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Movie Musical Monday, April 2nd: “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”

April 2, 2012

Good morning, and Happy Movie Musical Monday!

Last week MMM took a week off because of tech rehearsal obligations.  Outside of writing about movie musicals, the author sometimes has a play on herself, as evidenced by this photograph:

Aquanet: I am awaiting your endorsement call.  PS: I’m from New Jersey, so hairspray is like AIR to me.

But today we’re back with 1967’s How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, a musical that has special affinity to this blog, as our very own California Triple-Threat was understudying the female lead in a production of this not too long ago.  This film was released by United Artists six years after the original Broadway production opened and not only won seven Tonys (including Best Musical), but was also awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Drama.  It ran for three and a half years, with only three previews before it opened.  I find that last fact especially shocking, given the penchant for weeks-to-months of previews for today’s Broadway circuit.  It’s one thing to only have three previews.  It’s another thing to have three previews and have a show that turns out this good.

Let’s take a moment, then, to talk about the source material for this musical.  According to Wikipedia, a man named Shepherd Mead worked his way up from the mail room to vice presidency of an ad agency.  In his spare time, he wrote a tongue-in-cheek satire how-to book about climbing the corporate ladder, that was finally published in 1952 and became a best seller.  Despite containing statements like, “Be an ‘all-around’ man of no special ability and you will rise to the top,” the Library of Congress decided not to classify this book in “Humor,” but rather in the non-fiction section of “Business Books.”  Perhaps this is because the Library of Congress understands all too well what makes this material so funny and rife for musical theatre parody: It’s Real.

(Fuckin’ libraries, man.  They always know.)

Playwrights Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert wrote a straight play adaptation of the book in 1955.  And then nothing happened for five years, until the work was picked up by an agent and introduced to the right people to be re-tooled as a musical.  Enter Abe Burrows to help with the book and direct, plus the brilliant Frank Loesser to write the music, with choreography by Bob Fosse, and suddenly you have a viable commodity.

And Shepherd Mead was laughing all the way to the bank.

WHAT IS THIS MUSICAL ABOUT?

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This, like so many musicals, is a story of the Everyman.  A person with a dream to make it big somewhere, to leave the world better than how they came into it, to make a difference.  Or at least die rich and possibly famous.

Our man/projected-self is J. Pierrepont Finch (“F-I-N-C-H”), played here by a young, energized, wide-eyed Robert Morse, reprising his Tony-award winning performance as a window washer with ambition.  One day Finch is buying a paper at a newsstand, and sees a book called How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.  He immediately buys it, and is overcome with visions of the possibility of making a splash in the corporate world.

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“The Voice” of the book becomes his guide.  Finch makes his entrance into the World Wide Wicket Company, and after assessing that the company is large enough for him to find success in (the first stipulation offered up by the Voice), he takes his first step at gaining employment by running head on into the President of the company, J.B. Biggley (played by Rudy Valle, also reprising the role he originated on Broadway).  After an abrupt dismissal from Biggley, Finch begins to head over to the personnel department when he’s approached by woman wearing the ugliest hat I’ve ever seen.  This is Michele Lee in her screen debut, playing Rosemary Pilkington.  Lucky for us, she radiates beauty and warmth, so it’s pretty easy to forget about the hat.  Seriously: I’m heterosexual, but there’s something about Michele Lee’s face in this introductory shot that’s just captivating.  She feels the same way–about Finch.  Unfortunately he’s too pre-occupied with business to notice.  That’s okay, though: this is a musical comedy, so it’s a sure thing that she’ll wait till it works out.

Finch gets placed in the mailroom alongside foil Budd Frump, Biggley’s nephew, who uses his familial clout to get away with not doing much work and constantly advancing in the company without cause.  Frump was originated on stage by Charles Nelson Reilly, but here is played here (very well, I think) by Anthony Teague, who was last seen previous to this film on-screen playing Big Deal in West Side Story.  He’ll be the Jet in the back row, all the way to the right of frame at the cut to Ice’s POV shot. 

It soon comes out that the head of the mailroom, Mr. Twimble, will be moving up to the shipping department.  He’s been with the company 25 years, and explains to Finch how he’s stayed employed so long:

Upon hearing this song and following advice from the book, Finch realizes he needs to leave the mailroom as quickly as possible.  He declines a promotion to head of the mailroom, turning it over to a squirmingly enthusiastic Budd.  His reasons, involving several metaphors about being a small piece of larger puzzle, are overheard by Biggley and a Mr. Bratt, that latter of which then has Finch promoted to Junior Executive.  Finch is pleased with his progress, though outwardly humble to everyone around him, and Budd is infuriated.

But we’ve been in the corporate America of the ’60s for about twenty minutes now, and we still haven’t seen any sex.  Enter Hedy LaRue, yet another send up of the Marilyn-esque archetype that littered so much popular culture from the mid ’50s to the early ’60s.  LaRue is Biggley’s mistress, and has called in a favor to gain employment.  Her arrival causes quite the stir, and culminates in one of the most memorable sequences in movie musical history:

All those BEAUTIFUL Fosse lines, they’re just killer.  This sequence also showcases how well this movie musical was shot–there is a brilliant blending of traditional, good cinematography and theatrical staging that creates a sense of a real-but-not-too-real reality.  We definitely respect this space as recognizable, but still set apart and commenting on our own day-to-day lives.  Well done!

So it’s the end of Finch’s second day at World Wide Wicket, and at the elevator he runs into Rosemary (in a better hat) and Smitty, another secretary and Rosemary’s chum.  While waiting for the elevator, Smitty does Rosemary a solid by asking just a bit too loudly what she’s doing for dinner that night.  This of course is meant to plant the seed for Finch to make a move:

Soon after they all depart, Hedy and Biggley run into each other.  She’s not happy being in the steno pool, and wants to be assigned to a big shot.  Budd stumbles across them, and secures a promotion with the same kind of perceptive commentary Smitty provided earlier.

After dinner, Finch is walks Rosemary home.  Upon entering the lobby to her apartment, he discovers she reads both Fortune and Business Weekly, and tells her she’s the only girl he feels like he can really open up to.  This is clearly a female trick gone well: Rosemary never talks about business or how to get ahead throughout the whole of the musical.  Clearly she just subscribed to those magazines like yesterday in order to look attune with Finch’s interests.  And it worked.  He admits to her that he feels depressed: he’s 27 and only a junior executive, what can he possibly do now?  Rosemary reminds him that most people take years to accomplish what he’s done in only 2 days, and assures him that she has faith in him.  She does this by singing a song to him, while constantly shaking her head, jutting out her chin to an amazing distance from the natural frame of her face and moving it side by side (best shown going into the bridge, and then again the final verse) :

Somehow, this song inspires Robert Morse to go back to the office the next day and pretend that he’s been working there all night so that when Mr. Biggley shows up to grab his golf clubs for a game with the Chairman of the Board, he’ll look like a diligent employee.  I’m not really sure when exactly that lighting bolt was meant to hit, but I guess it happened and now we have to deal with it.  So we do, and Mr. Biggley is impressed not only by Finch’s dedication to the firm, but also to his apparent (feigned) almuni status of Biggley’s own college, Old Ivy: home of the Groundhogs and enemy to the Chipmunks.  On Monday when he returns to the office, Biggley arranges Finch to have his own office.  And who gets put on his desk?  Hedy LaRue.  Finch wisely consults the book before making any advances, and discovers Hedy’s lack of proficiency professionally is made up somewhere by her connections to someone more important than him–namely Mr. Biggley.  He then proceeds to use Hedy as bait to trap any other higher-up in his way, getting various people transferred to South America for any advance they may make on J.B.’s property.

After a while, though, he hits a wall: the vice president in charge of advertising won’t fall for any of his usual tricks.  He’s always one step ahead.  One day, he informs Finch that he’s fired.  The VP even arranged a going away party for Finch that Friday.  Desperate, Finch drills Rosemary, who’s assigned as the VP’s secretary, for any information.  He goes undercover in his old profession as a window washer in order to overhear the VP’s conversation on his private telephone line in his office, and follows him after closing time to an alumni meeting–of Chipmunks!  Armed with this information, Finch returns to WWW, has the VP fired, and secures the job for himself.  His farewell party has now become a celebration.

At the party, Hedy has a little too much to drink, and goes to Biggley’s office to take a shower and sober up.  Budd, looking for another opportunity to sabotage, tells Finch that Biggley wants to see him in his office.  Finch shows up to discover Hedy, who drunkenly makes a pass at him, and finally manages to convince him to kiss her.  And then:

Rosemary enters to warn Finch about Budd’s plan, but doesn’t get a chance to explain before Finch asks her to marry him.  Of course she immediately says yes (since she’s only been waiting about a week or so) and they kiss.  Then Hedy enters in a very small towel, and Rosemary is thrown into a rage.  She has to subdue herself momentarily, though, when she hears a group of executives (including Mr. Biggley) coming down the hall toward the office.  She throws Heddy back into the bathroom, and throws herself into Finch’s arms, just in time for Biggley and crew to burst in.  Rosemary takes the blame, saying she wanted Finch to show her Biggley’s office.  Biggley excuses it, and reminds Finch that they’re looking forward to seeing his big idea in advertising in 48 hours, when he’ll have to make a presentation that will make or break his career.

Finch is left wracking his brain.  For the first time in his career, he’s actually being asked to produce something–not just move blindly ahead to the next rung of the ladder.  And he’s having trouble.  Enter Budd Frump, who this time offers Finch a proposal for a give away show sponsored by the company.  Budd swears he’s never mentioned it to his uncle–though in reality he had, and Biggley hated it.  He leaves, and Finch tears into it, since it’s the only idea in the room.  The next day before the meeting, Finch sings a love song to himself amongst his unwelcoming peers(which loses some of its humorous panache by having already been song in earnest by shakey-jawed Rosemary):

(It is my dream to someday be in a bathroom like that.  Just once.  Just to visit.)

So Finch goes into the meeting, makes his presentation, and somehow–through a perfect blend of charisma, business acumen, and double talk–convinces Biggley that the give away show is actually a good idea.  They even get Hedy to be “the girl” hosting it.  However, at the initial broadcast the show falls apart, due mostly to some upstanding morals of Hedy’s and some forgotten morals of Biggley’s.  Disaster befalls WWW, stock is down, and the Chairman of the Board shows up, ready to fire Finch once and for all.  Finch thinks his only way out is to blame someone else for what happened, but Rosemary tells him she can’t love him unless he does the right thing and owns up to his mistake.  He does, and it comes out that he started out as a window washer.  And what do you know: so did the Chairman of the Board.  Isn’t that a coincidence?!  This secures Finch’s place in the company a little longer, but the Chairman still wants a head to axe and is ready to fire everyone.  But our hero comes to the rescue just in time:

Then suddenly everything works out: Budd gets fired, Biggley keeps his job, the Chairman marries Hedy and retires, and Finch becomes the new Chairman of the Board.  He even gets Rosemary back.  This elevated position leaves Finch free to change his name, age thirty years, and found another company altogether.

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End of musical!

WHY THIS MUSICAL ACTUALLY MATTERS:

It’s rare that a piece of art so well examines a section of our culture so well, and perhaps even rarer (or more unexpected) that a musical will.  That’s why it won the Pulitzer.  The songs are witty, observant, well placed, and fun.  The book is spot on and bright.  And despite that nothing really happens, social change isn’t called for, and no big problems are tackled, this work is still relevant today.  That says something.

HIDDEN GEM SONGS:

Sadly, some of the best songs from this musical were actually cut from the film adaptation.  So here is my list of songs so hidden, you can’t hear them when watching this movie.

  1. Coffee Break:  My favorite from this show, and potentially a brilliant comedic song choice if directed well.
  2. Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm: Maybe over-done, but important for anyone with a mezzo range to know, especially when auditioning for any musical set in the early fifties into the mid-to-late sixties (except Hairnot Hair).

Have a good day, brother, and Happy Movie Musical Monday!

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 2, 2012 10:59 am

    1. I saw your show, and it was awesome, and definitely worth missing a “MMM” post for.
    2. I always think your “hidden gem songs” suggestions are excellent.
    And 3. I love how you so often relate movie musicals to Mad Men. Nice work.

    • April 2, 2012 11:27 am

      You are awesome for coming out to support, despite my “lady doth protest too much” act!

      And the day Jon Hamm bursts out into song while playing Don Draper is the day I will die of a genre-colliding orgasm. This much I promise you.

  2. California Triple-Threat permalink
    April 2, 2012 2:42 pm

    I will always have a special place in my heart for this musical! I don’t think it will ever cease to be funny. And seeing it live is all the better, because I agree, two of the greatest songs aren’t even in the movie!

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