Twilight Time’s Blu-Ray Release of HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS is a Triumph

The Blu-ray treatment elevates this energetic 1960s movie musical, along with its sharp humor and top-rate songs.

While not many cinephiles have an appreciation for the works of David Swift, there’s no doubt his work as a director has been embraced for countless audiences. The filmmaker was able to convey the power of optimism without ever being preachy, introducing Hayley Mills in the process, with the poignant and charming Pollyana. Swift then made the young actress a star as he mixed slapstick and sensitivity in ways few others ever could with The Parent Trap before perfectly honing in on Jack Lemmon’s essence as both a comic genius and a committed actor with the hilarious Under the Yum Yum Tree, tackling 1960s sexual politics in the process. Swift may not be given much praise in terms of modern film appreciation, yet there’s no question he deserves it; especially where his flawless film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is concerned. The last feature film Swift directed was also his most daunting in terms of scale and scope, yet its intoxicating nature and execution remains a testament to the filmmaker.

In How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Robert Morse plays J. Pierpoint Finch, a simple New York window washer who discovers a manual with instructions on how to climb the ladder to success in the business world with the greatest of ease. The film follows Finch’s journey as he makes his journey to the top of the World Wide Wicket corporation, charming everyone along the way, including the company President Jasper B. Biggley (Rudy Vallee) and sweethearted secretary Rosemary Pilkington (Michele Lee).

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying gets everything right as a movie musical. The film is dynamic, colorful, full of whimsy, and features great touches which truly make it feel endlessly alive. The biggest of these is the narration of the movie’s titular book, which pops up every time its main character refers to it in desperation. There’s also a heightened quality that’s very tongue-in-cheek, such as secretaries sitting down to start the day only to be shown endlessly primping themselves until they’re told it’s time for a coffee break, which they exasperatingly run to. As for the numbers themselves, each one is staged with panache and exuberance, yet none of them ever feel overblown. Each one works with the ‘60s visual sensibilities thanks largely to choreographer Bob Fosse’s vision and the decade’s pop feel. At the same time, each song contains a surprising bit or ideology, making it instantly memorable. “A Secretary is Not a Toy” is a clever ode to the many women having to endure unwanted sexual advances, long hours, and little pay in order to make a living, while the end number, “Brotherhood of Man,” is a spectacular piece which speaks to the idea of favoring teamwork over corporate backstabbing.

On a comedy level, the film has its share of laughs, such as when Biggley exclaims to his secretary, “You know that talking to my wife upsets me! Where is my…you know,” he shyly asks. “I put it in your right hand drawer,” she replies as we see the boss take out a pair of knitting needles and yarn as he continues on with the scarf he is making. There’s also a great deal of humor in the ridiculous and eerily true notion of how nearly everyone in the film is trying to relentlessly make it to the top, especially Finch. Much of the film’s delight comes from seeing this affable wannabe climb the corporate ladder. While a great deal of the tactics he uses are kind of sneaky, he himself is not a sneaky or malevolent person. Instead, Finch is a good-hearted soul who only wants to make a name for himself. The film does make the point that there needs to be something in the way of talent, not just ambition, in the most hilarious of ways, yet remains the kind of great fantasy where so much magic, dreams, and excitement can happen in the shortest amount of time.

It’s hard to express the level of joyous energy the cast displays here. Most of the performers (veterans of the original Broadway show) are in tune with both the music and the story, making each one an integral part of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. The standouts here prove to be Vallee, who plays his Mr. Biggley as a proper fool, yet never makes him cartoonish, and Lee (in her film debut), who navigates Rosemary through cute slapstick and pure loveliness, especially when she so tenderly serenades Finch with “I Believe in You.” Speaking of Finch, there could literally not have been a better choice for the role than Morse, who is an endless river flowing with charm, rambunctiousness, and the spirit which this kind of project deserves. His ability to make the character someone to champion is rooted in his knack for showing Finch’s humanity and making the audience see themselves in him.

Stage to screen transfers are the trickiest of beasts. How do you take properties which were conceived for the confinement of the stage and make them feel cinematic? The answer is still up for debate, yet Swift must have found it. It’s so easy to picture this story on the stage with all its colorful energy. At the same time, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying carries itself as a film entity with a wonderful flow, which perfectly hits each and every single note. The film is the most textbook of examples when it comes to taking an established Broadway show and bringing it to the screen. Beyond that, Swift’s film is the very definition of a movie musical in the way it blends song with story, never favoring one over the other and treating every scene as if it’s the most vital in film. Swift himself may not be well-remembered for his feature film work today, but it’s the work that lasts. And this kind of work will not soon be forgotten.

The Package

Among the disc’s special features are a pair of interviews, The Book is All That You Need and A Secretary is Not a Toy, in which Morse and Lee (both as fun as their on-screen counterparts) reminisce about both the play and the film.

The Lowdown

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying remains an energetic and charming, if secretly telling, comment on corporate America.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is now available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time.

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