Friday, September 10, 2010

Corporate Politics Take Center Stage in "Executive Suite"

I first saw Executive Suite in an unlikely setting: a broadcast manage-ment class at Indiana University in 1978. I don’t remember how the film pertained to the class (or if the professor just wanted to take a break from lecturing). But the film, an engrossing look at corporate politics, stuck with me over the years. I didn’t see it again until my wife and I discovered a copy at a local video store in the 1990s. This second viewing surprised me—Executive Suite was far better than I remembered.

The opening scene, shot in first-person, has business executive Avery Bullard entering a skyscraper, taking an elevator, and sending a telegram to his board of directors about a meeting at six o'clock. Bullard then leaves the building, hails a taxi, and keels over dead. It’s a terrific sequence, all the more effective for its lack of music (which is replaced by bells and street sounds).

We quickly learn that the 56-year-old Bullard was president of Tredway, the nation’s third-largest furniture manufacturer, located in Millburgh, Pennsylvania. After the death of his second-in-command, Bullard delayed in naming a successor. As a result, Bullard’s untimely death places the company in the hands of five vice-presidents with equal authority. Since Wall Street viewed Tredway as a one-man company, the VPs realize the criticality of naming a replacement to Bullard over the weekend.

Walter Pidgeon tries to reason with Barbara Stanwyck.
Loren Shaw (Fredric March), Tredway’s
ambitious VP of finance, quickly starts lining up the required votes to become the company’s new president. But his “profit first” approach clashes with the philosophy of board members Fred Alderson (Walter Pidgeon) and Don Walling (William Holden). They believe that investing in research and producing quality furniture will attract loyal customers and, eventually, generate long-term company growth. Alderson and Walling launch a frantic drive to find their own candidate capable of defeating Shaw. Blackmail, illegal stock trading, and a spurned lover all come into play before the board of directors finally selects Avery Bullard’s succesor.

I admit a penchant for movies where the plot builds to a event scheduled for a specific time (e.g., the assassination in Day of the Jackal). Director Robert Wise, one of Hollywood’s most versatile directors, expertly shapes Executive Suite into a “time ticking” film. As the clock counts down to the climatic vote, it’s fascinating to watch alliances shift and deals fall through. It’s equally compelling to follow the philosophical underpinnings of the decisions made (e.g., profit vs. quality, traditional methods vs. new ones).

It's all about profit according to March's Shaw.
The superstar cast includes Holden, Pidgeon, Barbara Stanwyck and June Allyson. For my money, the standout performances are delivered by Fredric March and Paul Douglas. After two decades as a leading man, March gave some of his best performances in supporting roles in the 1950s and 1960s (see also Inherit the Wind and Seven Days in May). He captures the ruthlessness and the impatient frustration that makes Shaw such a vivid character. Paul Douglas is equally good in a smaller role, as a confident executive who gets backed into a corner. It’s a nice change-of-pace for Douglas, who specialized in playing nice guys in comedies like The Solid Gold Cadillac and It Happens Every Spring.

Executive Suite is often compared with 1956’s Patterns, another boardroom drama that was adapted from a Rod Serling TV play. Most critics prefer Patterns, which we finally saw in the late 1990s. We find them hard to compare; they’re two very different films, each fine in its own right. Patterns may be the more realistic of the two, but Executive Suite offers an optimistic viewpoint that works better as sheer entertainment.


  1. Rick, you have chosen to write about one of my very favorites. I too love a tale that counts down to an event (thinking of The Manchurian Candidate and The Best Man). I think Fredric March is one of the true greats, and he delivers in this movie. As Shaw, I loved his little mannerism of using the handkerchief to twist and wipe his brow, always present as a sign of his inner tension. Paul Douglas too was wonderful as a really pitiable lonely man whom Shaw was nasty enough to spy on and humiliate. Heck, they were all good. I liked that June Allyson, in her usual role as the supportive wife, actually was involved with her husband in discussing business instead of just making him a drink and patting his shoulder. The lack of music was inspired in this case. I have to say, since you mentioned Fredric March in Inherit the Wind, that this was a performance for the ages. He and Spencer Tracy created an acting tour-de-force that can't be matched. March's performance was perfect in my eyes. I saw a remake with Jack Lemmon in the Tracy role and George C. Scott in the March role. Scott, a fantastic actor, just couldn't pull off that part like Fredric March. I was really surprised to see that. Anyway, I really liked your insightful article!

  2. I think "Executive Suite" should be required viewing for filmmaking classes. I like movies that move, where one doesn't notice artsy fartsy direction; where the direction becomes "invisible" and keeps the story progressing. I was initially flummoxed and then profoundly intrigued when I realized I wasn't hearing any opening music. Talk about thinking outside the box. Literally! How wonderfully inventive! "Executive Suite" features a strong story with very capable performers. As Becky pointed out we hear realistic discussions between spouses in an era where we often just saw wives serve drinks or dinners or kisses goodbye or goodnight. I really like Paul Douglas and find this to be an interesting contrast to "Solid Gold Cadillac" when studying business films. Your article was remarkable, Rick, and your analysis impeccable. Very well done!

  3. Rick, For me, I was amazed at how perfectly this film showed how big business worked. This film was made in 1954 and the way in which business was performed has changed, but.. big business itself hasn't changed much. Everyone's performance was wonderful in this film especially Nina Foch. I also liked William Holden and June Allyson together, at first I thought an odd combo, but.. as it turned out, they worked well together. Thank you for your awesome review!