The Bottom Line
Robert Wise directs a tight 1954 melodrama of corporate politics, with an impassioned assembly line foreman (William Holden) taking on a number-crunching tactician (Fredric March) for the head of the company after the unexpected death of the CEO.
The Rest Of The Story
The story has a "soap opera" cast of characters, making it hard to recount the exact plot without confusing you a bit, but I'll do my best.
Don Walling (Holden) is vice president of new technologies at Treadway Furniture Company, which specializes in upper-end lines of tables and chairs. He works alongside Jesse Grimm (Dean Jagger), VP of production; Walt Dudley (Paul Douglas), VP of sales; and Loren Shaw (March), VP of accounting. They all work under Fred Alderson (Walter Pidgeon), who in turn reports to the unseen Avery Bullard.
From all accounts (including an off-camera Chet Huntley providing narration) Bullard is a tight-fisted and ornery man. His unexpected passing due to a stroke is witnessed by George Caswell, a minority stockholder in the Treadway company. He decides to take advantage of this information by selling stock in the company in order to buy it back later at a lower price. Unfortunately, his meager amount of stock isn't enough incentive - so he orders a sale of common stock that he doesn't have.
Meanwhile, all of the other vice presidents eventually learn of their boss' demise and realize that a successor must be found. Shaw takes the first steps towards solidifying his position - he begins acting like the boss, setting up publicity to offset the death of the company head and arranging the funeral. It's obvious the others dislike Shaw's bottom line manipulative tactics. Walling, by contrast, holds the interests of the company close to his heart - he spends hours working on the factory floor to come up with new ways to design and assemble the furniture.
At the same time, Veep Dudley is having an affair with his secretary, Grimm is considering retiring, and Caswell begins making deals with Shaw in order to acquire some stock illegaly to cover his illicit sale. Soon, matters are complicated when Julia Treadway (Barbra Stanwyck), the daughter of the founder, enters the scene and recounts of her passionate love for Bullard - and his rejection of her in order to spend more time at work.
Soon Walling and Alderson develop a plan to nominate Dudley for the President. But when his affair makes him the target of blackmail from Shaw, who will be the replacement? Will Walling's wife Mary (June Allyson) support him as he faces the most important crisis in the company's history? Will Bullard's scorn of Treadway prove a fatal mistake? Who knew Shelley Winters could look so good? All of these questions and more are sure to be answered in .. the Executive Suite.
Sounds like a riveting plot?
Well, surprisingly or not, Wise and the beyond-brilliant cast make this rather mundane film work to great effect. Based on an award-winning novel by Cameron Hawley, It's no surprise they took Best Ensemble at the Venice Film Festival, and Nina Foch was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role as the stalwart secretary to Mr. Bullard. Everyone is top notch from beginning to end, and its actually the regularity and believability of the entire scenario that makes it a winning film.
Shot in black and white (another Oscar nomination for George Folsey's stark cinematography) and utilizing no music (an absolute rarity in the heydays of 1950s Hollywood), the film instead chooses to focus on the personal connections that develop in a company, and the external influences that shape the day to day grind of office politics.
Perhaps the only flaw with this movie is its treatment of women (although it is hardly alone in this category for 1950s movies.) June Allyson is sympathetic but flighty; the idea that Winters would fall for such a lummox as Paul Douglas' Dudley is unfathomable; and Stanwyck's Treadway is nothing short of maudlin for the entire picture, threatening suicide at every turn. Even minor characters, such as Dudley's wife on the phone and Alderson's wife, are nags and ninnies, not to be trusted or admired. However, even this dynamic gives the film a sharp flavor, where the men who run the company must deal with this admittedly farcical "better half" when things are on the line.
All in all, the movie isn't really the best rental, precisely because it is so downbeat and internal. But if you've ever been through a power struggle at work, faced the day-to-day turmoil of work and home, or wondered what goes on behind closed doors, this is a great movie to catch during the day on a classic movie channel.
My rating: 8 out of 10. See it for the cast, and then watch all of their other movies. Such talent!
Cameron Hawley (novel)
William Holden .... McDonald Walling
June Allyson .... Mary Blemond Walling
Barbara Stanwyck .... Julia O. Treadway
Fredric March .... Loren Phineas Shaw
Walter Pidgeon .... Frederick W. Alderson
Shelley Winters .... Eva Bardeman
Paul Douglas .... Josiah Walter Dudley
Louis Calhern .... George Nyle Caswell
Dean Jagger .... Jesse Q. Grimm
Nina Foch .... Erica Martin
Tim Considine .... Mike Walling