Analyzing the ethics of Executive Suite (1954)

Earlier this year I decided to update my skills and make some new contacts by applying to an executive MBA program at my alma mater; it’s an entrepreneurial program which I hope will yield an opportunity to start another company.  I was accepted into the program; classes started in May and our second term began in August.

I’ve been charged with writing a Final Case Analysis, my final exam for an Ethical Decision Making class.  The instructions were to select a movie from a list and systematically analyze the range of ethical and legal aspects of the issues involved.  Since the list was comprised of contemporary movies like Gattaca (1997), Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), Wall Street (1987), Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001) and some lesser choices, I decided to ask if I could choose Executive Suite (1954) or even Patterns (1956) instead.  After gaining approval, I realized that I only had one of them on DVD – part of Barbara Stanwyck’s Signature Collection – therefore the selection was essentially made for me.  I hadn’t seen Executive Suite (1954) in more than 5 years, so I had to watch it again with an eye towards these course relevant issues.

 

 

The text we used in the classroom was Rushworth M. Kidder’s How Good People Make Tough Choices, Resolving the Dilemmas of Ethical Living.  It’s an excellent book which I highly recommend if you have the time, inclination and interest in the subject.  Kidder provides Nine Checkpoints for Ethical Decision-Making which we were to use while writing the paper.  Given my selection of the classic Executive Suite (1954), I thought that perhaps some of you would be interested in these excerpts from my paper:

 

 

 Executive Suite (1954) is a classic movie that begins with the following narrated prologue:

“It is always up there close to the clouds on the topmost floors of the sky reaching towers of big business, and because it is high in the sky, you might think that those that work there are somehow above and beyond the tensions and temptations of the lower floors. This is to say that it isn’t so.”

At the end of the narration, five ‘tower’ bells toll to usher in the credits, the first being the title of the film; it’s followed by the names of the actors (which change with each chime): William Holden, June Allyson, Barbara Stanwyck, Fredric March, Walter Pidgeon, Shelley Winters, Paul Douglas, Louis Calhern, Dean Jagger, and Nina Foch (etc.). The story begins with the CEO of Tredway (a leading furniture manufacturer) – who has yet to reveal his succession plan – dying on the way to a hastily established 6 PM Friday night meeting during which (ostensibly) he was to finally promote one of his five vice presidents to the vacant EVP position. The rest of the plot deals with the actions of those men (and some others) after they learn about their chairman’s death, and the political wrangling that occurs among them to decide who should ascend to the top position within the corporation. Virtually every named character in the movie has to face an ethical situation (or three) in this drama before its “not too unexpected” Hollywood (e.g. happy) ending. Since the first of Kidder’s Nine Checkpoints is “Recognize that there is a moral issue”, I’ve decided to list a few of them below (in chronological order) before doing the analysis:

  • Tredway’s only ‘external’ board member George Caswell (Calhern) is the first to realize that CEO Avery Bullard is dead. He immediately calls his broker to short sell Tredway’s stock before the market closes; Caswell tells the broker to use his own name to conceal the transaction.
  • When Bullard doesn’t show for the 6 PM meeting, it is cancelled. The controller Loren Shaw (March) insists on driving the VP of Sales JW Dudley (Douglas) to the airport for a business trip he’d professed to having scheduled. But Dudley had no intention of going to Cleveland, so he walks through the front door and out the back to get into a taxicab. However, Shaw witnesses this subterfuge because he’d pulled into a parking space per his own suspicions.  Meanwhile, Tredway’s VP of Design & Development McDonald ‘Don’ Walling (Holden) is frustrated that his latest experiment – put in jeopardy by his having to attend Bullard’s meeting – has failed. He’s angry at Shaw, who’d denied him the equipment he’d needed, and argues with his wife Mary (Allyson) before exiting their car to walk home alone.
  • After learning of Bullard’s death, Don goes to the home of Frederick Alderson (Pidgeon), whose 29 years with the company made him Tredway’s most senior VP and its treasurer, to take him to the office tower where they find Shaw acting like Alexander Haig after President Ronald Reagan was shot (“I’m in charge”) by John Hinkley. Confirming his status as a number 2 (but never the top) man, Alderson reacts badly and storms out. Shaw then asks for Don’s support – the controller is unashamed of his naked ambition, wanting to be the next CEO – but the VP declines by (using Shaw’s own earlier words against him) saying that he “wants what’s best for the company”. So Shaw goes to Dudley’s secretary’s (Winters) flat so that he can catch the (married) VP of Sales in a compromising position, and use it as leverage to secure his vote for the top job.
  • Shaw tries to bully Bullard’s loyal secretary Erica (Foch) into providing any details she may have about the CEO’s relationship with the founder’s daughter, ostensibly to abate any negative press but probably to use as a lever to gain Julia Tredway’s proxy.
  • In his Haig-like moment, Shaw not only shut down Walling’s experiments for future products but had also released the company’s latest earnings figures (early) to the press in order to try to soften the blow of the CEO’s death on the market. Caswell asks to meet with Shaw to try to ‘sell’ his board vote for shares to cover his transactions, but Shaw already knows about the short selling (through Julia Tredway and his own investigation). After some ‘negotiation’, Caswell realizes that his only chance of getting the shares is to support Shaw’s candidacy and hope for reciprocity.
  • Meanwhile, Walling, who was brought in by Bullard and had great respect for the man, decides that he wants the CEO job for various reasons – including a discussion with some plant workers – but the timing is such that he doesn’t have time to explain it to Mary, to whom he’d earlier mentioned turning down the job when Alderson had mentioned the possibility. When Alderson calls to ask Mary to tell her husband to delay the board meeting’s voting until he and the VP of Manufacturing Grimm (Jagger) can get there, she decides not to do it because she’s afraid Don might be elected CEO. Alderson had called because he’d correctly surmised that Dudley was in Shaw’s pocket and he needed to retrieve Grimm (who’d had a close relationship with Tredway from the beginning and had resented ‘wonder boy’ Walling) and convince him of Don’s viability, given Grimm’s own plans to retire.
  • When Don arrives at the meeting-to-elect Tredway’s next CEO, he finds only Caswell sitting in the boardroom already. Based upon the controller’s body language towards Dudley when they enter together, Don realizes that the VP of Sales is under Shaw’s control. Shaw calls for a vote and when Don hesitates – per Alderson’s and Grimm’s absence – the controller asks Erica to recite the rules, which state that a quorum is in effect per the 5 members present and that 4 votes out of 7 will be enough to choose a new CEO. With Julia’s proxy, Dudley’s nomination and Caswell’s second, Shaw pushes for and gets a vote. But when Erica unseals the ‘secret’ ballots, she’s surprised to read an “Abstain” after Don’s ‘No’ and the three ‘Yeses’. Everyone suspects that Julia, who had entered the room from Bullard’s former office after an argument with Don (he’d accused her of being unable to stab a dead man in the back in person when he’d learned that Shaw had her proxy), was the abstention. However, in the men’s room during a break, Caswell tells Shaw that – after realizing his position of power – he needed an assurance his short sale will be satisfied. The controller calls Caswell a fool while revealing an envelope that contains his signature as CEO selling him some of Julia’s shares. Meanwhile, Don apologizes for an earlier outburst to Julia (she’d nearly committed suicide by jumping to her death until the tower bells tolled, seeming to snap her out of the idea) and then meets with Mary in the anteroom where she confesses to withholding Alderson’s message. As encouragement to her husband, she repeats his words to her from earlier (“nothing is impossible”).
  • After the others arrive, Don gets Shaw to describe his strategy for the company’s future; it amounts to little more than reducing costs to prop up the dividend quarter after quarter for the stockholders. In the process, the controller reveals his lack of reverence for Bullard in front of Julia while Don – using Shaw’s own words – exposes the inadequacy of the strategy. After stating that the former CEO’s essence – which saved the company after Tredway’s suicide – was his pride, Don lifts a second grade product (a table) that Shaw had supported and pulls it apart to show its inferior quality. He then proceeds to give an impassioned speech that pushes all the ‘hot’ buttons of those in the room, appealing to everyone’s desire to have a quality product line again, one that they can be proud of, and requesting everyone’s help in the process. When Alderson proclaims “I’m with you Don”, Dudley nominates Walling for CEO using the same words he had used earlier for Shaw and, after Grimm seconds, Alderson says “let’s make it unanimous”. Julia agrees; Caswell looks to Shaw who reluctantly nods, and then Caswell nods also. When Caswell asks Shaw about the shares, the controller tears up the envelope.

The above details several (self-evident) moral issues and provides some relevant facts. Most of the issues are right-versus-wrong, particularly those which involve Caswell, Shaw and Dudley, but there are a few right-versus-right (e.g. ethical) dilemmas to point out:

  • Bullard’s secretary Erica choosing not to disclose any information about (her boss) CEO Avery Bullard’s relationship with (the daughter of the company’s founder) Julia Tredway to Shaw is a truth versus loyalty paradigm
  • Don’s decision to pursue the vacant CEO job is evidence of his wrestling with the individual vs. community dilemma
  • Controller Shaw’s strategy to cut costs and future investments such as Don’s experiments in order to continuously raise Tredway’s dividend is a short-term vs. long-term decision

I’ve chosen these three to focus on because each requires a different resolution principle:

  • When Erica chose not to tell Shaw about her former boss and Julia Tredway’s affair, I believe she was using care-based thinking. The way Nina Foch plays the character, it seems that Erica may have held a candle for Bullard also (e.g. she cries after learning of his death, needing Don’s comforting shoulder to recover her composure); she may even have had an affair with the former CEO herself. Therefore, it was easy for her to put herself in Julia’s shoes and apply the Golden Rule: “Do not do unto others as you would expect they should do unto you”. Since she hid with her emotions in the shadows of the executive stairwell after hearing of Bullard’s death, she would prefer her feelings towards him would remain a secret … and those of Julia’s as well. As an aside, for her efforts, Miss Foch earned her only Oscar nomination in a film career that spans sixty years and nearly 50 movies.
  • Shaw falls under the stereotype of a business professional that deals with numbers and (e.g. financial accounting) rules all day such that his ability to deal with people as anything more than “a means to an end” is inhibited. Therefore, his short-term decisions as the company controller are driven by rules like “increase the dividend every year” regardless of the impact on Tredway’s manufacturing personnel, who abhor producing inferior products, and he devalues long-term possibilities (versus certainties) such as investing in Don’s experiments for future growth. His dealings with both Caswell and Dudley reflect his lack of compassion and a rules-based decision making mode which is ruthless per his pursuit of the top job. It seems likely that Shaw would never sell short on inside information (because it would be against the law) nor similarly cheat on his wife (if he even has one).
  • Don’s decision to pursue the CEO’s job, which would likely be personally injurious to his own life, marriage and family life (which includes being able to spend time with his young baseball playing son), was clearly made while considering “what’s best for the greatest number of people”, or ends-based thinking. He saw the writing on the wall for Tredway and its people under a Shaw (as CEO) regime: the future would be bleak because the company would not likely survive much longer. In effect, Don decided to be a martyr of sorts, to sacrifice his own preferences (and his family?) for the good of the company, to take on the stress of being the top man to fulfill the original vision of the man he’d admired most in the world: Avery Bullard.

While there is more to this academic exercise (and my paper), I think that the relative interest in the additional material is probably rather limited, so I’ll stop here.  However, movies which deal with right-vs.-right (where there’s no easy answer, but instead an ethical dilemma) can be fascinating.

12 Responses Analyzing the ethics of Executive Suite (1954)
Posted By kmn : September 8, 2008 7:14 am

I’m impressed with your analysis of the dynamics of “Executive Suite”, highhurdler. The figure who seems to be the least self-interested to me, however is not that played by William Holden, but Walter Pidgeon, whose years with the company and in life enable him to see things in perspective. His main failing, as I think he himself says in the film, is his lack of drive and energy. He encourages Holden’s character, whose brashness and imagination are good qualities, though I’m not sure if his emotional commitment to the company and the people in it as well as to the quality of the products is wholly realistic nor entirely suited to managing a large business.

The most complex character, bordering on tragic, might be Fredric March’s number cruncher. He “knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing”, but, as played by March, is crestfallen when his own nature is pointed out to him. I find this to be among March’s best late career performances. In reading producer John Houseman’s memoirs, I was interested in the fact that he felt that the cast, (with the possible exception of June Allyson, according to the author), worked enthusiastically to create a vibrant ensemble together. Unlike the movie, the majority of the actors were happy to set their egos aside to serve the project.

Posted By kmn : September 8, 2008 7:14 am

I’m impressed with your analysis of the dynamics of “Executive Suite”, highhurdler. The figure who seems to be the least self-interested to me, however is not that played by William Holden, but Walter Pidgeon, whose years with the company and in life enable him to see things in perspective. His main failing, as I think he himself says in the film, is his lack of drive and energy. He encourages Holden’s character, whose brashness and imagination are good qualities, though I’m not sure if his emotional commitment to the company and the people in it as well as to the quality of the products is wholly realistic nor entirely suited to managing a large business.

The most complex character, bordering on tragic, might be Fredric March’s number cruncher. He “knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing”, but, as played by March, is crestfallen when his own nature is pointed out to him. I find this to be among March’s best late career performances. In reading producer John Houseman’s memoirs, I was interested in the fact that he felt that the cast, (with the possible exception of June Allyson, according to the author), worked enthusiastically to create a vibrant ensemble together. Unlike the movie, the majority of the actors were happy to set their egos aside to serve the project.

Posted By MDR : September 8, 2008 4:25 pm

I agree kmn, Pidgeon’s character clearly wants what’s best for the company, and realizes that he’s not the one for the top job (even though his wife thinks he’s entitled to it); he admits as much to Holden’s. I can relate to Holden since his character is an engineer; if he has an MBA also, he’d make the perfect CEO, of course;-)

March is brilliant, as always; hopefully you clicked on the link I provided to an earlier Morlocks posting. I probably should have mentioned producer Houseman, director Robert Wise, author Cameron Hawley, or screenwriter Ernest Lehman … but I wasn’t writing a movie review per se. Interesting info about June Allyson; she was probably cast because she’d demonstrated that she could catch a pitched baseball in The Stratton Story (1949).

Posted By MDR : September 8, 2008 4:25 pm

I agree kmn, Pidgeon’s character clearly wants what’s best for the company, and realizes that he’s not the one for the top job (even though his wife thinks he’s entitled to it); he admits as much to Holden’s. I can relate to Holden since his character is an engineer; if he has an MBA also, he’d make the perfect CEO, of course;-)

March is brilliant, as always; hopefully you clicked on the link I provided to an earlier Morlocks posting. I probably should have mentioned producer Houseman, director Robert Wise, author Cameron Hawley, or screenwriter Ernest Lehman … but I wasn’t writing a movie review per se. Interesting info about June Allyson; she was probably cast because she’d demonstrated that she could catch a pitched baseball in The Stratton Story (1949).

Posted By kmn : September 8, 2008 6:26 pm

MDR, according to John Houseman, Allyson, a longtime MGM star, lacked the discipline displayed by all the other professionals due to that studio’s chronic indulgence of top tier personnel. Unable or unwilling to properly learn her lines and appear on time and ready for the extended rehearsal period that Wise & Houseman had blocked out, June was said to have called in sick repeatedly and required numerous retakes during the film. This episode must have stuck in the producer’s craw, since he had few negative remarks for others in his book “Front and Center”, written almost two decades after. Who knows—maybe June Allyson just felt too insecure in the rather fast company she was in during that production. In any case, she seemed to fail to grasp the lesson of ends-based decision making…Great article and I really enjoyed the parallels that you drew between your text and film in your Final Case Analysis.

Posted By kmn : September 8, 2008 6:26 pm

MDR, according to John Houseman, Allyson, a longtime MGM star, lacked the discipline displayed by all the other professionals due to that studio’s chronic indulgence of top tier personnel. Unable or unwilling to properly learn her lines and appear on time and ready for the extended rehearsal period that Wise & Houseman had blocked out, June was said to have called in sick repeatedly and required numerous retakes during the film. This episode must have stuck in the producer’s craw, since he had few negative remarks for others in his book “Front and Center”, written almost two decades after. Who knows—maybe June Allyson just felt too insecure in the rather fast company she was in during that production. In any case, she seemed to fail to grasp the lesson of ends-based decision making…Great article and I really enjoyed the parallels that you drew between your text and film in your Final Case Analysis.

Posted By Al Lowe : September 9, 2008 7:24 am

What does June Allyson say about the movie Executive Suite in her autobiography? Does anyone know? It has been a long time since I read it.

I do remember one funny story from her book. She was supposed to make Royal Wedding with Fred Astaire but unexpectedly and to her great joy became pregnant. So she was off the picture.
She called all her pals to tell them about the wonderful news and then decided she better tell Fred.
So she phoned and he answered.
“Fred, Fred, guess what? I’m pregnant.”
There was an awfully long pause.
“Who is this?” a wary Fred asked.

Posted By Al Lowe : September 9, 2008 7:24 am

What does June Allyson say about the movie Executive Suite in her autobiography? Does anyone know? It has been a long time since I read it.

I do remember one funny story from her book. She was supposed to make Royal Wedding with Fred Astaire but unexpectedly and to her great joy became pregnant. So she was off the picture.
She called all her pals to tell them about the wonderful news and then decided she better tell Fred.
So she phoned and he answered.
“Fred, Fred, guess what? I’m pregnant.”
There was an awfully long pause.
“Who is this?” a wary Fred asked.

Posted By YancySkancy : September 12, 2008 2:29 pm

This film has always been a favorite of mine, precisely because it gives you so much to chew on. And you chewed on it quite nicely!

The first time I saw it, I was prepared to be bored by the subject matter despite the fine cast. Needless to say, that didn’t happen.

It still boggles my mind that March didn’t get nominated for this. I recently saw him in Middle of the Night on TCM, and it’s clear that he just kept getting better with age.

Posted By YancySkancy : September 12, 2008 2:29 pm

This film has always been a favorite of mine, precisely because it gives you so much to chew on. And you chewed on it quite nicely!

The first time I saw it, I was prepared to be bored by the subject matter despite the fine cast. Needless to say, that didn’t happen.

It still boggles my mind that March didn’t get nominated for this. I recently saw him in Middle of the Night on TCM, and it’s clear that he just kept getting better with age.

Posted By TCM’s Movie Blog : September 28, 2008 1:08 pm

[...] thought:  per my current schedule, I haven’t been watching a lot of classic movies lately, and I was struck (once again) by how [...]

Posted By TCM’s Movie Blog : September 28, 2008 1:08 pm

[...] thought:  per my current schedule, I haven’t been watching a lot of classic movies lately, and I was struck (once again) by how [...]

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