The Archivist XXXVII: EXECUTIVE SUITE and THE COBWEB Recall the Glory of Classic Ensemble Dramas

by Frank Calvillo

The Archivist

Welcome to the Archive. Following the infamous “Format Wars” (R.I.P. VHS), a multitude of films found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their admittedly niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Disc On Demand & Streaming service devoted to some of the more idiosyncratic pieces of cinema ever made. Being big fans of the label, we here at Cinapse thought it prudent to establish a column devoted to these unusual gems. Thus “The Archivist” was born — a biweekly look at some of the best, boldest and most batshit motion pictures the Shield has to offer. Some of these will be recent additions to the collection, while others will be titles that have been available for awhile. With over 1,500 pictures procurable on Warner Archive (and more being added every month), there’s no possible way we’ll get to all of them. But trust me when we say we’re sure going to try.

For many cinephiles, the all-star ensemble film has been a staple that’s always been a welcome cinematic experience. The sight of watching a large assortment of beloved stars competing for screen time, each lapping up their individual storylines set against a variety of sub-plots, always proves too tempting to pass up.

In my opinion, no era did this better than the Hollywood of the past, which managed to bring together every other star under the sun, including established names and young up-and-comers, each of whom brought their own unique acting styles to the table for tales filled with riveting human drama. In this edition of The Archivist, we’ll be taking a look at Robert Wise’s Executive Suite and Vincente Minnelli’s The Cobweb; two films which beautifully encompass the dynamite power of the ensemble drama.

Executive Suite (1954)

The fierce and treacherous nature of the corporate world provides the backdrop for this flawless story about the price paid and lives changed on the never ending climb to the top. When the head of one of the most successful furniture manufacturing firms suddenly dies, it leaves everyone close to him in a state of shock, from his secretary (Nina Foch), to the founder’s daughter (Barbara Stanwyck). The mourning cannot last long however as his group of vice presidents led by William Holden, Fredric March, Walter Pidgeon and Paul Douglas, must decide which of them is to be the great man’s successor and what exactly the future holds for this fortune 500 company.

Besides being North by Northwest and West Side Story screenwriter Ernest Lehman’s screenwriting debut, Executive Suite is also one of the most powerful looks inside the offices and board rooms of corporate America. The film is shot in black and white and features no musical score, perfectly capturing the cold and closed off feel that so often accompanies the kind of world Executive Suite is portraying. Not just a series of board meetings featuring dumbed down quarterly projections, the film is about what it is that drives people to literally give their lives to such a world. The time, devotion and heartache sacrificed for years and years in exchange for a sense of ultimate power and accomplishment are ripe for examination and Lehman and Wise do not waste such an opportunity. The two have crafted a film which perfectly explores the depths of this world and what it means to be a part of it. Considering the time, one would expect a film such as this to take a rather 12 Angry Men-like approach to telling its story, but Executive Suite remains well-rounded by giving a voice to the women who inhabit that world including a lovesick secretary (Shelley Winters), Holden’s understanding wife (June Allyson) and a jaded heiress (Stanwyck- robbed of an Oscar nomination for her powerful work), who also happens to be the deceased president’s former lover.

The Cobweb (1955)

The setting is a private mental clinic for the hopelessly disturbed in Minnelli’s little-seen The Cobweb, which features an assortment of patients and staff, some of whom share the same kinds of troubles. The head of the clinic Dr. McIver (Richard Widmark) finds his troubled marriage to Karen (Gloria Grahame) crumbling by the day as she finds herself being romanced by her husband’s chief rival (Charles Boyer). At the same time, Dr. McIver’s budding romance to Miss Rinehart (Lauren Bacall) echoes that of young patients Steven (John Kerr) and Sue (Susan Strassberg), while the hard-edged business manager Miss Inch (Lillian Gish), the longest-running employee on staff, feels the time has come to establish herself as the clinic’s driving force.

Although it isn’t one of Minnelli’s most memorable films, The Cobweb does indeed provide a great showcase for many of the director’s trademarks, such as his flair with actors, his love of moments filled with cinematic drama and his penchant for lush colors and cinematography. The Cobweb’s ensemble wonderfully play off each other at different levels throughout with Bacall’s understatedness and Gish’s ferocity being the film’s biggest assets. Admittedly a good deal of The Cobweb does lean towards soap opera with its multiple love entanglements and ongoing power struggles amongst the staff. Yet it’s fascinating watching how the troubles of both the mentally ill and the mentally healthy mirror each other, calling to mind the notion that everyone is “crazy” on some level. Ultimately, the film earns high praise for not only that, but also for illustrating the world of the mentally ill and putting a face on a part of society more often than not brushed aside by the 1950s.

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