleazy side of the business that continues to reveal itself in due time with connivers and drunks and suicidal wretches conveniently hidden by bright lights and trick photography.

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Further still, there are screen tests, meetings, rushes, and sound stages, makeup artists, and costume designers each a part of the unwieldy snake that makes up a film production. All the nitty-gritty that we conceive to be part of the movie-making whirly gig churning out pictures each and every year. They say if it’s not broke then don’t fix but what if it is broken and no one is fixing it? I write this right in the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s ousting due to a laundry list of accusations against him.

One of those involved in this beast receives a stellar introduction of her own. We meet Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner) with her feet hanging down from the eaves of an old mansion that belonged to her deceased father. She like Shields comes from Hollywood royalty and she like him is also looking to get out of her father’s shadow.

Jonathan is derisively called “Genius Boy” and maybe he is but opportunistic might be a more applicable term. Still, when he makes his mind up, he cannot be stopped and when he deems this smalltime actress will be his next star, he makes it so.

The same goes for novelist turned screenwriter James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell) who Jonathan is able to coax out to Hollywood albeit reluctantly and works his magic to get him to stay along with his southern belle of a wife (Gloria Grahame) who is completely mesmerized by this magical land out west. Again, Jonathan turns his new partnership into a lucrative success but not without marginalizing yet another person.

One of the most interesting suggestions made by the film is not how much Jonathan ruined his collaborators — alienated them yes — but he really helped their careers. In some ways, it reflects what happens with great men who are lightning rods and always thinking about the next big thing. They’re obsessed with ideas and connections, finding those relationships that will lead to power, wealth, acclaim, and awards. Any amount of honest-to-goodness friendship goes out the window.

But for all those who felt slighted, there’s almost no need to feel truly sorry for them because they bought into this industry with its promises and they bit into the fruit. Sure, their feathers got ruffled and their egos bruised but it goes with the territory.

For everything we want to make it out to be, it’s a tooth and claw operation and those who get ahead usually are the most ruthless of the bunch. Whether we should feel sorry for them or not is up for debate. But maybe we should because a mausoleum full of Academy Awards means nothing. A life of power will be ripped from you the day you die as will the wealth, elegance, and extravagance. It will all be gone. Then, you’re neither bad nor beautiful. You’re simply forgotten. In that respect, this films has meager glimpses of a Citizen Kane (1941) or even real-life figures like Orson Welles and David O. Selznick.

Except in the sensitive hands of Minnelli, this picture is neither an utter indictment of Hollywood nor does it take a complete nosedive in showing how far the man has fallen. It even reveals itself in the performance of Kirk Douglas who while still brimming with his usual intensity chooses to channel his character more so through the vein of charisma.

So if we cannot love or admire his dealings there’s still a modicum amount of respect we must hold for him. Everyone comes out with a shred of dignity and the film’s end is more lightly comic than we have any right to suppose. But then again, we’re not in the moviemaking business and they are.

4.5/5 Stars

Forbidden Planet (1956)

Forbiddenplanetposter.jpgWe’re all part monsters in our subconscious. ~ Leslie Nielsen as Commander Adams

I couldn’t help but recall Han Solo’s line about the Millenium Falcon in the original Star Wars in response to Luke’s derision. After giving his pride and joy an affectionate pat he defends her reputation like so, “She may not look like much but she’s got it where it counts.”

It seems fitting that the line is used to commend Forbidden Planet because this is the film that in many ways made science fiction what it is today. It’s almost too easy to trace the line from this film to the likes of Star Wars and Star Trek and a plethora of others. But today we’re so used to the canonical worlds of established sci-fi that Forbidden Planet might come off as quaint and a bit outmoded. Still, the film has it where it counts even today.

Forbidden Planet was also unprecedented in its day because this was no B-picture. This was A-grade entertainment and that was almost unheard of at the time for science fiction, a historically low budget genre. Leslie Nielsen is given his first starring role while Walter Pidgeon plays the scientist who greets the explorers on the surface of the planet that they were sent to investigate.

But the band of expeditioners who came before them was all but decimated by some unknown force leaving only Dr. Morbius alive (Pidgeon) along with his pretty daughter Altaira (Anne Francis) who has no grasp of what life on earth is like. Commander Adams (Nielsen) is intent on staying on the planet until receiving further instructions from earth.

Still, something doesn’t sit right. There’s something off about Altair IV. A silent, invisible adversary is oftentimes more engaging than a visual one especially when it dwells very close to home and that’s precisely what presents itself moment by moment as the narrative progresses.

From their very first touchdown, this is an incredibly eery picture which manages to carry the audience’s attention for a great deal of the movie. In fact, if this was Star Wars they would have said, “I have a bad feeling about this” at least a couple times. But equally crucial is the subsequent development of the landscape around us that’s at times utterly entrancing.

The key to the film is that everyone plays it straight and serious and in this particular case it doesn’t come off as camp. There’s a gravity to it all that’s mesmerizing even in its bits of antiquity because the world is full of grand endeavors in creativity.

The electronic instrumentation provides what is purported to be the cinematic world’s first fully atonal electric score and even today each note is unnerving to the core. Whereas the theremin has somehow entered into the realm of parody these notes still seem resonant and they perform far better than any traditional score might have in the same circumstances.

At times Forbidden Planet showcases a very simple, even austere mise en scene and other times expands to almost labyrinthian proportions. The sweeping palette photographed in Eastmancolor with CinemaScope certainly adds to its allure straight out of the 1950s while still managing to take cues from stories from centuries prior, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, being the most obvious inspiration.

While not necessarily prophetic or correct in all its assertions about space travel (as far as we can possibly know) there’s a commitment to the world and a specificity to its inner workings that makes the Forbidden Planet into a fairly immersive place — a world alternative to our own that we are able to explore and I think that’s part of its unique status as a pioneering film. Because now we are so used to worldmaking and fantasies outside the realm of Earth whether it be Star Wars or Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter.

Here we see it too but it comes out of a time where most stories were human stories planted on earth or at the very least had the semblance of the reality that we know to be true here. And yet here was a narrative that dared transplant our human shortcomings to the other end of the universe in an entirely different paradigm while showing how man is his fallen nature can still make a mess of life even there. It’s a fairly powerful statement full of human psychology as much as it is about conquering new frontiers.

Robby the Robot (designed by Robert Kinoshita and the team at MGM) stands as a landmark among cinematic robots since he is his own entity as a standalone character. Far from turning on man, he’s about as useful as we might possibly think — even creating gallons of whiskey for the thirsty cook (Earl Holliman). The film was also a trendsetter in describing space travel in increments of light while miniskirts far from being a thing of the future still made a splash with 50s audiences as worn so provocatively by Anne Francis.

Through its final credits, Forbidden Planet is a special picture and that uniqueness goes far beyond its rightful place as one of the seminal explorations in science-fiction. The only thing left to say seems to be despite the iconic nature of its film poster, it has absolutely no bearing on the plot whatsoever. Still, it makes for a good piece of advertising. It must be if someone as oblivious as me is talking about Forbidden Planet over 60 years later.

4/5 Stars

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Starring a cast including Roddy McDowell, Walter Pidgeon, Maureen O’Hara, and Donald Crisp, with director John Ford, the film is told from the eyes of a young boy (McDowell) from a Welsh mining family. Huw has five older brothers, an older sister, and two strong but goodhearted parents. As times get tougher, he sees one brother get married and two others leave for America. Huw faces his own struggles recuperating from an injury and surviving his schooling. Along the way he is aided by the kindly preacher (Pidgeon). However, soon he sees his family torn apart even more when his sister is unhappily married off, a brother is killed, and two others lose their jobs. Then, finally when his sister returns, the town folk start a scandal, and Mr. Morgan becomes trapped in the mine. It does end on a good not and the family stays resilient. This film is full of adversity but more importantly it has warmth and good people. The camera work is excellent and the Welsh singing is memorable.

4.5/5 Stars

Mrs. Miniver (1942)

Starring Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Teresa Wright, and directed by William Wyler, this film tells the touching if not sad story of an English family. We follow their life from the happy moments before World War II to the hardships in the midst of it. Through it all Mrs. Miniver is a quietly strong wife and mother who holds her family together. Whether she is waiting in a bomb shelter, capturing a German parachutist, or simply taking care of her family, she exhibits amazing courage and fortitude. She is a testament to those fighting on the home front  Mrs. Miniver is not a part of Dunkirk like her husband. She is not flying like her son but her role is just as important. Even in the closing when tragedy has hit Britain, the country and its Mrs. Minivers stay resilient. First used as a propaganda device in the 1940s this film is till moving today. When you see any of these people rejoice or suffer you too are moved.

4/5 Stars