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Film / Executive Suite

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Executive Suite is a 1954 American drama film directed by Robert Wise.

It is a story of corporate maneuvering and machinations at the Manhattan headquarters of Treadway Corporation, a furniture business. Avery Bullard, president of Treadway, calls a Friday evening meeting of the corporate board to elect a new executive vice-president. Mere minutes after having his secretary, Erica Martin (Nina Foch), send out the telegram, he drops dead on the street from a heart attack. George Caswell (Louis Calhern), a member of the Treadway board, sees Bullard lying dead on the sidewalk and immediately phones in an order to short-sell Treadway stock. However, when a man in the crowd steals Bullard's wallet, there is a delay in making an ID on the body.

By that night, however, Bullard is identified. This sets up a mad scramble to decide who will be the next president of Treadway, with the five vice-presidents of Treadway in contention. They are:

  • Loren Shaw (Fredric March): VP in charge of finance. The antagonist. Shaw, who held no affection for Bullard and is unemotional about his death, is a bean-counter who takes more pride in manipulating tax deductions than in selling furniture, and is perfectly willing to sell a shoddy product if that will boost the profit margin. He's also willing to blackmail people.
  • McDonald "Don" Walling (William Holden): VP in charge of design and development. The protagonist. He believes in making a good product as an end in itself, something the company and its work force can take pride in, and further that building better furniture will be better for the company in the long term than Shaw's "sell junk" strategy. His loving wife Mary (June Allyson) thinks he should leave Treadway, as the company no longer supports his vision.
  • Fred Alderson (Walter Pidgeon): VP and treasurer. Bullard's right-hand man, well-liked by everyone, but there's some doubt as to whether he has the stuff to take the top job.
  • Walter Dudley (Paul Douglas): VP in charge of sales. A glad-hander, thought by everybody to be basically weak, but proposed as a candidate by those who are against Shaw. He is having an affair with his smoking hot secretary Eva (Shelley Winters).
  • Jesse Grimm (Dean Jagger): VP in charge of manufacturing. Takes himself out of the running immediately by surprising everyone with the announcement that he's retiring in three weeks.

Rounding out the All-Star Cast is Barbara Stanwyck as Julia Treadway, daughter of the late founder of Treadway and lover of the late president, Bullard. She is bitter at the both of them for neglecting her in favor of the company before they both died suddenly (her father having killed himself).


  • As You Know: Some opening dialogue between Caswell and Julius about how there are five vice presidents who will be gunning for Bullard's job.
  • Awful Wedded Life: Dudley's wife Sylvia never appears, but the nasty argument while Dudley is talking to her on the phone demonstrates how horrible their marriage is.
  • Blackmail: Shaw, having tracked Dudley to Eva's apartment, demands his support for the presidency. He follows that up by glancing at Eva and saying "Naturally, Sylvia"—Dudley's wife—"won't hear about this." The blackmail threat is made and Dudley falls in line, nominating Shaw at the Saturday board meeting.
  • Call-Back: Walling and a factory worker, commiserating about how standards have gone downhill at Treadway, refer specifically to the "K-F line", a cheap, poor quality end table that Treadway is manufacturing currently. At the climax of his Rousing Speech at the end, when Walling is laying out his vision of where to take Treadway, he demonstrates how poor Treadway products are by picking up a K-F end table and ripping it apart with his bare hands.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Walling, the VP of design, is introduced in the factory dicking around with a piece of machinery. This establishes him as not a behind-the-scenes corporate shark (like Shaw), but someone who cares about his work and the product and the people underneath him.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: Barely over 24 hours, from quitting time on Friday afternoon to the decisive 6 pm board meeting on Saturday.
  • The Film of the Book: Adapted from the best-selling 1952 novel of the same name by writer and former business executive Cameron Hawley, notable as the first paperback published by Ballantine Books.
  • For Doom the Bell Tolls: The corporate board room is located on the top floor of a building that has a bell tower at the very top. The bell tower tolls six o'clock with big booming gongs on Friday (for the meeting Bullard misses, because he's dead) and Saturday (for the decisive confrontation at the second meeting).
  • Glasses Pull: Eva the hot secretary says the board meeting will force Dudley to miss his flight to Chicago. Then she pulls her glasses off and, in a softer voice, says "Maybe you'll have to take the late plane." This is a broad hint that they're having an affair, which is later confirmed. (Her idea was that he'd have time to go to her apartment.)
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Caswell's snap decision to short Treadway stock after Bullard's death backfires when Shaw immediately sends out an earnings report showing that Treadway is doing fine. Caswell, who overcommitted on his short sale and is facing financial ruin, demands that Shaw arrange to sell him Treadway stock to make good on his deal, and Shaw in return says that Caswell has to vote for him for the presidency. At the board meeting, Shaw is one vote away from becoming president—and Caswell abstains, demanding that Shaw guarantee him the stock. It turns out that he didn't need to bother, as Shaw was going to do it and in fact had the paper granting Caswell the stock in his pocket. But Caswell's Leeroy Jenkins in abstaining and pushing the vote to a second ballot results in Walling being voted in as president instead. Afterwards, Shaw tears the paper up right in front of a horrified Caswell, leaving Caswell ruined.
  • Honest Corporate Executive: Walling, who just wants to make good furniture and do right by everybody. Note that his antagonist Shaw is not a Corrupt Corporate Executive, but more of the standard boardroom snake willing to cut corners for the almighty dollar.
  • Ignored Vital News Reports: Grimm confirms for his wife his determination to retire. As they are driving home, he flips the radio away from the news right in the middle of a report that the dead guy on the street has been identified as Avery Bullard.
  • Lecture as Exposition: Walling explains to his wife, and the audience, who the seven board members are (the five VPs, plus Julia and Caswell) and who's expected to vote for whom. He even writes it down on a piece of paper.
  • Let the Past Burn: Julia, grieving after Bullard's death, takes all her papers out of the safe and chucks them in the fire. She blames Treadway Corporation for causing both her father and her lover to neglect her and driving them both to early graves.
  • Number Two: Alderson uses this exact phrase to describe himself. He says that Bullard didn't make him executive VP because he thought Alderson was a "number two man" instead of a leader. Alderson decides that Bullard was right, and backs Walling for the presidency rather than trying for it himself.
  • Plot-Triggering Death: All sorts of machinations are unleashed by Bullard's sudden death.
  • Posthumous Character: Bullard. He dies three minutes into the film and we never see his face, but we learn a lot about him and his motivations. He never married Julia, putting the company first. He supported Walling's broad vision for the company, but eventually was won over by Shaw's more cynical approach. He thought little of Alderson's abilities. Grimm remembers how Bullard used to come over to his house.
  • P.O.V. Cam: After some establishing shots the film opens with a three-minute POV shot from the perspective of Avery Bullard, as he leaves the office, goes down on the elevator, sends his telegram, and signals for a cab. The POV shot isn't broken until Bullard has a stroke and dies on the sidewalk.
  • Reality Has No Soundtrack: No music for the whole film. This was quite rare for American studio pictures in the 1950s.
  • Recycled: The Series: Adapted into a short-lived Prime Time Soap by CBS in 1976.
  • Rousing Speech: At the second board meeting, Walling gives a rousing speech, the "Once more unto the breach!" of corporate board speeches, challenging the company to grow and do better, dramatically tearing a piece of Treadway furniture apart to make his point. He wins the support of Julia and Dudley and is swept into the presidency of the company.
    Walling: We're not going to die! We're going to live!
  • Sexy Secretary: Eva, Dudley's curvaceous, smoking hot secretary, with whom he's having an affair. She winds up leaving him, deciding that he's weak.
  • Succession Crisis: A struggle for the presidency of and control of Treadway after president Avery Bullard dies suddenly and unexpectedly.
  • Title Drop: The elevator operator takes a message from an errand boy, saying "I deliver all messages to the executive suite."
  • Worst News Judgment Ever: Odd that the Times carries a news story about a random dude dying on the sidewalk, before they know who he is.