In the wake of the sudden death of Avery Bullard, the President of Tredway Furniture Company, a power struggle erupts among the company’s executives over who should replace him. Two rivals emerge, Loren P. Shaw, Finance VP and up and comer Don Walling, design expert. They each represent two distinctly different visions for the company’s future. In a climactic boardroom showdown, the state of American business is furiously debated and the fate of the company is decided.
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An all-star cast is the highlight of this spare, sober look at American business ethics in the post-war boom years of the early ‘50s. Adapted by first time screenwriter Ernest Lehman from a novel of the same name by Cameron Hawley, himself a former advertising executive, “Executive Suite” is a straightforward and intelligent drama built around a central question - will American business be entirely usurped by the profit driven ethos? And if so, then, how much will this pursuit of the bottom line hurt quality, fairness to the company’s workers, and eventually morally destroy the executives themselves? The film is notable because it marks the beginning of Hollywood addressing this theme. In the ‘50s the trend would include “The Man In The Grey Flannel Suit” and continue on later into the ‘70s and ‘80s with “Save The Tiger”, “Network” and “Wall Street”, amongst others.
Even though they had a well written script to work with, it’s easy to see why director Robert Wise and producer, John Houseman, were willing to spend the bulk of the film’s budget on a high profile cast. In a movie where all the action is in the dialogue, and the dramatic tension is centered almost solely around the question of corporate succession, and which concludes with a lengthy boardroom scene, star actors are required to hold an audience’s attention. However, the tight budget did lead to some other interesting creative choices. There is no musical score in the film. Wise chose instead to allow the sounds of the city to be the score and it works better than one might have expected. The impersonal, hurried sounds of traffic, punctuated periodically by the tolling of a bell, lend the film a spare quality that underlines the kind of existence the characters lead in their pursuit of the corporate life. Similarly, the sets were mainly recycled studio sets, without much character or distinction. As with the lack of music, again this functional quality works well for this material.
The cast is rounded out by numerous, smaller star turns. The film’s most serious drawback is the under utilization of some strong, interesting actresses. The women, it would seem, exist primarily to be emotionally dependent on the men. The formidable Barbara Stanwyck, as Julia Tredway, the chief stockholder, is the one woman who plays on the same power level as the men, and she does play a pivotal role in the final boardroom scene. However, it is made clear her real concern is the fallout from her love affair with Bullard, and the audience is meant to ponder how it will influence her business decisions. Shelley Winters has only a few scenes, and again her primary function is to be in love with one of the vice presidents. Nina Foch as Bullard’s ultra competent executive secretary manages to be affecting, in a restrained way. The men are given more to work with and thus, Walter Pidgeon as Fred Alderson, a VP who pushes for Walling’s succession, and Louis Calhern as the unscrupulous Caswell, who backs Shaw purely for profit, offer strong support.
Robert Wise’s direction is focused and unobtrusive. He, along with partner Lehman - they would go on to work together three more times, on “Somebody Up There Likes Me” (1956), “West Side Story” (1961) and “The Sound of Music” (1965) - make sure the central question of the integrity of corporate culture is their priority and the result is a successful combination of the Hollywood star system and smart drama.