Broadway’s delightful — but wickedly accurate — satire of big business was brought to movie screens almost intact, with the story, the stars, the styles and dances kept as they were in the long-running show that won a Pulitzer Prize. This is the place to see Robert Morse and Michele Lee at their best — it’s one of the best, and least appreciated movie musicals of the 1960s.
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
1967 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 121 min. / Street Date March 14, 2017 / Available from the Twilight Time Movies Store 29.95
Starring: Robert Morse, Michele Lee, Rudy Vallee, Anthony Teague, Maureen Arthur, Sammy Smith, Robert Q. Lewis, Carol Worthington, Kathryn Reynolds, Ruth Kobart, George Fennemann, Tucker Smith, David Swift.
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Film Editor: Allan Jacobs, Ralph E. Winters
Original Music: Nelson Riddle
Art Direction: Robert Boyle
Visual Gags: Virgil Partch
From the play written by Frank Loesser, Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, Willie Gilbert from the novel by Shepherd Mead
Produced, Written and Directed by David Swift
(Note, April 1, 2017: I’ve written an update / rebuttal / correction article in response to issues with this review — it’s up at DVD Savant, and entitled How to Succeed – Take 2. Glenn)
Around 1997 in my editing room at MGM, I got a call from a co-worker. She said that David Swift had called several times to see if he could get a copy of ‘How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying’ and that all the home video executives had ignored him. I said, sure. David Swift was the director of the movie, made for Walter Mirisch and United Artists thirty years before. He said he had no way of seeing it. I asked him if he had a laserdisc player, and when he said no, I offered to make him a VHS copy. He could get it the next day if he wanted. Mr. Swift said, “Let me come by at noon and take you to lunch.” Wow.
It was a terrific lunch, as I knew just enough about the writer-director not to insult him with uninformed questions. I had found out more about Swift with MGM’s film management director John Kirk, because about a year before we had tried to locate the film’s missing ‘Coffee Break’ musical number and gotten nowhere. ‘How to Succeed’ was one of the few big stage musical productions I’d seen, in a revival at the Music Center in the late 1970s — with Robert Morse and Rudy Vallee.
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is finally out on Blu-ray. I’ve enjoyed it for decades, even when I had to watch it pan-scanned with commercials, or on laserdisc, where actors’ faces weren’t always easy to read in wide shots. The show is particularly wonderful in that it fairly closely replicates the stage experience. The stylized sets reflect the original approach, and the film’s dances retain Bob Fosse’s original choreography. Most of the key actors are from the original Broadway cast. That goes against Hollywood tradition, which dictates that films be fully ‘opened up’ and that stage actors be replaced with movie stars, whether or not they can sing or dance. Few musical movies survive without major damage. When egos and too-powerful stars get involved, good shows can get warped beyond recognition.
It’s a shame that How to’s on-screen arrival seemed ill-timed. I’d have to say that somebody didn’t promote it well; perhaps it was falsely assumed that all America couldn’t wait to see it, making a publicity push unnecessary. By 1967 the incredibly talented Robert Morse had already tried and failed to transfer his stardom to the movies, in a series of mostly unworthy vehicles like the limp Quick Before it Melts. I remember trying to interest editor friends at Cannon in How to, but all they saw were actors in dated costumes. One friend who considered himself an expert on musicals dismissed it because he thought a lyric had been plagiarized from West Side Story: when the executives describe the hero J. Pierrepont Finch, they say he’s got a rocket in his pocket. What can I say? There are people that can appreciate the styles and approaches of movies from different eras, and those that run out of patience because a show is in B&W.
Thanks to TV’s Mad Men the appeal of How to Succeed may be higher than ever. The original 1961 Frank Loesser, Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert stage musical has not been changed much for David Swift’s film version. And the film maintains the spirit of the wicked sub-title appended to Shepherd Mead’s original 1952 book: ‘The Dastard’s Guide to Fame and Fortune.’
With the advice from a do-it-yourself pocket book called ‘How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,’ young nobody J. Pierrepont Finch (Robert Morse) enters the Worldwide Wicket Company knowing nothing about the business. He rises within the ranks like a skyrocket — going to the very top of the organization in just a few days. He exploits the company’s size and the relative anonymity of its employees, prevaricating and self-promoting at every step of the way. Encouraging every possible mis-assumption about his qualifications and background — that he’s humble, that he’s a team player, that he comes from an Ivy League School — Finch cozies up to those who can help him, like the head of the mail room Mr. Twimble (Sammy Smith). He deftly sidesteps or sabotages competitors, like the nepotistic go-getter Bud Frump (Anthony Teague). With the aid and encouragement of secretary Rosemary Pilkington (Michele Lee), Finch cultivates helpful executives and makes his presence known to the company president J.B. Bigley (Rudy Vallee) by snowing Bigley’s secretary Miss Jones (Ruth Kobart) with affection. Skipping from the mailroom to the junior executive pool, Finch lands a key executive position by torpedoing Benjamin Ovington (Murray Matheson), who tries to have him fired. He then must face two even more treacherous challenges. His assigned secretary is Hedy LaRue (Maureen Arthur), an incompetent sexpot who is actually J.B. Bigley’s mistress; her bosses have a tendency to leave the company under mysterious circumstances. As the new Head of Advertising, Finch has to come up with a terrific, original advertising plan. The do-it-yourself book counsels that the best way to get an idea is to steal one. Only a few days into his glorious career, Finch will either attain greatness or find himself back on the sidewalk, washing windows again.
What makes How to Succeed so wickedly funny? It’s really the blackest of black comedies. With different costumes and weapons, J. Pierrepont Finch’s story would adapt well to a tale of the rise of a head Nazi in the Third Reich. Nobody in this dysfunctional company tells the truth, and the lying, conniving, back-stabbing Finch is a pure villain. Starting as a window washer who ‘wants to be somebody,’ he does whatever it takes to get to the top. He’s only justified in that WorldWide Wicket Corp. has two kinds of people, un-ambitious worker drones and vipers like himself, just not as ruthless or as lucky. Finch was born to succeed.
A special case of cynicism without bitterness, How to Succeed sees the dog-eat-dog rat race as so absurd as to be endearing. The key of course is Robert Morse, whose impish grins and outrageous brown-nosing are hilariously endearing. Finch is the guy who steps on people but somehow gets them to applaud him anyway. Of course, this may always have been how things really work, ever since the first caveman complained that ‘politics’ were cheating him out of something. People use whatever leverage they can muster to advance, and those that get away with it are greatly admired. How many times have we seen people who Demand Unearned Rewards, or bad-mouth others to influence a decision? Finch turns this into an art. His body language is cartoonish to the point of expressionism: when hears a superior praising humility, he literally ratchets his head lower to strike the proper pose. When buttering up an executive, he practically crawls up his leg, like a dog. Robert Morse’s mugging is both outrageous and hilarious, and fits the character perfectly.
The cartoon expressionism is consistent throughout. In one scene the secretaries finish their hair and makeup upon arrival at their desks. Cartoonist Virgil Partch was engaged to storyboard this sequence, which originally led into the excised ‘Coffee Break’ number. We’re told that four more stage songs didn’t make it into the movie at all.
The stage play depicted the ‘instantaneous’ firing of an executive by dousing the house lights for a brief second, enough time for the actor to be replaced by Morse’s Finch, who not only struck the same pose but finished the executive’s line of dialogue. In the movie David Swift engages a brilliant visual gag shot. As an executive swoops Hedy LaRue into a Valentino-like kiss, the camera tilts up to reveal a guillotine, right there in the executive’s office. When I told Mr. Swift that it played like a perfect Tex Avery gag, he agreed: he had worked as a writer on cartoons, and had sold gags to Tex Avery.
All the musical numbers are great, but two key songs directly focus on our attitude to the Titans of Industry. “Gotta Stop That Man” sets up Finch as a knight in armor, going bravely into a boardroom meeting where a stupid boss will judge his ideas and a dozen executives will pray for him to fail. Rosemary Pilkington sings “I Believe in You,’ which characterizes the weasel Finch as ‘a clear-eyed seeker of wisdom and truth.’ Back in 1898 the Horation Alger ethos offered young heroes that were true-blue honest and always chose virtue over sin. ‘The cream rises’ was the motto. Long before J. Pierrepont Finch, the counter-theory grew that ‘good guys finish last.’ I suppose the mantra today is that anybody who hesitates twisting the knife might risk being branded a contemptible ‘loser.’ As a cultural indicator of the general surrender to this cynicism, we have the comic strip Dilbert, a completely depressive variation on the disenchantment beneath the mirth of How to Succeed.
Is the picture really that dated? I think it makes a good case for feminism, in a roundabout way — the sexist jokes are so bald that the wrongness of sex harassment becomes as obvious as Finch’s crooked morality. “A Secretary Is Not a Toy” is about company rules that nobody follows, and the notion that attractive women at work are fair game for randy executives. But it’s also true that, for a woman lacking an elevated social background, the corporate open-plan office was a good place to connect with an excellent husband and provider. Just as Finch is ‘sincere,’ Rosemary Pilkington is ‘demure.’ With her co-conspirators Lucille Krumholtz and Miss Smith (the terrific Carol Worthington & Kathryn Reynolds), Rosemary sets her sights on Finch from the start, maneuvering him into a date and indoctrinating him with the idea that an ambitious man needs the support of a loving wife, whether he wants it or not. Is everything rigged? In this cartoon version of the business world, yes.
The jokes and caricatures make How to Succeed into an adult comic strip. The dialogue could be in balloons over the cartoon characters’ heads. Finch turns morose at every setback and grins like a fool whenever fate or his own cheating turns the trick for him. The jaded outlook is even sharper if one reads the lyrics carefully. The opening advice from the do-it-yourself book tells Finch, “How To! — Avoid Petty Friends.” That’s an unspoken rule of social climbing, and I haven’t seen it addressed this clearly, elsewhere.
Rudee Vallee is as wonderfully pompous here as he was back in Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story. J.B. Bigley has no real function in the company. He secretly knits in his palatial office, at a desk in the shape of a giant question mark. Was David Swift unable to get an overhead shot of that, or was it meant to be a subtle visual pun? Top secretary Ruth Kobart changes from battle-ax to a happy Finch booster, and belts out her part of the song that seeming asks if society even deserves to survive, “The Brotherhood of Man.” Ms. Kobart, by the way, played another notable footnote part in film history — she’s the tearful driver of the bus of kidnapped children at the end of Dirty Harry.
Maureen Arthur is hilarious as the stereotyped bimbo, a much-missed PC no-no these days. The deep-dish farce context makes Hedy LaRue’s sex jokes totally appropriate. Ms. Arthur proves that she can slowly blink one eye without twitching the other, a talent I’ve only seen before from Brigitte Helm in Metropolis, where the gesture was just as sexy. I suppose the comedy context is what allows Hedy to run around the president’s office wearing nothing but a towel, bouncing like an earthquake in a Jello factory.
Michele Lee fully embodies the adorable Rosemary, the effortlessly calculating secretary, the kind that will support her man until the gravy train comes to a halt and she blows a fuse. I always wished that would happen to June Allyson in one of her 1950s ‘supportive wife’ roles. I imagine that the original Bud Frump, Charles Nelson Reilly, would have been a perfect transparent sneak as Finch’s nemesis. His replacement Anthony ‘Scooter’ Teague is wonderfully sadistic at the big meeting, gleefully anticipating Finch’s demise. I was told that Teague was in the Navy at the time, and was given special permission to leave a cruise to film the movie. He was of course memorable as a Jet in the film of West Side Story.
Executive Bert Bratt is played by John Myhers, who is hard to miss as the delegate from New York in the film of 1776. Executive Tackaberry is Robert Q. Lewis, an actor that we knew well from TV game shows. Another executive is played by an actor who is the spitting image of the pre-Code King, Warren William. Until the IMDB came along to prove me wrong, I thought it was Warren William. Sammy Smith has two roles, the passive Twimbly and a big boss named Wally Womper. The personalities are so different that I’d never have guessed they were the same actor.
Bob Fosse’s choreography in the dance numbers is sometimes jazzy in a finger snapping way — the chorus moves accentuate the ‘organization man’ principle, with similarly dressed individuals fitting themselves into a rigid company pattern. This is most strongly expressed when two lines of people, folded over each other like off-balance IBM cards, march across the room in an impossible-looking formation. It’s a trimmed-down version of the ‘dance machine’ constructed for the “Two Lost Souls” number in Fosse’s Damn Yankees. Dueling executives turn a handshake into a fencing stance for the “Brotherhood of Man” dance, which balloons into a frantic gospel revival. Why does it seem so natural for us to chant out exalted principles, even as we’re doing exactly the opposite? ‘Hypocrisy’ is an inadequate word for this.
For those that might not get the Mad Men connection, Shepherd Mead’s original satirical book came fairly early (1952) in the trend of non-fiction and fiction critiquing the Brave New World of corporate culture. The concentration of money and power in city skyscrapers raised the stakes in office politics, making ‘success’ a matter of high drama. Whereas William Whyte’s book The Organization Man (1956) was about management theory — what should the relationship be between an individual and the company he works for? — the heavy-hitting titles associated with the genre were The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and Executive Suite.
These books and movies attempted to find meaning and morality in the struggle for material success, which is a main vein in Mad Men as well. The How to Succeed musical has antecedents in company-set farces, of which Frank Tashlin’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? is a standout — Tashlin’s cartoon-logic humor and character exaggerations figure in as well. In several of these pictures, success is measured by the honor of earning a key to the executive washroom, which Billy Wilder makes a big deal of in his own sour-comedy entry in the office ethics subgenre, The Apartment.
Writer-director David Swift was a fairly big name in the 1950s and ’60s. He created the legendary Mr. Peepers TV show with Wally Cox, which offered a blend of sweetness and reality-based social humor. He became a trusted Walt Disney associate for several years, one of the few people allowed free rein with projects when Disney’s attention was scattered between film, TV, and his amusement park. Swift directed Pollyanna and The Parent Trap for Disney. When I met him he was hearty and vital. He didn’t tell me that he was already prepping a remake of The Parent Trap; for all I know he wanted to see How to Succeed to promote a remake of that as well. It was a surprise to learn of his death late in 2001. I’m very happy that he was so generous with his time.
As for Robert Morse, I met him briefly at Cannon one day. I had been hired to cut TV spots for Cannon’s mostly miserable Fairy Tale movies, filmed in Israel. When celebrities came in they often wandered into the advertising area looking for directions or VHS tapes of their work. We also suspected that some were showing up to demand checks that had ‘somehow not gotten into the mail.’ As you’d suspect, Mr. Morse greeted me with a handshake and a classic gap-toothed grin, and autographed a photo for me. I told him that I thought I’d die laughing at one of his movies, when he threw the dead dog into the freezer back in The Loved One. His response –“You and five other people saw that movie!”
Perhaps the capper to the legend of Robert Morse and How to Succeed is his final scene in the Mad Men series, which magically transforms into a musical number, as if acknowledging the series’ debt to this play and movie. I don’t hear a great deal of praise for How to Succeed, and it deeply deserves more.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is an instant favorite disc. The colors are bright, the picture ‘pops’ with clarity. The previous DVD was no beauty, and I wince to remember the fuzzy videotapes I once contented myself with. Burnett Guffey does well with the deep-focus, high-key lighting scheme that yields the proper comic-strip feeling to the images.
The soundtrack was originally monaural, I believe, but what we have here is a 2.0 (stereo?) mix and a 5.1 lossless re-mix. It can be heard on an Isolated Music & Effects track. The quite good trailer is included as well.
Very welcome are two extended (20 min.) interviews with the film’s two top stars, looking bright and cheerful as ever. Robert Morse and Michele Lee don’t get into details as they stress the joy of being part of the play and the movie. Each offers a number of memories, observations and anecdotes of their experience, taking the opportunity to entertain us with snippets of the songs, even. It’s not a critical piece but we hardly mind, as it’s nice just to spend time with these two. Ms. Lee reminds us that Morse’s dancing down Manhattan sidewalks were filmed from a camera hidden in a truck, and her amusement seems sincere. Featurette producer Daniel Griffiths enforces a quick pace with frequent cuts to stills, newspaper clippings and scenes from the movie. I don’t even want to know how old these performers are — I’d rather see them in a movie together.
Julie Kirgo’s liner notes mesh with my own enthusiasm for How to, and remind us that the musical won a Pulitzer Prize. She has a keen take on the way the show went out of fashion just as the movie arrived, yet has come full circle; she also sees things in the stylized décor that zoomed over my head. Ms. Kirgo still finds the “A Secretary is Not a Toy” funny-creepy as opposed to funny-quaint. I readily admit that its brand of sexism is alive and well in the workforce today.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying Blu-ray rates:
Supplements: Isolated Music Track (with some effects); featurettes This Book Is All That You Need: Robert Morse on J. Pierrepont Finch and A Secretary Is Not a Toy: Michele Lee on Rosemary Pilkington; Original Theatrical Trailer, Julie Kirgo liner notes.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: March 24, 2017
(Note, April 1, 2017: I’ve written an update / rebuttal / correction article in response to issues with this review — it’s up at DVD Savant, and entitled How to Succeed – Take 2. Glenn)
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson