Executive Suite (1954) – A Movie Review

“Executive Suite” is a drama that details the personalities and ambitions of the executives of the Tredway Corporation, a furniture manufacturing company, as they react to the unexpected death of the company president Avery Bullard.  It also showcases the difference between two different kinds of corporate executives.  One is the inspirational leader who recognizes that a company is the intersection of human beings as customers, employees and ownership.  Someone who wants the company to succeed by striving for excellence in all the aspects of running a business.  The other vision is expressed as the narrowest focus on maximizing the stock dividend by any means possible.

The movie has an all-star cast with William Holden, Fredric March, Walter Pidgeon and Barbara Stanwyck as the big names and other fine actors such as Paul Douglas, Louis Calhern, Dean Jagger, Nina Foch, Shelley Winters and June Allyson rounding out the cast in support roles.

Bullard is leaving New York City to attend an executive board meeting at the Tredway factory in Pennsylvania.  He has a stroke and dies on the street in front of the office building where the Board of Directors meeting was just held.  His death on the street is observed from a window by one of the board members George Caswell, played by Louis Calhern.  Caswell take advantage of this insider information (Bullard’s death) to short 3,700 shares of Tredway stock in order to take advantage of the stock price drop that he expects to occur after the news breaks next Monday.  But unfortunately for Caswell, the company is about to report an extremely large stock dividend based on excellent profits.  This will make his short position extremely unprofitable.

As the news of Bullard’s death begins to filter through to the Tredway management, we get to see how each of the five vice presidents responds and what kind of men they are.  Walter Pidgeon is Frederick Alderson, Vice President and Treasurer.  He was Bullard’s loyal second in command.  He never had the drive to challenge any of Bullard’s decisions and he therefore has begun to drift into a more passive role in the company management.  Fredric March is Loren Shaw, Vice President and Controller.  He is currently the dominant force in the company.  Bullard has backed Shaw’s methods to maximize short term profits, even when that has meant producing shoddy product lines.  Shaw also maintains thorough surveillance of his fellow executives.  He knows about their private foibles and uses this knowledge to blackmail them when it suits him.   Paul Douglas is Walter Dudley, Vice President for Sales.  Walt is the epitome of the shady salesman.  He is having an affair with his secretary (played by Shelley Winters) and often ignores his family and business responsibilities to satisfy his own pleasures.  Dean Jagger is Jesse Grimm, Vice President for Manufacturing.  He is an old man who has seen the idealistic practices that Bullard espoused abandoned under Shaw’s penny-pinching program.  He is fed up with the shoddy products his plant has been forced to manufacture and is preparing to retire to escape it.  And finally, William Holden is Don Walling, Vice President for Design and Development.  Don is aggravated that Bullard’s promises to allow him to modernize and optimize the manufacturing processes have been abandoned to pursue short term gain.  His wife   Mary (played by June Allyson) wants him to quit and go someplace where his design talents will be put to good use.  The other two executive board members are stockholders.  One is George Caswell and the other is Julia Tredway (played by Barbara Stanwyck).  She is the daughter of the founder of Tredway and also Bullard’s long-time lover.  She is angry and depressed and looking to escape from all of the anguish she feels about Bullard and her unsatisfied relationship with him.

We watch as Shaw gathers up the votes, he thinks he can collect to assure his election to president.  Dudley’s vote he will get by blackmailing him over his affair with his secretary.  Caswell will sell his vote in exchange for a sweetheart deal to buy company stock and therefore cover his short position.  And Julia gives Shaw her proxy just to escape from the necessity of attending the painful meeting.  Along with his own vote this should give him the four votes he needs.

Meanwhile Alderson and Walling are attempting to stop Shaw.  Not knowing of some of the pressure that Shaw can bring to bear they try to persuade Dudley, Grimm and Tredway to elect Dudley as an alternate to Shaw.  Dudley because of the blackmail he is under of course turns them down.  Walling and Tredway get into an emotional argument because of her very traumatic feelings about the company and Bullard.  And when Dudley is no longer a viable choice for candidate Walling offers himself to Alderson as an alternative.  But Alderson breaks the news to him that Grimm will not vote for Walling because he feels that he is too young and inexperienced.

It all comes down to the board meeting and the voting fails to put Shaw over the top on the first ballot because Shaw had to provide Caswell with proof that he would be given the stock deal he wanted.  Shaw then provides him with this assurance and the meeting prepares to come down to a second ballot.  But before a motion is proposed for a vote Walling questions Shaw about his vision for leading Tredway into the future.

Shaw clearly articulates that the duty of a corporate leader is to do everything in his power to maximize the return on investment to the stockholders.  And he proudly claims that Mr. Bullard completely approved of the “improvements” Shaw had made at Tredway that allowed for the exceptionally large quarterly dividend that Tredway had just recently announced.

Then Walling answers him with a vision of a company thriving on excellence and integrity.  At one point he finds a small table near the wall of the boardroom that was an example of the shoddy craftsmanship that Shaw’s policies had fostered and he rips it apart with his bare hands and reviles a corporate philosophy that throws away the company’s reputation as a manufacturer of quality products to realize a short-term profit.  After this stirring appeal even Shaw votes with the rest of the board to elect Walling president.

I am not an idealist.  I understand that the good guys don’t always win.  I recognize that the market is a dog eat dog reality.  But I also have seen what lowest possible cost manufacturing has done to this country.  Corporate responsibility by American companies to its employees and the public is just as important as responsibility to its stockholders.  I watched this movie for the first time this week and I think the message it makes is very timely.  Add in the responsibility of government to protect American companies from unfair competition from rock bottom labor costs in the third world and you could be talking about a MAGA campaign ad.  And from the point of view of entertainment the movie is enjoyable and well made.  Even though this isn’t a movie I’ve seen over and over I can highly recommend it.

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