Ultra-smooth, polished 50s boardroom drama/sudser. Warner Bros.' fun Archive Collection of hard-to-find library and cult titles continues to raid previous disc collections (2007's Barbara Stanwyck: The Signature Collection in this case) for stand-alone titles with Executive Suite, the 1954 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer hit starring William Holden, June Allyson, Barbara Stanwyck, Fredric March, Walter Pigeon, Shelley Winters, Paul Douglas, Louis Calhern, Dean Jagger, and Nina Foch. Cleverly scripted by Ernest Lehman (from Cameron Hawley's smash bestseller), cleanly directed by Robert Wise, and with that high-powered, almost all-star cast, Executive Suite's super-slick production has "prestige" written all over it, creating a glossy, entertaining pic that holds up remarkably well almost 50 years later. Some substantial extras (for an Archive Collection release, at least), including a commentary track from director Oliver Stone, compliment this razor-sharp black and white transfer.
New York City, 1954. Having just sent a telegram to his Millburgh, Pennsylvania office tower, calling for an executive board meeting at 6:00pm that night, Tredway Corporation president Avery Bullard drops dead in the street, followed immediately by a proper New York City memorial: someone steals his wallet and ditches the i.d.. Investment banker and Tredway board member George Caswell (Louis Calhern) witnesses this tragedy from his office window, and follows up with a proper investment banker memorial: he instantaneously sells 3700 shares of Tredway stock short in the hopes of picking them back up again at a sizeable profit. Meanwhile, back in Tredway Tower, the five vice-presidents for the nation's third-largest furniture manufacturer assemble for the meeting: affable, weak number two man Frederick Alderson (Walter Pigeon); numbers-obsessed company controller Loren Shaw (Fredric March); back-slapper head of sales Josiah Dudley (Paul Douglas); old-school plant manager Jesse Q. Grimm (Dean Jagger); and hotshot engineer in R & D, McDonald Walling (William Holden). When they discover that Bullard, the dynamo of Tredway Corporation who refused to groom a potential successor, has died, the jockeying for position begins, with profit-line Shaw eventually squaring off with idealistic Walling for the presidency. And, as always with such powerful men, the women behind them suffer: Mary Walling (June Allyson) fears her understanding husband will turn into another Bullard; secretary Eva Bardeman (Shelley Winters) fears her lover Dudley will dump her; major stockholder and member of the board Julia Tredway (Barbara Stanwyck) becomes suicidal when she learns her once-lover Bullard is dead; and executive secretary Erica Martin (Nina Foch) watches quietly to see who will be her next boss.
Listening to director Oliver Stone's mixed-bag commentary for Executive Suite, one might be tempted-at first-to buy his assertion that the movie is primarily a socio-economic treatise on business in 1950s America, masquerading as a high-powered drama. Certainly the opening visuals suggest that possible theme, with the stark, quiet shots of the tall Wall Street towers as a bell ominously tolls: American commerce as religion (the interiors of the Tredway Tower go further, with its gothic stonework and arches, and an executive loft not at all unlike a pulpit). As well, Holden's final idealistic plea for "people-over-profits" before the board at the movie's well-staged boardroom showdown is taken by some as the movie's central theme, where Holden makes that familiar, consensus-building 1950s moviemaking pledge of the melding of science and heart as the answer to America's spiritual/business woes (a message not at all unlike Henry Fonda's display of superior scientific logistics and corresponding saint-worthy humanity to build the consensus of a "not guilty" plea in 12 Angry Men).
However, I don't think Executive Suite's screenplay or its direction is really as concerned with what may or may not be undoing American business, as it is with presenting a superior soap, masquerading as an ideological war between profit-obsessed CPA March and quality-obsessed scientist Holden. Just as M-G-M's entertaining 1947 melodrama The Hucksters was really more about Clark Gable and Deborah Kerr's romance, rather than a complete attempt to skewer the relationship between advertising and the media, Executive Suite is exceptional melodrama first, rather than cautionary social message. Just on hunch alone, if M-G-M and specifically Dore Schary wanted a "message movie" first, they wouldn't have spent all that dough on such a large, all-star cast. Closer examination, though, reveals that for all of the movie's talk about business, it's talk that boils down to generalized observations that certainly weren't even close to new in 1954 (Executive Suite's themes were being argued as soon as mechanized assembly lines revolutionized American production methods).
Holden's end-game lecture is big talk, but it really only differs from March's approach in terms of aesthetics and an extra screw for each table leg. He still wants profits (dirty capitalist!), and his desire for "simplicity" and "beauty" micro-budgeted down to the fraction of a penny through science...sounds like the beginnings of a very nice line of robot-produced IKEA tables. Anyone buying as "real" the sunshine and lollipops that Holden promotes at the end of Executive Suite has to be dreaming (funny how liberal director Stone doesn't mention destructive unions and cheap foreign imports in his weirdly jumbled-up defense/attack of paternalistic 1950s factory management). Executive Suite's multi-faceted, intricate plot machinations of the various power struggles both in the boardroom and the bedroom, are frankly more compelling than any discussion about widgets, with the romantic angles taking up just as much screen time as talk about profits and veneers (patrons buying tickets to see superstars Holden and Alyson weren't looking for an economics lesson). Executive Suite's plot points are indeed tempered with exceedingly good taste...but they're melodrama, just the same-and expertly executed melodrama, at that.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.