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Books like The Organization Man proposed the social evolution of the corporate cog of the 1950s, a new kind of man needed to fill the offices of those new steel towers in New York City. This acclaimed movie version of Sloan Wilson's best selling book isn't particularly cinematic but stands the test of time as a meaningful look at the perceived erosion of American values in the era of postwar prosperity. Unlike the liberal-cause films of a decade before (Zanuck and Peck's own Gentleman's Agreement), The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit uses its inordinate running time to paint a complex picture of a decent man. He's undergoing a modern crisis, the muted kind mired in everyday decisions devoid of glamour - how to make ends meet and retain one's dignity.
Gregory Peck is excellent as a man who only wants to earn a living and make his wife proud of him. He has a tough time reconciling his time as a soldier with the 'civilized' politics he finds in the corporate environment. Film fans unfamiliar with the film's 50s context may be equally attracted by the stereophonic score by favorite Bernard Herrmann, which lends a moody and plaintive desperation to Gregory Peck's personal struggle.
Every decade has its standout themes and backward looks at the 1950s often pretend as if all of America was caught up in Rock 'n Roll, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. What was really first on most people's minds was how to get ahead, or stay above water, in the rat race of a booming economy.
Key films from Pitfall to Bigger Than Life used a generalized social anxiety as a dramatic context for people caught up in failed dreams and self-doubts, but The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit makes one man's search for meaning and happiness into its central theme. Tom Rath has an okay house (that would be a financial treasure these days), three fine kids, and a beat-up '49 Ford to take him to his commuter train. He tries to be rational and cautious when his dissatisfied wife Betsy harps on their tight money situation. Betsy doesn't seem to be a social climber, but she is sick of her unattractive residence and scraping bottom every time an appliance breaks down. She nags Tom to grab at opportunities.
But Betsy no more understands of Tom's work than she could his experience in combat ten years before. Her life still centers around clear-cut homemaking issues while Tom's tentative job hunt is a delicate game of personal impressions and veiled aggression. The first executives Tom meets in his prospective new company are wheedling sycophant Gordon (Arthur O'Connell) and a cool Machiavellian type Bill (Henry Daniell). The new position is directly under the big boss Ralph Hopkins, but Tom is stymied by Bill's hostility. Hopkins' underlings have allowed him to indulge a bad idea for a nationwide health campaign, and Tom must weigh the advisability of giving the boss his honest opinion, or playing along like the others do.
Tom is hit by two other major ethical challenges. He goes to small-town Judge Bernstein (Lee J. Cobb) for help with a greedy man who may be able to legally steal Tom's house. And after a (too lengthy) series of flashbacks to 1945 Italy and the Pacific theater, Tom faces up to a paternity responsibility that jeopardizes the foundations of his marriage. Betsy isn't likely to understand that combat conditions forced him to live from day to day with little connection to his life back home, or that his affair with an Italian woman was not purposeful cheating.
An intelligent script and unfussy direction keeps up interest in most of these plot threads. Visually, the movie is often dull. Nunnally Johnson stays wide on interior sets and compositions atypically stick characters in extremes of the frame with an empty expanse in the middle. Despite the lack of 'pointed' direction, little touches - like the forlorn-looking doll slung over the bannister in the Rath home - stand out. Tom's instinctual decision to let his upset son sleep with his dog is a cure for the kind of kid anxiety felt in Pitfall, and references Peck's loving father in The Yearling. One of his daughters is played by Sandy Descher, the terrorized tot from Them! The death of the Andy Hardy homelife ideal is seen when Tom returns from work and cannot get his kids' attention away from from the television. He shoos them to bed, and then sits and stares at the tube, equally hypnotized. The images on that teevee will soon be more 'important' than anything in reality.
As a contrast to Tom's home life, the script spends a lot of time with Ralph Hopkins' own dismal domestic situation. He tries to be kind to his estranged wife (Ann Harding), but she's completely alienated from him. Hopkins' spoiled daughter (Gigi Perreau) also thinks he's some kind of villain. The loneliness of the executive who gives up his family to run a big business is presented as a fate to be avoided, and provides a positive ending to the tale that is the film's only oversimplification. Tom turns down an invitation to join Hopkins in the bi-coastal fast lane, choosing to be a 9 to 5 man instead. Hopkins accepts Tom's decision gracefully, which seems all wrong. The big boss already considers Tom a replacement for his own son lost in the war, and might consider it disloyal to be abandoned by yet another 'family member.' Few magnates practice what they preach about friendship within the organization - a powerful man has little time to waste on an underling who doesn't do as he wants. If Hopkins needed a personal assistant - speech writer to travel with him, Tom Rath would soon be replaced with a more accomodating man.
Jennifer Jones is both impassioned and restrained as Tom Rath's emotionally needy wife; Marisa Pavan is charming as the girl from Italy. Lee J. Cobb seems sort of a tangential addition to the story, while Gene Lockhart's man on the day train seems to be speaking to Tom in a quietly conspiratorial tone. Henry Daniell nails his insultingly direct manager role and could be a template for the pointy-haired villain of the comic strip Dilbert. Popping up in bits are the familiar faces of William Phipps, Kenneth Tobey, Dorothy Adams and DeForest Kelley.
Fox's Studio Classics disc isn't the first letterboxed video presentation of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, but it looks far better than the old laser disc from the 1990s. The enhanced picture is sharp; the given aspect ratio is 2:55 but the transfer looks more like the eventual 'Scope standard of 2:35. The first silhouetted 'gray man' figure in the main title is very close to the left frame line. The 2:55 figure probably came out of a reference book, but many of the visuals do look like early Cinemascope: A lot of closeups exhibit the borderline CinemaScope 'mumps' defect of the first series of lenses in the process. 1
Dolby Surround sound showcases the classy, moody Bernard Herrmann score which will sound awfully close to other 'viola d'amour' pieces in Vertigo and On Dangerous Ground. His strings hit a high note that seems almost painfully high; the score makes the drama seem especially serious.
The extras start with a premiere newsreel, a still gallery and a restoration comparison. The classy theatrical trailer uses soundtrack music from Leave Her to Heaven and has a clever opening in which Gregory Peck steps down from a kingsized book cover.
The audio commentary from author/publisher James Monaco is something of a chore. He begins with many interesting details about life in the 1950s but they soon take over almost completely, along with asides about the Iraq war and other tangents. We get a few good details about the original book (and its sequel) but also a lot of generalized observations. There's also altogether too much dead space, as if he must stall to fill out the 2.5 hours. Monaco can get pretty odd in his observations, pointing out a 'fey' subtext in Henry Daniell's performance Savant certainly wasn't aware of. Perhaps it's more prominent in the book. He skips over the appearance of many smaller players. He points out that one of Rath's daughters is played by James Mason's daughter, and then adds harshly, "the other two child actors never amounted to much." Gee, thanks.
The disc starts with the annoyingly loud anti-piracy ad that accuses us all of being thieves. I couldn't skip it on my player. I'd like to see a 'public service spot' that accuses movie companies of gross abuse against paying customers by jamming their theaters and DVDs full of unwanted advertising and insulting, self-serving institutional messages.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit rates:
1. The main titles show
a row of diminishing figures as the 'gray men' multiply across the screen. They're in B&W, a
curious graphic choice that makes them seem even a more likely inspiration for the equally memorable
titles on the next year's The Incredible Shrinking Man.