When Dutch beauty Nina Foch died two weeks ago, at age 84, I put the 1953 film Executive Suite, for which she received an Oscar nomination, into my Netflix queue. I was hoping for needed relief from the glut of holiday programming dominating cable this month. What I got instead in Robert Wise’s involving corporate drama was a depiction of the modern American office–not exactly the most comforting setting in this season of layoffs. Executive Suite depicts a kinder, gentler workplace where hatchets are buried with a handshake (think of it as Mad Men without the madness–but like so many corporate headquarters, the Tredway Tower is also a place where paranoia and power grabs are the daily order.
Foch plays the dedicated assistant to Tredway’s CEO, who falls dead of a heart attack in a bravura, handheld opening scene shot by cinematographer George Folsey (who also lensed Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Forbidden Planet). William Holden is the young and artsy R&D man who wants to take over, so he can put an end to the cheap, proto-Ikea “KF line,” which he believes is sullying the Tredway brand. Others, mostly for their own personal gain, are backing evil, hand-wringing comptroller Frederic March, who argues that the KF line “serves a definite purpose in the profit structure of this company.”
Rounding out the amazing cast are Barbara Stanwyck as a depressive heiress, Shelley Winters as a doormat secretary-mistress, and June Allyson, who plays the perfect movie wife, a role she repeated so often it was the headline in her obituary (trumping her more famous stint as the spokesperson for Depend adult undergarments).
Holden ultimately succeeds in convincing the board that the bottom line is not enough, that one must also take pride in one’s work–and in one’s employer. And this how Executive Suite dates itself. The film’s documentary-like portrayal of workplace intrigue still rings true, but its theme–that a company owes its employees loyalty and vice versa–is hopelessly old-fashioned.–Benjamin Strong