On April 15, 1954, MGM’s star-studded drama Executive Suite held its premiere in Hollywood. The film went on to earn four Oscar nominations at the 27th Academy Awards, including for best supporting actress (Nina Foch), art direction, cinematography and costume design. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review, headlined “‘Executive Suite’ Dynamic Drama; Certain B.O. Smash,” is below.
Here is a magnificent motion picture that meets the standard of greatness on almost every count. Running a fast 103 minutes, Executive Suite holds the viewer from the opening scene, building absorbingly to a smashing climax. With such stars as Fredric March, William Holden, June Allyson, Barbara Stanwyck, Walter Pidgeon, Shelley Winters, Paul Douglas, Louis Calhern and Dean Jagger playing key roles, this splendid John Houseman production, superbly directed by Robert Wise, figures as box office dynamite. It is one of the outstanding pictures of recent years.
Following his productions of The Bad and the Beautiful and Julius Caesar, this helps stamp Houseman as one of the important, truly creative producers in the industry. His casting of the gripping Ernest Lehman screenplay, based on Cameron Hawley’s novel, is flawless, each star turning in a scintillating performance.
Against the background of a furious battle for control of a giant furniture manufacturing concern, characterizations are sharply etched, each one developing as a fascinating character study yet all becoming subordinate to the main theme. The entire story takes place within 24 hours after the sudden death of Avery Bullard, president of the Treadway Corp. As soon as his death becomes known the scramble starts for his position, with March, vice-president and controller, a human adding machine, immediately starting to take over. The other vice-presidents, all eligible for the post, are William Holden, an idealist in charge of design and development: Walter Pidgeon, the senior officer, doggedly local to Bullard’s memory; Paul Douglas, easygoing, popular v.p. in charge of sales, and Dean Jagger, in charge of manufacturing. The other two having votes as members of the board of directors are Barbara Stanwyck, neurotic daughter of the founder and the major stockholder, and Louis Calhern, a cynical, unmoral speculator.
When March, by blackmailing methods, wheedling and threats, seems likely to become president, Pidgeon and Holden ally themselves against him. How they win out, with the ideals of customer service and manufacturing integrity succeeding over the profit ledger, makes as exciting a story as ever held one breathless with suspense.
Robert Wise’s direction is masterful, bringing out all the character nuances while keeping the story racing straight ahead to its movingly powerful denouement. The opening is a daring one, the early scenes being jumpy, almost annoying, until one suddenly realizes that he is looking through the eyes of the dying industrialist just before he collapses on the sidewalk, the tale really getting under way at that point. There is no musical background of any kind, and after one gets used to it very early in the picture, it isn’t missed, the story coming out all the more starkly realistic.
With a collection of stars like this, it is almost unfair to single out individuals, yet special tribute must be paid to march and Holden. March’s portrayal is a study of acting at its most brilliant. He is at times obsequious, at times domineering, but always he is the cold-blooded automaton whose god is the financial report. And yet, when finally defeated, he is an object of respect and sympathy because his motives are so humanly understandable and his ability so strongly established.
Holden hits the heights in a climactic scene in which he sums up his ideals as the only logical working basis for a manufacturing concern. It is a dynamic bit of acting that holds the viewer enthralled and makes him feel like cheering. June Allyson is vibrantly warm as his wife, jealous of his dedication to his work but loyally behind him regardless of emotional cost. As for Miss Stanwyck, Pidgeon, Douglas, Calhern and Jagger, it can only be said they are wonderful. Shelley Winters is excellent in a brief appearance as Douglas’ secretary whose after-hours romance with her boss gives March a hold over Douglas. Nina Foch scores effectively as the efficient, faithful executive secretary to the dead tycoon. Edgar Stehli, in a lesser role, stands out as Calhern’s associate.
Photography by George Folsey and settings by Cedric Gibbons and Edward Carfagno are potent factors in the success of the film, with Ralph E. Winters rating credit for a splendid editing job. — Milton Luban, originally published on Feb. 23, 1954