Fredric March and William Holden Clash in Executive Suite
I first saw Executive Suite in an unlikely setting: a broadcast management class at Indiana University in 1978. I don’t remember how the film pertained to the class (or if the professor just wanted to take a break from lecturing). But the film, an engrossing look at corporate politics, stuck with me over the years. I didn’t see it again until I discovered a copy at a local video store in the 1990s. This second viewing surprised me—Executive Suite was far better than I remembered.
The opening scene, shot in first-person, has business executive Avery Bullard entering a skyscraper, taking an elevator, and sending a telegram to his board of directors about a meeting at 6:00. Bullard then leaves the building, hails a taxi, and keels over dead. It’s a terrific sequence, all the more effective for its lack of music (which is replaced by bells and street sounds).
We quickly learn that the 56-year-old Bullard was president of Tredway, the nation’s third-largest furniture manufacturer, located in Millburgh, Pennsylvania. After the death of his second-in-command, Bullard delayed in naming a successor. As a result, Bullard’s untimely death places the company in the hands of five vice-presidents with equal authority. Since Wall Street viewed Tredway as a one-man company, the VPs realize the criticality of naming a replacement to Bullard over the weekend.
Loren Shaw (Fredric March), Tredway’s ambitious VP of finance, quickly starts lining up the required votes to become the company’s new president. But his “profit first” approach clashes with the philosophy of board members Fred Alderson (Walter Pidgeon) and Don Walling (William Holden). They believe that investing in research and producing quality furniture will attract loyal customers and, eventually, generate long-term company growth. Alderson and Walling launch a frantic drive to find their own candidate capable of defeating Shaw. Blackmail, illegal stock trading, and a spurned lover all come into play before the board of directors finally selects Avery Bullard’s successor.
I admit a penchant for movies set over a short period (24 hours in Executive Suite) as well as a plot that builds to a scheduled event (e.g., the assassination in Day of the Jackal). Director Robert Wise, one of Hollywood’s most versatile directors, expertly shapes Executive Suite into a “time ticking” film. As the clock counts down to the climatic vote, it’s fascinating to watch alliances shift and deals fall through.
It’s equally compelling to ponder the philosophical underpinnings of the business decisions that will shape Tredway’s future. Walling’s passion for quality over profit is convincing at first. It helps, of course, that Walling is good-looking, a family man, and plays well with others. We’re supposed to pull for him. In contrast, Shaw comes across as greedy, cunning, and unattractive (I love how March wrings his hands, as if nervous over whether his plan to come to fruition). But if one ignores the messengers, isn’t there a lot to be said for Shaw’s approach? More than one company has gone bankrupt because its business model emphasized quality for the sake of profit. In another favorite business film, Other People’s Money (1991), Danny DeVito’s character makes a persuasive case that businesses owe it to their investors to make money!
If the profit vs. quality theme creates the foundation for Executive Suite, then it’s the performers that make each of the arguments compelling. The standouts in the superstar cast are Fredric March and Paul Douglas. After two decades as a leading man, March gave some of his best performances in smaller roles in the 1950s and 1960s (e.g., Inherit the Wind and Seven Days in May). He captures the ruthlessness and the impatient frustration that makes Shaw such a vivid character. Paul Douglas is equally good in a supporting role as a confident executive who gets backed into a corner. It’s a nice change-of-pace for Douglas, who specialized in playing nice guys in comedies like The Solid Gold Cadillac and It Happens Every Spring.
Executive Suite is often compared with 1956’s Patterns, another boardroom drama that was adapted from a Rod Serling TV play. Most critics prefer Patterns, which stars Everett Sloane as the world’s worst boss. I find the two films hard to compare; they’re two very different, each a fine work in its own right. Patterns may be the more realistic of the two, but Executive Suite offers an optimistic viewpoint that works better as sheer entertainment.
Jill Blake is the owner/managing editor of the classic film website Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence. She is also a co-founder and editor of the film site The Moviola and film editor at CC2K. In 2012, she was interviewed on-air by Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz. In 2013, she was a featured guest on the TCM podcast. In her spare time Jill is a stay-at-home mom, wife, fried okra connoisseur, and the neighborhood’s own L.B. Jeffries.