“The force behind a great company has to be more than the pride of one man; it has to be the pride of thousands. You can’t make men work for money alone—you starve their souls when you try it, and you can starve a company to death the same way.” —McDonald Walling (William Holden)
If not unique after all these years, the opening of Executive Suite was, for its time, a bit out of the ordinary. Accompanied by a view of a New York skyscraper, a narration by the then-popular newscaster Chet Huntley suggests that workers in the “topmost floors of sky-reaching towers of big business” aren’t “above and beyond the tensions and temptations of the lower floors.”
Huntley’s voice continues, now as the voice—the little that it is heard—of a man, unseen because he is the eye of the camera, a conceit some viewers may now find prosaic and gimmicky. The camera/man moves through the halls, meets and passes numerous office workers, uses the elevator and enters an office to send a telegram, calling for a board meeting of the Tredway Furniture Corporation, signing it simply Bullard.
The camera/man continues outside, onto the sidewalk and calls for a taxi. There’s a sudden groan, the camera tilts abruptly skyward—a fatal stroke sprawls the man on the sidewalk. His wallet is promptly stolen, and the “John Doe” body taken to a morgue.
The chicanery of those occupying that one particular “sky-reaching” tower of Tredway is exemplified in George Caswell (Louis Calhern), who views the sidewalk incident from his office window. Caswell sees a chance to profit from Bullard’s death before his identity is discovered and has his broker make a short sale on Tredway stock before the end of trading that Friday afternoon.
The back-scene maneuvering of the ensuing struggle is dished up by a classy, star-studded cast typical of M-G-M. “More stars than there are in heaven!” was the byword of Louis B. Meyer, who did more than any one to make that slogan a reality and turn his studio into the richest, most prestigious of that Golden Age.
The man who seems to exert the strongest control at Tredway is Loren Shaw (Frederic March), vice president and controller. Shaw is a budget and numbers man, devoted to the ledger and cost economy, and to increasing profits, some feel at a sacrifice of the company’s reputation.
Of course, as the members assemble the same day at six p.m. for the called board meeting, only Caswell knows of Bullard’s death. Having searched the newspapers for news of the president’s death, he has found none.
Vice president and Treasurer Frederick Alderson (Walter Pidgeon) is approached by Julia Tredway (Barbara Stanwyck), daughter of the company’s founder and its major stockholder. Bullard’s off-and-on-again lover reveals a strange phone call from Caswell, requesting she privately sell her 3,700 shares of stock to an anonymous buyer.
In the meantime McDonald “Don” Walling (William Holden), vice president for design and development, learns that the processing for a new product has not gone well; when it later does go well, a Shaw directive will prevent its implementation. Walling’s wife Mary (June Allyson) sometimes opposes what she thinks is his blind devotion to Bullard, and in view of his mistrust of Shaw’s harmful economizing, encourages him to start a business himself.
After many surreptitious goings-on and once Bullard’s death is finally announced, another board meeting is called, now to elect a new president. Before it is to meet, Caswell has promised his vote to Shaw in exchange for money to cover some shady stock dealings.
And when Walling seeks support from Julia for his own bid for the presidency, against his wife’s wishes, Julia reveals she has authorized Shaw to liquidate all her stock. In one of the great dramatic highs of the film, Walling accuses Julia of going against the best interests of the company by backing Shaw, that she is paying Bullard back for loving the company more than he loved her. She responds with one of the best-remembered lines in the film: “I gave him ten years of my life and all my love! Isn’t that enough?”
When there is no decision on the first ballot, Walling gives an impassioned speech about the future of Tredway, that “we’ll all work together” to turn profits into growth, regain pride in its products and eliminate an economy line where the finish cracks, the veneer peels and the legs wobble. He even smashes a card table to demonstrate.
The vivid speech ended, Alderson slaps his palm on the table: “I’m with you, Don!” Josiah Dudley (Paul Douglas), who had been a power-player in these machinations, rises to proudly nominate Walling as president. A distressed Shaw watches helplessly. Jesse Grimm (Dean Jagger), who manages the company’s shops, seconds it, and Alderson moves to make it unanimous. Erica Martin (Nina Foch), the late CEO’s secretary, who has been recording the minutes, asks, in turn, the remaining board members for their vote. Shaw and Caswell, out maneuvered, each give a sheepish nod. It’s unanimous.
Holden’s and Stanwyck’s performances are the standouts in the cast, but the only acting Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actress, went to Foch, who knows all the secrets of the men and women at Tredway. Foch loses to Eva Marie Saint for On the Waterfront.
Holden, twenty-two years later, would have a somewhat similar role in Network as another conscientious man, Max Schumacher, a newsman on a third-rate television network out for high ratings at all costs. Like Ernest Lehman’s (North by Northwest, 1959, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, 1960) abundant dialogue inExecutive Suite, Paddy Chayefsky (Marty, 1955, The Hospital, 1971) would write even longer speeches for Network. Holden, given a few of them, would lose to co-star Peter Finch, the first posthumous award ever given in the acting category.
Other stars in the glittering array of M-G-M players in Executive Suite include Shelley Winters as Dudley’s secretary and mistress and Tim Considine as Don’s son.