Executive Suite (1954): Robert Wise All-Star Oscar-Nominated Melodrama about Styles of Leadership

Executive Suite, the screen version of Cameron Hawley’s novel of corporate in-fighting and styles of leadership was produced by John Houseman and directed by Robert Wise, when he was still making interesting, modestly-scaled pictures.

Later on, Wise unfortunately changed gears and co-directed West Side Story, which won the 1961 Best Picture Oscar, and the big musical movie, The Sound of Music, which won the 1965 Oscars, two blockbuster but impersonal pictures.

This subgenre of “dog-eat-dog” movies, depicting all kinds of intrigues occurring within the corporate-business world was popular in the 1950s, reflecting the zeitgeist of the post-WWII era.  William Whyte’s sociological study, “The Organization Man” was an extremely influential text, which defined and reflected the new sub-culture.

MGM’s melodrama was slick and star-driven, which made it extremely popular at the box-office.  Though, with the excpetion of Stanwyck, the narrative is male-dominated, Houseman cast in small parts such major actresses as June Allyson (as Holden’s wife), and Shelley Winters.

When Avery Bullard, the president of Tredway, the country’s third-largest furniture, suddenly dies, it sets off a scramble among the surviving vice presidents to see which of them will be the suitable successor.

At first, it seems that the best man for the job is Loren Shaw (Fredric March), an ambitious bean-counter-type who is more concerned with the profits that the company generates than product quality of what it produces.

Opposing him are Frederick Alderson (Walter Pidgeon), Bullard’s longtime right-hand man, and McDonald Walling (William Holden), a younger, rational man brought in by Bullard but never given a chance to prove himself.

Alderson’s age works against him, as does his lack of leadership. Walling is not ready (or so he thinks) to take the president’s job, nor does he really want it.

Meanwhile, Walter Dudley (Paul Douglas), the sales head, is being blackmailed by Shaw over an affair with his secretary.

Jesse Grimm (Dean Jagger), a production man who has always been distrustful of Walling’s new ideas. George Caswell (Louis Calhern), a duplicitous corporate player who will do anything to protect his own position.

Holding power is Julia Tredway (Barbara Stanwyck), the daughter of the company’s founder (who had committed suicide during the Great Depression) and a major shareholder.  Her unrequited love for Bullard affects her thinking about the company’s future.

The clock is ticking: The boss died at the end of the week and the company needs to resume business on Monday morning.

William Holden, then at the height of his popularity, was reunited with Barbara Stanwyck after 14 years: He made his debut opposite her in 1939 in “Golden Boy.”

This was one of the first major studio films that didn’t have a continuous or melodic score; instead, Wise opted for more realistic sounds, such as the ringing bells of a Wall Street clock.

Oscar Nominations: 4

Supporting Actress: Nina Foch

Cinematography (b/w): George Folsey

Art Direction-Set Decoration (b/w): Cedric Gibson and Edward Carfagno; Edwin B. Willis and Emile Kuri

Costume Design (b/w): Helen Rose

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

In 1954, “On the Waterfront” competed for the Best Picture Oscar with the court drama, “The Caine Mutiny,” the screen version of the play, “The Country Girl,” the musical “Seven Brides for Seven Sisters,” and the romantic melodrama, “Three Coins in the Fountain,” which benefited from on-location shoot in Rome.

The winner of the Supporting Actress Oscar was Eva Marie Saint for “On the Waterfront,” which also won the Best Cinematography for Boris Kaufman and the Best Art Direction for Richard Day.  Edith Head won the Costume Design Oscar for Billy Wilder’s romantic comedy, “Sabrina.”

Running time: 104 Minutes

Directed by Robert Wise

Written by Ernest Lehman

Released April 15, 1954

DVD: October 30, 2007