HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING, 1967
Directed by David Swift
Starring: Robert Morse, Michele Lee, Rudy Vallee, Anthony ‘Scooter’ Teague, Maureen Arthur, John Myhers
Review by Jayvibha Vaidya
J. Pierpont Finch, a window washer, has dreams of rising up the corporate ladder. With the help of a little book, he follows all the instructions and finds himself exactly where he wants to be in a matter of days! But now he actually has to work – or pretend to.
“Mediocrity is not a mortal sin.”
At a nearby newspaper stand, J. Pierpont Finch (Robert Morse) grabs a book titled “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” Peeling off his window washing uniform, he strides into The World Wide Wicket Company and sings:
“In a three-button suit,
With that weary executive smile.
This book is all that I need:
How to, how to succeed!”
Based on a Pulitzer Prize winning play and Tony Award winning Broadway production, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying is a fast-paced, amusing satire about American corporate politics in the 1960s. Climbing his way to the top through a series of chance encounters, misunderstandings and blatant trickery, Finch travels from the mail room to an executive office in a rapidly short time. He’s unqualified and unprepared, except he’s got more guts, charisma and smarts than anyone in the company.
Finch charms his way to the president, Mr. Biggley (Rudy Vallee) by pretending to pull all-night shifts and sharing his favourite hobby: knitting. Exclaiming, “I feel sorry for men who don’t knit. They lead empty lives,” Finch grabs Mr. Biggley’s attention and favour. Instant promotion! Targeting the man whose job he wants, Finch finds his weakness and exposes it – sexual appetite, a rival alma mater, nepotism – and promptly steps into a new role – every few days! With all this back-stabbing and corporate shifting, no one really knows anyone in the world of business. But along comes Rosemary Pilkington (Michele Lee), a warm, helpful secretary who befriends Finch on his first day. She’s smart, level-headed and quick on her feet. And she’s sincere; taking the time to find out who Ponty Finch really is. In many ways she’s the stereo-typical ‘60s secretary; groped by sexist old men and crushing on the new employee, but she also shines as the only character that displays honesty and integrity.
“A secretary is not a thingThe musical numbers are delightfully tongue-in-cheek, commenting on company promotions, the role of secretaries and office rivalry. Legendary choreographer Bob Fosse’s original staging is kept intact for the film, showing up especially in “A Secretary is Not a Toy” where movements match the sounds of a typewriter or pencils scratching on notepads. Complex blocking utilizing a large group of dancers are coupled with lyrics like:
Wound by key, pulled by string.
Her pad is to write in
And not spend the night in.
A secretary is not …
A secretary is not a toy.”
It’s an amusing, satirical number; fascinating to watch decades after the Women’s Liberation movement. “Been A Long Day” also stands out as it is well-timed, sweet and fun to watch. Using tableau, blocking and voice-over, the songs are staged well and the lyrics hilarious with sharp touches of truth.
Robert Morse as Finch carries the film with consistent energy, infusing all his scenes with the right amount of comedy, smarm and goofiness so the audience roots for him despite his sneaky maneuvering. Reprising his role from the Broadway production, Morse displays excellent timing and a great voice. In her film debut, Michele Lee as Rosemary is fresh and sincere, showcasing a beautiful voice in “I Believe in You.” From Mr. Biggley to his bumbling nephew Bud (Anthony Teague) to Hedy LaRue (Maureen Arthur) the ditzy receptionist/mistress, the supporting characters are comic creations of personalities one may encounter in a corporate environment.
Regularly cutting to shots of New York City, gliding through busy streets or observing from a bird’s eye view, the film has a gorgeous look. Interiors are ‘60s mod; bright colours and unusual shapes. When Finch finally makes it to the very top – Chairman of the Board – his office has high ceilings, pillars and archways. Resembling a church, his final achievement is the ultimate corporate office; a place where power and money can be worshipped. And does he get the girl? Of course! But only when he displays some honesty, gaining the approval – and job! – of the Chairman. Such is “the company way.”
How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying is a musical poking fun at American corporate politics, ‘How-To’ books and office romances. Although at times it feels like the camera is merely capturing the stage production, using static shots to frame the musical performances, the actors bring a consistent energy that keeps the story moving at an enjoyable pace. With an ending that wraps up everything in a neat bow with a dash of cheesy fun, the film is a great look into the corporate game one must play to get to the top as rapidly as possible.