José Ferrer stars in his second dramatic feature as director, teamed with newcomer Gena Rowlands as a married working couple. Ferrer’s executive assistant isn’t on the list of those invited to meet the new corporate bosses, which everyone knows means he’s a dead employee walking. Things are looking darkest just as his loving wife is bringing news of a baby on the way. The show builds up a terrific critique of anxiety in the Rat Race, but then…
The High Cost of Loving
The Warner Archive Collection
1958 / B&W / 2:35 enhanced widescreen / 87 min. / Street Date July 16, 2015 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring José Ferrer, Gena Rowlands, Joanne Gilbert, Jim Backus, Bobby Troup, Philip Ober, Edward Platt, Charles Watts, Werner Klemperer, Malcolm Atterbury, Jeanne Baird, Nick Clooney, Abby Dalton, Richard Deacon, Nancy Kulp, Lucien Littlefield.
Cinematography George J. Folsey
Film Editor Ferris Webster
Original Music Jeff Alexander
Written by Rip Van Ronkel, Milo O. Frank Jr.
Produced by Milo O. Frank Jr.
Directed by José Ferrer
Wrongly promoted as a comedy, MGM’s The High Cost of Loving is a dramatic showcase for the talents of actor-director José Ferrer. It’s essentially an entry in the 1950s ‘organization man’ subgenre, the top titles of which are Nunnally Johnson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, Robert Wise’s Executive Suite and Fielder Cook’s Patterns (of Power). The study of modern business ethics also seems related to The Apartment and by extension, Mad Men. After a corporate merger, a middle manager must weather a job security crisis. Variety’s 1958 review was impressed that the film seriously addressed working issues in the modern workplace: “the toll in man’s serenity in a world of super-corporate operations where the individual is an ever- increasingly minor cog.” Today the movie seems much less focused. Its ultimate message is something of a botch.
James ‘Jimbo’ Fry (José Ferrer), assistant purchasing manager at a manufacturing company, is a hearty fellow with good social skills and an excellent working attitude. He loves his wife Ginny (Gena Rowlands, in her first film role) and has a loyal buddy in another executive assistant, Steve Hayward (Bobby Troup). Everyone’s excited about the opportunities for advancement coming with the purchase of the company by a larger corporation. But when invitations to meet the new owners at a special luncheon are distributed, Fry doesn’t get one. It’s assumed by everyone that only ‘winners’ are being invited. Jimbo maintains his equilibrium even though one of his superiors persists in hating him, for no good reason. Fry doesn’t tell Steve and he hides his upset from Ginny, who is herself going through a trial of suspense — she’s taking tests to see if she’s pregnant. Steve’s gossiping wife Syd (Joanne Gilbert) spreads alarming bad vibes about the company getting rid of deadwood ‘losers.’ Jimbo begins to lose his composure on the afternoon before the special luncheon, when his boss orders some purchasing work for him, as if he were already gone. Jim can barely contain his frustration and anger. Why doesn’t he go into main office, tell everyone off, and quit?
Certainly a worthwhile project, The High Cost of Loving is a sober drama with a light comedy feel, a combination that only makes it less comfortable as a viewing experience. One might expect that the source is a play or novel, but the screenplay is an original from Milo O. Frank Jr and Alford ‘Rip’ Van Ronkel, who normally specialized in science fiction adventures. (For a real aside, Rip is used briefly as a character in the 2007 mystery Hollywoodland, played by Richard Fancy.) The High Cost of Loving begins with scenes reminiscent of the Tracy-Hepburn movie Adam’s Rib, with Jimbo and Ginny going through their morning wake up / shower / breakfast routine like synchronized robots. The sequence wants to be cute, but to us it looks like they’re in a hopeless rut and don’t know it. It’s also pretty unoriginal.
The basic idea of an employee worried that he’s going to be canned will hit home with many working people. Jimbo has been with the company more than long enough for his lack of a major promotion to be a detriment. Considering jumping ship, he goes to see Paul, an executive in another company (Jim Backus). A glad-hander but also a good friend, Paul lets Jimbo in on a secret: companies don’t want experienced guys on a career plateau, they want cheap newcomers they can mold to their own ways. The pressure mounts as Ginny, primed by Syd, starts talking about how the presumed promotion will improve their standard of living, and make life with the new baby nicer. Steered by more misunderstandings in the screenplay, Jimbo almost blows a fuse. When he does, charging down the office hallway ready to sock someone, we can already see the headline in the next day’s paper: ‘unstable man loses job.’
One scene deals with the timely order of mundane supplies, a trivial detail that causes a problem when Jimbo Fry’s boss bypasses him and talks directly to a supplier. It reminds us of the ‘office hell’ scene in John Patrick Shanley’s inspired satire Joe Versus the Volcano. Tom Hanks’ downtrodden employee Joe is given a severe reprimand. He asked for new supplies two weeks ago, one week ago, and three days ago, and his boss ignored him. But because Joe didn’t ask yesterday, he’s in big trouble. That one scene in Volcano distills the bureaucratic angst contained in all of High Cost of Living.
Most of the acting is fine, with the somewhat theatrical José Ferrer at times too big in his outbursts of frustration. In 1958 the movie’s subject would probably be considered appropriate for a TV show, and in truth not enough happens to fill a full-length feature. This makes some scenes play like padding, such the breakfast routine, and a number of ‘comic’ visits by Ginny to her gynecologist (Richard Deacon). The doctor makes irrelevant jokes about various pregnancy tests, treating the whole thing like a lark. Although Richard Deacon was arguably born to play a gynecologist, it’s disappointing that Gena Rowlands’ debut role is wasted in scenes like this. By contrast, Ms. Rowlands shines in her small sections of Kirk Douglas’s Lonely Are the Brave three years later. Ginny is a businesswoman and not just a housewife, and it’s progressive that nobody assumes that she’ll quit work when the baby comes.
Another odd thing is that Ginny’s employee would seem to be a slightly fussy but not exaggerated gay guy. The script doesn’t comment on him and the direction doesn’t treat him as a comedy relief. That’s all but unheard of in a film before the late 1960s.
Elsewhere, The High Cost of Loving’s many executives are played by actors that would soon specialize in similar roles for TV and light comedy features: Philip Ober, Edward Platt, Charles Watts, etc. Nick Clooney has a bit, which is understandable because he’s related to Ferrer. Werner Klemperer is a bean counter whose lack of social skills Jimbo interprets as hostility. Malcolm Atterbury is the crabapple executive who indeed would like to see Jimbo canned. In a nice scene, Nancy Kulp appears as an executive secretary, and in about three shots, gorgeous Abby Dalton is her assistant.
Joanne Gilbert is a credible as the obnoxious busybody Syd. That Syd harps so much on promotions and status would seem a symptom of the general job anxiety present even in the boom years of the 1950s. The only way that Jimbo and Steve can do more than subsist is to make the leap to the executive level. Bigger houses, cars and major appliances await the winners, while losers stop being invited to play bridge. Steve’s a good guy, the kind of buddy to save one from making a fatal mistake. This is maybe the best role of actor Bobby Troup, of TV’s Emergency! Troup will also be remembered from Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, even though he’s barely in it long enough to say the final line of dialogue: “God Damn Army!”
Film noir fans may be disappointed to discover that the movie’s evocative, slightly sinister title has no connection to the ghostly radio slogan in The Prowler by Joseph Losey: “The cost of living is going DOWN.” This picture shares final act problems with another of José Ferrer’s exercises in acting and directing, The Shrike. That movie alters the conclusion of its play source, partly negating its own premise. I haven’t seen it in decades; I recommend Farran Smith Nehme’s piece on it at The Self-Styled Siren.
(spoiler) High Cost seems to betray its own premise as well. It first lays out a refreshingly honest view of the job insecurity shared by most working people, the ones that aren’t star performers, or that don’t make the political moves that will attract the blessings of higher-ups. But it then abandons its critique of office life to show that Jimbo’s fears are baseless paranoia. The whole debacle was one big mistake, compounded by coincidences and Jimbo Fry’s leap to false conclusions. It’s almost like an episode of I Love Lucy. What rat race? What office jungle? Jim shouldn’t have let his imagination get the better of him.
I don’t think anybody except the C.E.O.’s nephew still believes in workaday fairy tales like this, certainly not anyone who has had to deal with a corporate human resources system. Back in 2002 I reviewed Fantoma’s “Educational Archives” collection of industrial films called On the Job. One of its best little productions, also from 1958, expresses the core situation of The High Cost of Loving in a nutshell. And it’s only seven minutes long. This was my take on it:
“The Grapevine” (1958) McGraw Hill & Calvin Company. A companion film to The Trouble With Women, this mini-epic stresses the harm that can done by rumors and loose talk on the job. A manager must deal with ditzy office “girls” that jump to conclusions and foment discontent over nothing. The inference is that office workers have no right to be interested in “things that are none of their business,” while we see them systematically kept in the dark about issues that vitally affect their job. The film behaves as if rumor-mongering is the source villain, when it is probably just a symptom in workplaces where people are fired, laid off and transferred without notice, all in an atmosphere of secrecy and distrust.”
The High Cost of Loving is sincere, but its finish contradicts the logic of its buildup. Because of a silly (but very credible) misunderstanding, Jimbo flies off the handle and jeopardizes his career. The insulting implication is that employees that question or grumble about company policy are confused, misinformed, or have mental issues. We know better. Managers with corporate parachutes are always the ones advising the office troops to, “Just do your job and hope for the best.”
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The High Cost of Loving appears a little gray and pale, but this may have been its intended look. The direction and cinematography in the office sets seem very late ’50s, and would have made good Mad Men study material. The sound is fine. Ms. Rowlands is of course attractive, but does not yet fully seem the gorgeous eye-catcher we soon came to know.
A trailer is included. A complete fraud, it sells The High Cost of Loving as a domestic sex comedy, using every bit of physical action and every cute line of dialogue to promise big laughs. “It’s as intimate as the young couple next door who forgot to pull down the shade.” The trailer resembles one of those web mashups that re-edit something like Rosemary’s Baby to appear to be a wacky, high-spirited laugh fest. If audiences went to Ferrer’s film with those expectations, we’re not at all surprised that it didn’t do well.
Note that Steve and Jimbo, assistants to executives, are just ‘sort of scraping by’ in jobs they must have gotten soon after the war ended. Yet each has a nice little house, nothing fancy but nice. In today’s Los Angeles, people with decent houses of any description within forty miles of a desirable neighborhood are either simply rich, or they bought them a long time ago, or they earn very good combined salaries.
I’m really glad I got to see The High Cost of Loving. Post- Mad Men, it’s a terrific discussion starter. Unless your marriage is in money trouble, in which case it will be excruciating.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The High Cost of Loving
Movie: Good – minus, but fascinating
Supplements: original trailer
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson