Monday, January 9, 2012

Executive Suite

Executive Suite (dir. Robert Wise, 1954) tells the story of the battle for the presidency of an American furniture company, the Tredway Corporation. The film has a great ensemble cast, with Louis Calhern, Paul Douglas, Nina Foch, Fredric March, Walter Pidegon, Barbara Stanwyck, and Shelley Winters, among others. Of greatest interest are the Wallings, McDonald (William Holden) and Mary (June Allyson). Don is a Charles Eames-like industrial designer whose plans for innovative products are stopped again and again by Tredway’s cost-cutting, chart-making controller Loren Shaw (March). Mary is no Ray Eames: we see her not as a collaborator but as a patient partner, appalled by the way Tredway frustrates her husband’s creativity. Avery Bullard, the company’s late president, hired Don with a promise that he could design and build whatever he wanted. But Don’s work on a “new molding process” has been stopped at Shaw’s directive. And the company’s most profitable merchandise is its Shaw-approved K-F line, cheap stuff with cracking finishes and legs that come loose.

The film’s interiors, by Emile Kuri and Edwin B. Willis, are rich in meaning: in the Tredway Tower, all is marble, stone, and carved wood — a contrast to the shoddy materials and workmanship of the company’s products. The Wallings’ house is modernity itself.

[The coffeemaker looks like a Cory.]

[That’s Mary coming through the door.]

[“If it hadn’t been for this room the past few months, you couldn’t have lived.”]

Compare photographs of the Eames house and office. If you look closely at the second photograph of the Eames house, you can see a dried desert plant, a signature Eames element, hanging in space. There’s something similar on the wall in Don’s studio, behind Mary’s shoulder. The 3 on Don’s wall is another Eames reference: it’s an Eames 3, or nearly one. And the reference to an unexplained “molding process” recalls of course the molded plywood of the Eameses’ chairs.

The most exciting moments in Executive Suite come in the film’s final boardroom scene. You can guess, I suspect, who gets to be president. The excitement in the scene comes from the clash between two different ways of thinking about the work of a corporation: one which seeks to cut costs, maximize profit, and pay stockholders a dividend; the other which bears in mind the need to build a future. As Don tells Shaw,
“We have an obligation to keep this company alive, not just this year or next or the year after that. Sometimes you have to use your profits for the growth of the company, not pay them all out in dividends to impress the stockholders with your management record.”
Don’s dream, to make low-priced furniture “that will sell because it has beauty and function and value,” will now come true. As did the Eameses’ dream: “getting the most of the best to the greatest number of people for the least.”

[“Getting the most”: Charles Eames, quoted in Life, September 11, 1950. Executive Suite is mentioned briefly in the PBS American Masters episode Charles & Ray Eames: The Architect and the Painter.]

Eames-related posts
Eames on reams (On reams of paper)
Eameses in the air (Ice Cube, PBS)
Twine and yarn (From an Eames exhibit)

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