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Executive Suite is one of the better films in the boxed set Barbara Stanwyck: The Signature Collection. She's just one player in an ensemble of ten and receives third billing.
Synopsis: Millburgh is a one-company town dominated by the Tredway Corporation. Its President Avery Bullard drops dead on New York's Wall Street, igniting a tempest back at corporate headquarters. The five VPs have equal standing and begin jockeying for position. Slick playboy George Caswell (Louis Calhern) sells his stock short, gambling that Bullard's death won't be detected before the market opens on Monday. Sharp numbers expert Loren Shaw (Fredric March) usurps temporary command, raising the ire of old salt Frederick Alderson (Walter Pidgeon), and canceling the experiments of R&D specialist McDonald "Don" Walling (William Holden). Shaw makes a deal for Caswell's vote, and interrupts salesman Walter Dudley (Paul Douglas) with his mistress Eva (Shelley Winters) to secure his vote as well. Walling's wife Mary (June Allyson) first pushes him to go for the presidency, and then tries to keep him away from it. But the deciding vote will be submitted by the majority stockholder, Julia O. Tredway (Barbara Stanwyck). Julia was Avery Bullard's frustrated long-term girlfriend, and she's in a fragile state of mind.
As lean and businesslike as a takeover deal, Executive Suite builds its story with maximum efficiency. A man falls dead on the sidewalk and before the ambulance comes one of his employees has concocted a scheme to profit from the news. Each candidate for the presidency is judged in terms of the woman in his life. Caswell ignores his trophy date to worry about his rash stock deal. Old Fred Alderson's wife badgers him to pursue the top job that he should have had years ago. Walter Dudley's mistress is a guilty liability. Only the calculating Loren Shaw seems to have no family life; he lives and breathes the company and behaves as if the presidency were already his. Deciding vote Julia Tredway just wants out of the firm that monopolized the attention of the love of her life. When Loren asks her for her vote, she's contemplating suicide.
Quiet Jesse Grimm (Dean Jagger) is a retirement-age VP beyond personal ambitions. Executive secretary Erica Martin (Nina Foch) maintains a professional decorum even as she's sickened by the shark-like behavior around her. It looks like the sweaty Loren Shaw has the job sewn up.
That's where Executive Suite goes soft in a way that identifies it as a product of the early 1950s, when most mainstream movies about The American Way Of Life could be counted on to affirm that justice and virtue always triumph. The obvious underdog winner is young Don Walling, the only one of the VPs who rolls up his sleeves with the rank and file and shares their concern for the good of all. Keen to improve the product, Don is seen experimenting with some kind of chemical process, either as a wood finish or a wood substitute. Since it sounds like Walling is going to make furniture from plastic, he might as well be wearing a halo on his head. The essentially decent Walling grinds his teeth in frustration when he sees the other execs hatching their cheap schemes.
Mary Walling is played by the quintessential super-wife June Allyson, another sign that Don walks on water. Being married to Allyson in a 50s movie is like having the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval tattooed on one's rump. A cheerful morale booster for the male ego, Allyson charms James Stewart's Glenn Miller into finding his magic orchestration, and urges Alan Ladd to blast down more Commie MIGs in The McConnell Story. Her role in Executive Suite is a bit more complex. Writer Ernest Lehman seems very aware of 'booster wives', the hausfrau lobbyists that will do anything to secure the promotion and the house and car that go with it. Allyson's Mary first gives Walling some verbal jabs, spurring him to assert himself on the corporate level. When Don's feelers get a negative response from his associates Mary pulls back on the reins, assuring her man that she's all for him no matter what happens. Then Mary withholds a critical phone message, a choice she almost immediately regrets. The viewer must decide if Mary's efforts are wifely support, or ordinary meddling. (* See Footnote #1 below).
(Spoilers) The final scene of Executive Suite builds considerable tension as the voting for Tredway's new president goes into its final rounds. But the film's grip on the audience fades when Loren Shaw and the 'upstart' Walling go head to head. Shaw topples like a house of cards, fumbling and sweating as he defends his policy of making cheap furniture to hawk at cheap prices. Walling comes on like the wrath of God, smashing a sample of Shaw's crummy product and talking about pride -- pride in the workplace, pride in the knowledge that a superior American product is being made (no tears, please). William Holden puts a feral snarl into his voice to let us know that he has the drive and the guts to do what's best for the company. Loren Shaw just wilts, Julia Treadway is given a new lease on life and Mary will be trading cloth coats for furs. The show ends with the audience ready to rush out and buy Tredway stock.
Robert Wise keeps everything on the rails except for Barbara Stanwyck's 'hysteria' scene, which gets a little too big. Otherwise his actors give better than average work. Shelley Winters is actually subdued, making the most of her standard 'other woman' role. Wise keeps the Little League subplot in its proper perspective, although the script makes it obvious that, like his son Mike (Tim Considine), Walling must go for the big prize because he's a fighter at heart. Good Old Mary helps Mike to practice his pitching and keep his eye on the prize, as if she were raising a pit bull.
Director Wise's films were always technically acute. He repeats his clock motif from The Set-Up with the ringing of the Millburgh church bell. Executive Suite has no music score, a very effective gambit. In the Manhattan opening, the only audio on the soundtrack is traffic noise. (* See Footnote #2 below).
Warners' DVD of Executive Suite is transferred flat full frame, when its aspect ratio is probably 1:66; it's too bad that Warners doesn't normally do 1:66 enhanced transfers. The show still looks good, in reasonably crisp B&W. Director Oliver Stone's commentary focuses on the venality of the various deals on screen, and starts from the assumption that all business is EVIL.
The other extras are a trailer (with music), a painful Pete Smith comedy short and one of Tex Avery's most amusing cartoons, the minimalist masterpiece about Billy Boy, a goat that eats anything. Tex makes the limited animation into a joke; instead of animating his main character to walk over and step into his car, the hillbilly wolf oozes across the screen.
1. Just the next year, José Ferrer directed June Allyson in The Shrike, a filmed play that makes pointed use of Allyson's squeaky-clean image. Allyson plays Ann Downs, a manipulating wife who schemes behind the scenes to benefit her talented but (to her) insufficiently aggressive husband. The bird called The Shrike sadistically impales its prey on a thorn before eating it, and Ann is a malignant monster.
2. By far the most interesting film in the 50s 'business ethics' subgenre is Fielder Cook's Patterns, or Patterns of Power, a much more ruthless story of the unreasonable pressures in company politics. The movie doesn't give a hang about flattering the American way of life, and shows good men thrown to the wolves. Written by Rod Serling, it stars Van Heflin, Everett Sloan, Ed Begley, Beatrice Straight (The Nun's Story, Network) and Elizabeth Wilson (The Graduate).
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by Glenn Erickson