Monday, October 24, 2016

OVP: Executive Suite (1954)

Film: Executive Suite (1954)
Stars: William Holden, June Allyson, Barbara Stanwyck, Fredric March, Walter Pidgeon, Paul Douglas, Shelley Winters, Louis Calhern, Dean Jagger, Nina Foch
Director: Robert Wise
Oscar History: 4 nominations (Best Supporting Actress-Nina Foch, Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 4/5 stars

There is no genre harder to gage in how it will age than straight-dramas.  For any classic film fan, there's really few joys greater than investigating a classic movie for the first time, but I have to say that dramas always have their own risks.  Westerns, whether comedy or drama, you know what you're getting into; same with action-adventures, love stories, horrors, noir, but straight dramas run multiple different pitfalls.  The issues that are being discussed (because almost every drama has an issue at its core) may no longer be applicable, or applicable in the same way.  What might have seemed important at the time could, in fact, be unimportant now, and societal norms may shift to make the film much more dated than you'd hope.  As a result, I headed into Executive Suite (as part of Operation Clean My DVR), not knowing what I was in store for, and actually ended up pleasantly surprised.  The film, with an inexplicably gigantic cast of stars, works despite on-paper seeming like something that might not.

(Spoilers Ahead) Executive Suite uses the ticking clock aspect of storytelling well-while the film isn't quite in real time, it's only the course of about a 24-hour period, where an unseen man, a wealthy and controlling titan of industry, has died, leaving a gaping hole over who will be his successor at a successful furniture manufacturing company.  In the 24-hour period, we see multiple different men jostling with each other and other members of the board trying to figure out who will end up being the CEO, though the chief protagonists in that regard are Don (Holden), the young upstart with a lot of big ideals for the company, and Shaw (March), a practical man who lives mostly by the adoration of the shareholders.

I'll give you one guess over who wins (let's not forget this was made in 1954), but the film actually rises above its predictable nature in that regard.  We're well aware that Holden is the one in command here, and will eventually become the successor, but the film is still pretty riveting nonetheless.  It helps that Robert Wise hired a slate full of movie stars to fill up his picture; it was reported years later that they made this film, similar to the Grand Hotel-style all-star casts of the early 1930's, to compete with television, and while not all of the acting is on the same level, everyone is very watchable and knows how to command a scene when they're expected to do so.  I particularly liked Shelley Winters as a secretary having an affair with her boss, and Fredric March is commendable at making his mustache-twisting villain into a real human being (March is such a fine actor-the fact that he largely made pictures like these without any sort of genre hooks is the only explanation why he isn't still just as famous with casual moviegoers).  Nina Foch won the film's sole acting citation, and she's good, but it's the sort of good you only notice when someone else points it out to you-her character is mysterious, and rises above what could have been completely stock work (think of that scene where she's opposite of March and telling him off as carefully as she can, knowing he's likely to be her next boss), but I'll admit that I wouldn't have paid her much heed had I not been looking for the OVP.

The film's other three nominations are about on the same page-they're all good, though one wonders if they were listed simply because the movie is actually quite good and these were easy categories.  Art Direction is solid-I loved the C-Suite hallway stairs (it's such a nice, elegant touch, the sort that would happen dozens of stories above the earth), though the rest of the film (especially the homes and the other offices), don't have this level of inventive detail.  The costumes are all very appropriately tailored to this level of importance (one wonders if the Mad Men costume designers looked at a film like this for inspiration), and again there's the great touch of Nina Foch's pencil necklace, but overall I was less impressed with other parts, such as the men's suits which felt completely interchangeable.  And finally, the cinematography has a gimmick (never properly seeing the face of the dead CEO, and a first-person camera early on in the picture), which was catnip at the time to that particular AMPAS branch, but again (aside from those great C-Suite hallway shots), there's not a lot to recommend this nomination.

Stil, even if it didn't quite deserve all of its Oscar accolades, I can't help but be fascinated by this movie.  It's wildly watchable, particularly Winters and March, and the sort of film that's less about the acting or visual elements and more about the sum of its parts.  Think of something like Argo where nothing specifically is singled out as "the best" but it's damn fine entertainment.  At least those were my thoughts-how about yours?  Have any of you seen Executive Suite, and if so, what are your thoughts?  If not, share some favorite straight dramas that have stood the test of time in the comments!

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