*. If you’ve been reading these notes for a while you’ll know I have a fascination with things that are fashionable and then are fashionable no longer, or how some films date while others remain timeless.
*. Some of it is due to the subject matter. Some of it is due to changes in the way films are made — for example a style of directing or acting coming into or going out of vogue. Sometimes what changes are audience expectations. Some of it is the result of technical advances. And sometimes it reflects a larger cultural change.
*. That last point is what I think happened here. This is a good movie, but even as you’re watching it you’re aware of how representative it is of a time that is no more. Not because the clothes have changed, but because our attitudes and values have. Capitalism in the twenty-first century is something different than it was in the age of the man in the grey flannel suit.
*. The seeds of that change are here though. And they are nicely explicated by Oliver Stone in his DVD commentary, which is something I want to spend some time talking about.
*. If you’ve listened to Stone’s commentaries on Wall Street and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps then you aleady know how important an influence Executive Suite was on him. He can’t stop talking about it. In part because he thinks it’s a great movie but also because of the vision of American business that it presents.
*. Underlying Stone’s analysis is a view of American history which I’ll get to. But let’s begin with Avery Bullard, who is an old school captain of industry. He’s introduced in a provocative way, with the camera giving us his point of view until he collapses on the sidewalk. We never see him, even an image of him reflected in a mirror, and his empty chair at the head of the boardroom table becomes a weighty symbol throughout the film.
*. In fact, Bullard seems to have been all things to all people. Julia adored him, Alderson accepted his place as his number two, and Walling flat-out idolized him (“He was a great man. The greatest man I’ve ever known.”). Shaw seems to have honestly thought that he was sympathetic to his approach to running the business, and perhaps he was. Erica (Miss Martin) remains totally loyal to him even after his death. The workers liked him. Louis Calhern’s Caswell is the only one who takes a swipe at him, and nobody approves of that.
*. Stone says that Bullard “looms like a god, or Hamlet’s father, over the ensuing drama.” I hadn’t thought of that. It put me in mind of The Bad Sleep Well (1960). Not stopping there, Stone goes on to compare him to Alexander the Great because “his ego takes over and he leaves no heirs” which leads to a “war of successors.” Hm.
*. In the struggle among the successors Stone sees the coming “battle for the soul of America.” In the red-white-and-blue corner we have all-American hero Don Walling (William Holden). He doesn’t really belong in the boardroom, feeling more comfortable with his workers down at the Pike St. plant. He doesn’t get his picture in Fortune magazine but likes to get his hands dirty building things. His wife is Mrs. Cleaver June Allyson, a girl next door who can play catch with her son and run a household at the same time (with the help of a maid, naturally). These two are so apple-pie even Stone feels somewhat embarrassed by them, while admitting that Kevin Costner and Sissy Spacek in JFK are their doppelgangers.
*. Indeed, Don Walling may be the real John Galt: the heroic engineer battling against the bureaucrats and the bean counters who don’t have the best interests of the People at heart (a point that today’s worshippes of Ayn Rand have largely lost sight of).
*. In the evil corner is Loren Shaw (Frederic March). He represents heartless corporate scheming, a cancer of corruption that, in Stone’s view, would grow throughout the ’50s and come to fruition with Vietnam. His type is not John Galt but Robert McNamara, the whiz kid accountant who ran Ford before running the war in Southeast Asia. Shaw also represents, sticking with Stone’s analysis, the movement away from production and manufacturing toward the triumph of the financial sector (a real transformation, to be sure, but not something that happened until much later).
*. That is the Oliver Stone version of history, and it holds up pretty well. He readily admits that “America went the other way,” taking a direction different from where we see it going at the end of this film. The Robert McNamaras won. And as for the much-maligned K-F line of crap furniture built by Tredway, it would conquer the world as Ikea. But this is a movie, and we needed a happy ending.
*. Stone doesn’t just accept that ending, he applauds it. This may seem odd, given that the ending is a lie, but Stone doesn’t mind. It fits with his idealism, which he confesses to at length in his Money Never Sleeps commentary. For Stone, movies are supposed to be about “the triumph of humanity.” This is the spirit that made Hollywood great, and he is unhappy about there being less of it today.
*. I like Oliver Stone, and I think this is a wonderful commentary. But there are a lot of “huh?” moments. They begin with his admitting that he hasn’t read the novel the film is based on but that he thinks it (the novel) has great plot points and “you have to admire it for its complexity of thought.” How would he know this? The complexity of thought, and the plot points too, might have come from Ernest Lehman (who would go on to do the screenplay for Sweet Smell of Success, which was based on his own novella).
*. Another great Oliver moment comes during the final scene when Shaw loses the vote to be made the new director and Stone says “he just lost his ass.” What?
*. Of course it’s a theatrical piece. I doubt it’s a very realistic depiction of how such a succession crisis would be handled. I don’t even understand why Shaw tears up the letter transferring the stock to Caswell at the end, since it was made out pre-emptively by Shaw in his role as president and thus was no good. But ripping it up makes for a nice, theatrical gesture.
*. How seriously can we take Holden at the end? His company will “never ask a man to do anything that will poison his pride in himself or his work.” That’s a statement that would have no credibility whatsoever today.
*. But this was such a different time. Listen to Barbara Stanwyck’s advice to June Allyson at the end: it’s not her place to undertsand her husband, it’s inevitable he will ignore her and make her feel cold, but this is all right because he’ll always come back in the end, making her realize how fortunate she is to be his wife.
*. These are all aspects of those larger cultural changes that I suggested date this film the most. Business has changed. Ethics are for losers. Women are no longer expected to quietly stand behind their man.
*. I’m not sure the rest of it holds up that well. The ensemble cast is good, but I just didn’t think anything lived up to the first few minutes. The credits rushing up to fill the screen with the clanging of the bell (the only music in the film). The way we follow Bullard out of the building, the camera taking his point of view. The sudden shock of his death. And the interesting business, pointed out by Stone, of his death being followed by two crimes: Caswell shorting Tredway’s stock (which I don’t think is, technically, a crime) and the anonymous man in the street stealing Bullard’s wallet. As on the street, so in the tower. As on earth, so it is in heaven.