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The Black Maria Review: The Original Mad Men: Robert Wise’s Executive Suite

Written by: Jill Blake, CC2K Film Editor


With the beginning of the end of Mad Men airing this Sunday, it’s time to revisit the corporate drama Executive Suite.

 

William Holden was the king of the 1950s. In 1939, he made his debut in Golden Boy alongside his dear friend Barbara Stanwyck. Throughout the 1940s, Holden was absent from Hollywood while he served in WWII. He then made a huge return with Sunset Blvd. (1950), Born Yesterday (1950), and Stalag 17 (1953), for which he won an Academy Award for Best Actor.

By 1954, Holden had achieved enough clout in Hollywood to receive top-billing in the impressive ensemble drama Executive Suite, directed by Robert Wise. His co-stars? June Allyson, Barbara Stanwyck, Fredric March (Hello, I’m a slightly obsessed and rabid Freddie March fan), Walter Pidgeon, Shelley Winters, Paul Douglas, Louis Calhern, and Nina Foch.

That’s one hell of a cast.

The film opens with Avery Bullard, president of Treadway Corporation, leaving a meeting in New York City, collapsing on the sidewalk and dying. Meanwhile, the board of directors await a different meeting to start, one called by Bullard before his collapse, in the Treadway Corp. executive towers back in Pennsylvania. The board is unaware of Bullard’s demise. It’s late in the night before they realize they have to elect a new president of the company. Cue the likely candidates. First there’s McDonald “Don” Walling (William Holden), an engineer who works alongside many of the plant workers. He isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty and values hard work and craftsmanship. Then there’s Fred Alderson (Walter Pidgeon) who has always seen himself as the successor to Bullard, but doesn’t have the official vice-president title to match. And finally Fredric March is Loren Shaw, the numbers man. His top concern is Treadway’s bottom line. Always. He also possesses a magnificent nervous habit where he obsessively wipes his hands with a handkerchief.

Walter Dudley (Paul Douglas) works directly with vendors. He’s also having an affair with his secretary Eva (Shelly Winters), which is later used against him in the election of the new company president. Louis Calhern is George Caswell, a major stockholder, who saw Bullard’s dead body on the sidewalk, and decided to do a little insider trading. And then there’s Barbara Stanwyck, as Julia Treadway, daughter of the company’s founder. She is emotionally and mentally unstable, the former lover of Avery Bullard, and a major stockholder. If she should sell her stock, she could decide the fate of the entire company. She also has a bad habit of getting caught looking suicidal.

The fight for the Treadway Corporation presidency comes down to two men: Don Walling and Loren Shaw. It’s quality at any cost versus maximum returns for shareholders. The blue collar champion versus the suit. This is the argument we are still having today: big box against the mom and pop. Online versus brick and mortar. Money, money, money. Tensions in the board room are at an all-time high, especially with back room deals and bribery tainting the water. Individual board members’ skeletons are peeking out of the closet, and a very desperate, sweaty-handed Loren Shaw is ready to expose them, if necessary. Don wants the Treadway presidency, but will not betray his values.

The DVD of Executive Suite is part of the Warner Archive collection, which provides a home to films that would not typically support a standard wide release. Warner Archive is able to release these films because they are manufactured on demand (MOD). The one downside to this technology is the features are barebones, if nonexistent. However, if you’re like me, when you’re looking for some of these out of print titles, you don’t care about extras– you just want the film. That said, the Executive Suite DVD does include an audio commentary by director Oliver Stone.

At first, I found this to be an odd choice, but then within the first 5 minutes of his commentary Stone reveals that Executive Suite was a major influence on his film Wall Street (1987). Stone’s comments focus a lot on the hierarchy within the Treadway corporation, from the workers in the plant, to the elevator operator, to Bullard’s secretary Erica (Nina Foch). Definitely an interesting take on the film, to look at it as a study on the separation of the classes.

I’ve heard some compare this film to Mad Men. Well, it’s really nothing like it. Yes it’s set in the mid-century business world, and there are dirty dealings, drinking, smoking, affairs. And Nina Foch does have a pen necklace that she wears similar to the one Joan wears. On the “Jill Just Pulled This Mad Men Scale Out of Her Ass” ratings system, I would place Executive Suite at a 4.5. If you’re looking for more Mad Menishness (or is it Mad Manny?), I suggest The Hucksters (1947) starring Clark Gable and Deborah Kerr (another Warner Archive title) and The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1956) starring Gregory Peck, Jennifer Jones, and my boy Fredric March.

But do me a favor: watch Executive Suite. It’s really good.

 

This piece was originally published at The Black Maria.

Author: Jill Blake, CC2K Film Editor

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