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The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit(1956)


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Nunnally Johnson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956) is adapted from the 1955 novel of the same name by Sloan Wilson. One of the great publishing successes of its day, the book--or it least its title--became a symbol for conformism in the business world. In that respect, it connected with a number of non-fiction books published around the same time, including: The Lonely Crowd (1950), Is Anybody Listening? (1952) and The Organization Man (1956). On-going interest in the novel spurred a 2002 reprint with a new foreword by the National Book Award-winning novelist Jonathan Franzen. Today, its influence appears in the popular television series Mad Men.

While The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is often thought to represent the "typical" experience of a corporate man in the Fifties, it is very much drawn from Wilson's own life story. After returning from the war, he struggled to get his career off the ground while raising a family. His mother, who wrote for The New Yorker, had long encouraged him to seek work there as well. While he did publish a few stories there, he ended up instead as a writer for the house organ of Time, Inc. Roy Larsen, the company's President, invited Wilson to work for the nonprofit National Citizen's Commission for the Public Schools, also known as Better Schools, Inc. Much of Wilson's work there consisted of writing speeches, not unlike Tom Rath in the novel. Larsen recommended Wilson to Richard Simon of Simon and Schuster, who offered Sloan Wilson an advance to write a novel. While his first book, Voyage to Somewhere (1947), was not a great success, Simon's faith paid off with the immense popularity of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and his next book after that, A Summer Place (1958). Wilson himself followed up the novel with a sequel entitled The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit II (1984).

The film's director, Nunnally Johnson, was a much-respected scriptwriter who had worked on films such as The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and The Dark Mirror (1946). His own directing career started in the mid-fifties with the widescreen Gregory Peck vehicle Night People (1954). Although never regarded as a distinctive stylist, he does use the widescreen format effectively in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, especially in the scene Jennifer Jones has a breakdown and Peck runs after her in the night. To add to the sense of visual authenticity, parts of the film were shot in New York City and in Westport, Connecticut. To be sure, when Sloan Wilson saw the finished film he balked at the impossibly spacious $14,000 Rath family house, but for the most part he liked Nunnally Johnson's more or less faithful script.

In preparation for his role, Peck visited advertising agencies and the NBC headquarters in New York and rode on a commuter train. He also read the novel carefully and kept detailed notes about it as he worked on the film. Jennifer Jones had played opposite him previously in King Vidor's delirious Technicolor Western Duel in the Sun (1946). During the aforementioned breakdown scene Jones threw herself into her role so thoroughly that she clawed Peck's face with her fingernails. Peck reportedly complained to Nunnally Johnson, "I don't call that acting, I call it personal."

While the film was fairly successful on its initial release, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit received somewhat mixed reviews. The reviewer for Variety especially liked the flashback sequences and the performances of Gregory Peck and Fredric March. At the same time, he noted that despite the film's "abundance of elegant sets and a solid array of marquee names [] all that is missing is the spirit of the author." On the other hand, Bosley Crowther of the New York Times dubbed it "a mature, fascinating and often quite tender and touching film." He considered the film an improvement over the novel in that it presented the characters' problems in a more "clear and forceful way."

Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Director and Screenwriter: Nunnally Johnson
Based on the novel by Sloan WilsonDirector of Photography: Charles G. Clarke
Art Director: Lyle R. Wheeler and Jack Martin Smith
Film Editor: Dorothy Spencer
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Principal Cast: Gregory Peck (Tom Rath); Jennifer Jones (Betsy Rath); Fredric March (Ralph Hopkins); Marisa Pavan (Maria); Lee J. Cobb (Judge Bernstein); Ann Harding (Mrs. Helen Hopkins); Keenan Wynn (Caesar Gardella); Gene Lockhart (Bill Hawthorne); Gigi Perreau (Susan Hopkins); Portland Mason (Janie Rath); Arthur O'Connell (Walker); Henry Daniell (Bill Ogden).
C-153m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning. Descriptive Video.

by James Steffen

Crowther, Bosley. Review of "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" New York Times, April 13, 1956.

Review of "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit," Variety, April 4, 1956.

Brier, Evan. A Novel Marketplace: Mass Culture, the Book Trade, and Postwar American Fiction. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.

Fishgall, Gary. Gregory Peck: A Biography. New York: Scribner, 2002.

Wilson, Sloan. What Shall We Wear to this Party? The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit Twenty Years Before & After. New York: Arbor House, 1973.

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