The Great Man (1956) – A Movie Review

Jose Ferrer directs and stars in this drama about the manufactured quality of mass media celebrity.

(Spoiler Alert – Skip down to last paragraph to avoid spoilers and read recommendation)

Jose Ferrer plays Joe Harris, a reporter who covers the entertainment beat for a local New York City newspaper, radio and television network.  When Herb Fuller, the network’s leading broadcaster dies in an automobile accident Harris is dragged into the story to provide a reverential eulogy of the beloved broadcaster during the extended network coverage of his funeral.

Dean Jagger plays Philip Carleton the head of the network.  Carleton dangles Fuller’s vacant network shows in front of Harris as an incentive for him to dazzle the audience with a masterful hagiography of “the great man.”  Sid Moore (played by Keenan Wynn) was Fuller’s producer and he’s responsible for lining up Fuller’s associates for Harris to interview in the few days left before the broadcast.  But aware that Harris is being groomed for Fuller’s old spot Moore is suspicious of Harris’s motives, surly toward him and quickly berates Harris for overstepping his place in the network hierarchy.

As Harris begins interviewing people, he realizes that there is an inverse relationship between how well people knew Fuller and how well they liked him.  People who only knew him from his broadcasts revered him as a good man and as almost a member of the family.  But the people who knew him most intimately revealed him to be an awful human being.  He was an abusive alcoholic.  His wife only stayed married to him to avoid scandal.  He was an indiscriminate womanizer who tossed away girls as soon as he became tired of them but expected them to always be available to him if he was bored or lonely.

His first job in radio was for a small radio station in Worcester Massachusetts owned by a religious man named Paul Beaseley (played by Ed Wynn) who was hoodwinked by Fuller’s incredible eloquence about his supposed spirituality.  Eventually he revealed himself to Beasley as a completely phony opportunist who preyed on people’s better natures.  But Harris also discovers that Fuller was a powerfully gifted writer and actor whose powers of persuasion and charm could win over any audience that didn’t happen to know him personally.

In one of the most powerful scenes Harris listens to one of Fuller’s most masterful broadcasts.  Ostensibly Fuller was in a forward line battleground at the German front in World War II and he was reporting on the American soldiers wounded and dying.  And he was describing an American soldier on a rude operating table in a barn having his leg amputated.  Fuller is describing the need for blood for these wounded men and starts berating, practically shouting at the American public for not immediately beating a path to their local hospital to donate blood for the cause.

Harris is powerfully moved by this recording and thinks he finally sees a humanity in Fuller.  But later on, Moore tells him the truth.  Fuller never got out to the battlefields.  He spent the trip in a drunken debauch in Paris where he was arrested in a brothel.  Moore went himself to the front to get the recordings and Fuller merely recorded his monologue over that background later on.

While this is going on Carleton reveals to Harris that there is corporate intrigue that involves forcing Moore away from the future of the shows that Harris may be given.  Harris is disgusted with both Carleton and Moore and almost everyone else he’s come in contact with on this story.

Finally, the night of the broadcast Harris is preparing to give the eulogy along with all the glowing tributes he’s recorded from those that didn’t really know Fuller or who would benefit from maintaining the myth about him.  But he stops.  Unable to stomach the lies, he tells the audience the truth.  He begins to relate the facts that he has discovered about the real Herb Fuller.  Back in the executive office Moore and Carleton are listening to the broadcast.  When Harris begins spilling the beans, Moore calls up the control room to cut Harris off.  But Carleton stops him.  Harris is about to become a symbol of crusading integrity and the network can utilize that to jumpstart their new star reporter’s career.  Carleton knows that advertising time can be sold with Fuller as either a sinner or a saint.  The story will come out.

I had never seen this movie before.  I’m glad I have.  This is a very well-made drama.  Jose Ferrer is a very good actor.  It seems he’s a pretty good director too.  The story is intriguing and the cast is full of good performances.  The one that stands out for me is Ed Wynn as the New England radio station owner.  His small-town sincerity is such a contrast to the cynicism and phoniness of the New York media crowd that it is almost shocking.  When we read the first broadcast that Fuller wrote for him and measure it against the values that are on display from the rest of the characters, we can feel Harris’s embarrassment at having treated this good-hearted man with faint mockery at his provincial manner.  Like him, maybe we feel a twinge of remorse that our lives have become coarsened too.  We feel a sadness that the world is really more Fuller’s world and not the better place it should be.

Anyway, I recommend this movie.  It has a good story to tell and it does it well.

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.