Monday, June 1, 2015

Barbara Pines

Barbara Stanwyck has a relatively small part in Executive Suite (1954).  She plays Julia O. Tredway, the daughter of the late head of the Tredway Corporation, a respected furniture manufacturer, now headed by Avery Bullard (voiced, but unseen, by Raoul Freeman).  However, Julia and her love for Bullard are not the focus of the film; Executive Suite is the story of a critical moment in the history of the Tredway Corporation, as the company's various executives battle for control of the firm after the death of Bullard.

The film marks a reunion for Stanwyck and William Holden (McDonald "Don" Walling).  Stanwyck was the star of Golden Boy (1939), and Holden was a newbie when he appeared in the title role.  As the film rushes came in, Harry Cohn made it clear that was not satisfied with Holden's performance, and was going to replace him.  Stanwyck defended him, and worked with him to improve his performance (Check out this TCM article for that story and others).  Golden Boy became Holden's breakthrough role.  Stanwyck and Holden remained friends, and he tried for years to convince the Academy to present her with an Honorary Oscar for her body of work.  Ultimately, he did succeed, but by the time she received the award, he had died.  In this video, you can will see Holden's praise of Stanwyck at the 1977 Oscars, and her moving acceptance speech in 1983 as she expresses her affection for her "Golden Boy".
The film actually belongs to Holden's Don Walling, the head of Tredway's research and development arm, and on his evolution into becoming a leader.  Disillusioned by his mentor, Bullard, but nevertheless grieved by his death, Don becomes convinced that only he among the corporate vice presidents can keep Tredway afloat.  His passion for a quality product and for the continued stability of the company put him at odds with other members of the board of directors.  Holden gives Don the necessary sincerity and gravitas needed to lead a major corporation.  He also demonstrates a devotion to his wife Mary Blemond Walling (June Allyson) and son Mike (Tim Considine). While some of his colleagues consider him too young to lead a company, the film focuses on his growth into the new position.

Also remarkable is Fredric March as Loren Phineas Shaw, the chief financial officer for the company.  Shaw's economies have put him at odds with Don, having advocated for and won approval of a cheap brand of furniture that, while enhancing the company's coffers, proves an embarrassment to the firm's employees and to many members of the board. March gives Shaw a number of small tics that quickly define his character for the viewer - watch how he constantly wipes his hands.  His Shaw is a character you cannot like, and March is not afraid to make him, while not quite a villain, at the very least an unattractive individual.
A greater portion of the film's $1.25 million budget went to actors' salaries, and to good effect, because each actor gives a distinct three-dimensionality to the characters.  Though only in about 3 scenes, Shelley Winters is excellent as Eva Bardeman, the secretary and mistress of Josiah Walter Dudley (Paul Douglas). Walter Pidgeon's Frederick Y. Alderson gives us a man at the end of his career, who must face the fact that he will never rise to the heights of power that he always hoped was his future. But especially worth noting is the performance of Nina Foch as Bullard's executive secretary, Erica Martin.  Foch was nominated for an Oscar for her brief, but powerful performance as a woman who is privy to her late employer's secrets, but who is the soul of discretion.  In the clip below, Foch describes her conversations with the film's producer John Houseman and director, Robert Wise, as they took a tiny, weak part and made it into the small gem that you see today. To make Erica a real person, Foch and Wise created a backstory for her:
The film opens with point-of-view camera work.  Since we are seeing the world through the eyes of Avery Bullard, his sudden death is quite shocking.  As a result, we never actually see Bullard, not even a photo of him.  This allows the audience to create their own picture of him, based on the various portraits that his colleagues paint.

Also very interesting is the credit role.  We are all used to credits which show brief names of the characters' next to that of the actors, but Executive Suite gives us the characters full names - names that were not used within the film.  We learn that Don Walling's name is actually MacDonald, and that his wife's maiden name is Blemond.   Again, the character's begin to have a life outside the frame of the story - they have a past.  They will have a future.

We were unfamiliar with Lucille Knoch, who the end credits inform us was Mrs. George Nyle Caswell (the wife of Louis Calhern's manipulative George Caswell - another masterful character creation), not his mistress, as we all had assumed.  Ms. Knoch quite good in this part.   She had a relatively short career - this was possibly the largest role she ever had.  She seems to have stopped acting after 1957; she died in 1990.
Interestingly, the film did have a future, of sorts.   It was made into a TV show from September 1976 through February 1977.  It lasted for only 18 episodes, which is not surprising, considering the new show's competition was Monday Night Football, The Rockford Files, and the NBC Movie of the Week.   Given that competition, it's shocking that it made it past the first month.   Only the Don and Helen Walling characters continued in the TV show - they were played by Mitchell Ryan and Sharon Acker.  Even the name of the company was changed in the prime-time soap opera.  It was now the Cardway Corporation.  You can see a advertisement for the show on YouTube.

We'll leave you with a trailer from the film - an introduction to all the characters, including Stanwyck's Julia Tredway:

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