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Executive Suite (1954) was producer John Houseman's third major film for MGM. As with The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and Julius Caesar (1953, then in production), Executive Suite boasted a star-studded cast, including William Holden, Barbara Stanwyck, Fredric March, June Allyson, Walter Pidgeon, Shelley Winters, Paul Douglas and Nina Foch. Though the large A-list cast was in part a throwback to the days of Grand Hotel (1932) and Dinner at Eight (1933), in the main, it was a rear-guard attempt by Hollywood to increase ticket sales in the new world of television. Still, according to Houseman, the cast was selected not on the basis of their star power, but because they could handle the dialogue-rich scenes. Most of the actors had stage experience and were not adverse to the idea of spending an inordinate time on rehearsals.
In the 1950s, Hollywood belatedly turned its cameras on America's new corporate culture. In this it was merely catching up with sociologists like C. Wright Mills, who had examined the world of White Collar as early as 1951. Still, Hollywood was not the university, and Executive Suite was a risky project. The film was based on a book by Cameron Hawley, a one-time advertising executive with the Armstrong Cork Company in Pennsylvania. Dore Schary had secured the book for MGM and brought it to Houseman, who felt that after The Bad and the Beautiful and Julius Caesar, it would complete a perfect triptych of films concerned "with the pursuit of power." But such a topic was not as welcomed by the censors when it aimed its lens on a team of American business leaders, rather than on a Hollywood producer (since, after all, everyone knows how sleazy they are) or a Roman leader (how seditious could a film on Caesar be?). According to Houseman: "Such was Hollywood's timidity during and after the witch hunts that a film about Big Business - a struggle for power among corporate executives - was considered an audacious project when I announced it in the winter of 1952-1953." Production for the film could not begin until Houseman signed a letter for the House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) stating that he had never been a communist. But the censors need not have worried, for though this film does indeed criticize mercenary corporate machinations, in the end it is the idealist sentiments of young Don Walling (William Holden) that win out.
Despite the amazing cast, perhaps Houseman's most inspired hire was the screenwriter, Ernest Lehman. This was Lehman's first screenplay, and he was paid the minimum $600 a week. In his autobiography, Lehman recounts: "Finally, after months of struggle, I turned in my first draft screenplay, held my breath, and heard sounds of delighted approval from John Houseman, Jud Kinberg, and most important of all, from studio chief Dore Schary. When it came time to attack the final draft, I felt that maybe, after all, I could write a screenplay." This is a bit of an understatement. Lehman went on to write Sabrina (1954), The King and I (1956), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), North by Northwest (1959), West Side Story (1961), Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and Hello, Dolly! (1969). As Houseman notes, just a few years after penning Executive Suite, Lehman "was earning not twice nor ten times but close to one hundred times what we paid him."
For Stanwyck and Holden, Executive Suite was a sweet reunion. They had worked together only once before, on Golden Boy (1939), the film that made Holden a star. On that film, Stanwyck went to bat for Holden when Harry Cohn wanted to replace him. The two became fast friends (he nicknamed her "Queen") and, until his death in 1981, Holden sent Stanwyck two dozen red roses and a single white gardenia every year, on the anniversary of the premiere of Golden Boy. In Executive Suite, Stanwyck is barely on screen, but her presence is unforgettable. According to Stanwyck: "Size has never bothered me. If it had I would not have done Executive Suite. I liked the role and I wanted to do it, no matter how short it was. I think I worked all of seven days." For her role, Stanwyck was awarded her third Laurel Award (presented by the Motion Picture Exhibitors).
But it is Fredric March's portrayal of the conniving efficiency expert Loren Shaw that is most indelible. Given a chance to play against type, March turns in one of his best performances. He gives us a Shaw both life-like and mechanical. As one reviewer noted, "The usually beneficent and positive-spirited March screen character, indeed, is not merely submerged; it is positively obliterated in this brilliant study of a single-minded negativist. . ." Though critics universally praised March's performance, he was overlooked when the Academy Award nominations were announced.
With cast and writer secured, Houseman needed a director. He immediately turned to Robert Wise. The two men had been friendly since their work on Citizen Kane (1941)--Houseman was an uncredited writer and Wise was the film's editor--and Houseman knew that the special demands of Executive Suite called for a director who could leave his ego at the door. With eight major stars, little action and a half-hour scene set entirely around a boardroom table, Executive Suite, according to Houseman, "called for skills in a director that included those of an engineer and a lion tamer." Wise proved perfect for the task and, in fact, his directing style so meshed with Lehman's writing style, that in addition to Executive Suite, the two men collaborated on three more classics: Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965).
Since so much of the film's $1.25 million budget went to the actors, Houseman and Schary opted to rely entirely on stock scenery. All of the interior sets had originally been constructed for other MGM pictures. Some were slightly altered, some were left as is. According to Houseman, "they looked fine in black and white - with a used look that gave them unusual authenticity." Money was also saved by deciding to replace the musical score with what Schary describes as the "sounds of the city - church bells, sirens, the roar of traffic, crowd noises, horns, the squeal of tires, faraway screams of brakes. He [Houseman], as an old radio producer, bought the idea and shepherded the sounds through the hands of the sometimes reluctant sound-department chief, Douglas Shearer."
The film garnered four Academy Award nominations (Best Supporting Actress, Best Black-and-White Cinematography, Best Black-and-White Art Direction, and Best Costume Design). Of this last category, Stanwyck often told the story of how she mistakenly wore one of her specially designed dresses backwards through an entire day's shooting. The dress designer, Helen Rose, realizing that reshooting the day's scenes would be prohibitively expensive, told Stanwyck and director Robert Wise that the dress looked terrific backwards. According to Stanwyck, "Helen Rose is not only a great designer, she's a hell of a lady!" And though the acting was excellent throughout, only Nina Foch received a nomination for her role as a suicidal secretary. She lost out to Eva-Marie Saint for On the Waterfront (1954).
Producer: John Houseman, Jud Kinberg
Director: Robert Wise
Screenplay: Ernest Lehman, based on the novel by Cameron Hawley
Production Design: Emile Kuri, Edwin B. Willis
Cinematography: George Folsey
Costume Design: Helen Rose
Film Editing: Ralph Winters
Principal Cast: William Holden (McDonald Walling), June Allyson (Mary Blemond Walling), Barbara Stanwyck (Julia O. Treadway), Fredric March (Loren Phineas Shaw), Walter Pidgeon (Frederick Y. 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).
BW-105m. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Mark Frankel