The complacent 1950s in the United States were the wee-est bit rattled by some questioning of American materialism, part of the fallout of enormous American prosperity. Based on Cameron Hawley’s 1952 novel, which Ernest Lehman adapted and Robert Wise roomily and entertainingly directed, Executive Suite essays corporate boardroom contentiousness as five men vie for the position of president of Tredway, a huge manufacturer of furniture, which Avery Bullard’s death has unexpectedly vacated. The race comes down to one between idealistic young engineer McDonald Walling and conniving, somewhat paranoid controller Loren Shaw; “Don” wants to maintain the company’s tradition of quality, while Shaw is all about cost containment. (The company has embarked on a line of cheap, flimsy furniture aimed at boosting stockholder dividends.) Fredric March’s brilliant performance as Shaw suggests the possibility that he is partially modeled on nervous Tricky Dick Nixon, the nation’s vice president much as Shaw is one of the company’s vice presidents, although Shaw’s middle name, Phineas, also links the character to Phineas T. Bluster, the crabby banker and nasty mayor—the open, warm hero’s nemesis—on radio and television’s children’s program The Howdy Doody Show. Indeed, with his selfconscious semi-staccato movements March’s Shaw sometimes almost seems like a marionette.
Plainly, Lehman and Wise do not really confront capitalism, instead more or less giving it a pass by squaring off “good capitalism” and “bad capitalism,” although worker insecurity lends credibility to the background. It is important that workers feel pride in their work.
William Holden is excellent as Don, and Barbara Stanwyck is terrific as major stockholder Julia Tredway, daughter of the company’s founder and Bullard’s bereaved longtime mistress. The entire cast, which also includes Louis Calhern, Walter Pidgeon, Nina Foch and Shelley Winters, took an ensemble acting prize at Venice.
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