As I’ve been writing and researching my dissertation, I have increasingly come to appreciate just how complicated and contradictory a decade the 1950s really were. Shrouded as we are in the noxious cloud of nostalgia (courtesy, in large part, of the current iteration of the Republican Party), it’s quite easy to forget this was a decade that was riven by deep and often irresolvable tensions that many films, no matter how hard they tried, could never entirely resolve into coherent ideological visions. Such is the case with the 1954 Executive Suite.
The film’s plot might seem a bit convoluted at first glance, but it is actually quite simple. After furniture magnate Avery Bullard drops dead in the street, the other members of the Treadyway corporation begin vying with one another for executive control. Among them are Don Walling (William Holden), Loren Shaw (Frederic March), and Frederick Y. Alderson (Walter Pidgeon). While Walling and Alderson, unsurprisingly, represent a purer, more authentic vision for the company, Alderson is primarily interested in maintaining a faster pace of production and impressing the company’s stockholders. After a great deal of manipulation and uncertainty, the board ultimately elects Walling to serve as the new head of the company, his vision certain to take the company into a new and brighter future.
Like so many films of the 1950s, Executive Suite expresses a profound cynicism and downright hostility to the postwar world of prefabricated homes and mass produced furniture. The film seems to yearn for an earlier period, when furniture was made by hand and the workers could take pride in their craftsmanship. Although it would be going too far to suggest that the film is socialist or Marxist in its orientation, it does seem to possess a peculiarly sharp sense of the alienation the worker experiences in the period of mass production. While it stops short of advocating a truly Marxist or socialist solution to the problem of alienation, it does suggest that the post-war world should take a long, hard look at itself if it hopes to rediscover the sole of its creativity and restore a measure of its previous vitality.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Holden emerges from this film as the voice of reason and justice, and it is also not surprising that the film attempts to resolve the problems it has posed by ensuring that he takes over the company in the end. As always, Holden is likable enough in this role, although there is also a bit of edge to him that keeps me from being totally invested in him as the hero. For some reason, that subtle hint of self-righteous arrogance–which I am sure was a large part of his appeal during the height of his stardom–keeps him from being completely and unambiguously heroic. (I would also say the same of his other two iconic roles, Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard and Hal Carter of Picnic). While he may have this edge, however, the film clearly wants us to see this is a necessary corrective to the bland, cutthroat masculinity that March’s Shaw so obviously represents in the film’s representational system.
Though his star shone quite brightly during his time at MGM, Walter Pidgeon seems to be one of those stars of classical Hollywood who never really made an impression that lasted beyond the height of his career. Unlike other MGM stars (such as, say, Clark Gable), he just seemed to lack that certain something that would render him into a true icon. However, here in Executive Suite he lends the affair a significant measure of gravitas, with his deep voice and commanding (if seemingly unassuming) stage presence. Even more than Holden, he really serves as the story’s moral center, and that is the type of role in which Pidgeon really did excel.
If there’s on complaint I have about this film, it’s that it makes far too little of Stanwyck. Of course, her most notable and enduring performances emerged during the 1930s and 1940s, but still, one would think that MGM could have done a little better in utilizing this formidable female talent. She does have a few noteworthy scenes–as when she receives the news that Bullard is dead, which features her throaty voice and obvious grief–but for the most part the film seems unsure what exactly to do with her.
Overall, however, Executive Suite stands as a fascinating example of a period struggling to make sense of itself.