The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit Reviews
The film tells the story of thirty-something Tom Rath (Gregory Peck), a man from a privileged upper-class background who must balance the demands of domestic responsibilities (including parenting three young children and serious but not life-changing financial problems) with professional imperatives. In order to satisfy the demands of his rapaciously ambitious wife, Betsy (Jennifer Jones, in what may well be the worst performance of her career), Tom pursues and obtains a much more lucrative position as special assistant to Ralph Hopkins (Frederic March), the president of a national television network, on a project to launch a national mental health campaign.
Mental health-or, more accurately, mental illness-is a subject toward which Rath might well feel a passionate identification. An unmemorable but competently directed series of flashbacks (which begins with the tired device of Rath focusing on a man wearing a jacket with a fur-trimmed collar similar to that of a German solider he'd killed with his bare hands) attempt to persuade the audience, unsuccessfully, that here is a man suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Wartime flashbacks also reveal the distinct possibility that Rath fathered a child with an Italian girl (Maria, played ably but not notably by Marisa Pavan) during a week-long affair in Rome in 1945.
Hopkins' toadying assistant Bill Ogden (Henry Daniell, in one of the few good performances in the piece), gifted at the dubious craft of the Madison Avenue "yes-man," immediately sets expectations for Rath's first assignment-a speech to doctors in Atlantic City-impossibly high by giving him the brief: "And if the speech is right, it will not even mention a national mental health campaign-but at the end of it the entire audience will rise as one man and demand not only that such a campaign be launched at once, but that Mr. Hopkins should head it."
On the home front, pressures both severe and minor begin piling up. The estate Rath's grandmother left him has at last been exhausted, save for an aging mansion and the land on which it sits. Betsy whines, incessantly, melodramatically and with a great deal of manipulation, about all matters domestic. Early in the film, she complains that their house (rather spacious by post-war standards, if a bit shabby) isn't good enough, and is in the wrong neighborhood:
I'm sorry, Tommy, but I hate this house, you just don't know how much . . . . Its ugliness, its depression, its defeat. It's a graveyard, Tommy, a graveyard of everything we used to talk about-happiness, fun, ambition-and I want to get out of it.
She then goes on to tell Rath that she doesn't know what has happened to him since the war, but she's ashamed of him. Ultimately she sells the house without Rath's knowledge or consent, telling him on the drive home from the commuter rail station one evening that the family will be moving into his grandmother's mansion that week and at another point in the film outlining a get-rich-quick scheme to turn the acreage on which the mansion sits into a subdivision.
Meanwhile, Rath's grandmother's servant, Edward (Joseph Sweeney, in another of the film's fine performances) lays claim to the mansion and the land on which it sits through the submission of a mimeographed letter (purportedly written by the deceased Mrs. Rath) to probate judge Bernstein (in a wonderfully nuanced performance by Lee J. Cobb). In one of the piece's few memorable scenes (and one of its best), Judge Bernstein somewhat gently but relentlessly and remorselessly demolishes both Edward's character and his claim. Mr. Peck sits woodenly through this scene, contributing little-and it must be said that the scene is the better for it.
At work, Rath becomes increasingly close to Hopkins despite having his work suppressed by Ogden (who ultimately pulls him off the project without Hopkins's knowledge). As the film unfolds, we learn the terrible toll Hopkins's addiction to work and immense success have taken on his personal life: A marriage which has disintegrated into an arrangement of social convenience; an estranged, spoiled, rebellious daughter involved (tellingly) with two men her father's age, both of whom her parents deem inappropriate (quite probably because of their age); and perhaps most touchingly, a son lost in the war about whom Hopkins's wife Helen (wonderfully played in a quiet, unpretentious but heart wrenching performance by Ann Harding) says, "You never really knew Bobby-not really." In the same scene we learn that at least part of Hopkins's growing fondness for Rath is his resemblance to this son, who enlisted rather than accepting a commission his father could easily have arranged because Bobby thought it the right thing to do.
On the professional front, Ogden has rejected all five of Rath's drafts of the Atlantic City speech, writing instead what he thinks Hopkins wants to hear. Betsy-in the habit of wheedling every scrap of information about Rath's professional life that she can get out of him-in a bizarre about-face, suddenly a highly-principled-and urges Rath to do the right thing by telling truth to power and presenting his original ideas to Hopkins. Rath meets with Hopkins in his sumptuous Manhattan apartment and does exactly that.
In what is unquestionably the film's best scene, Hopkins's meeting with Rath is interrupted by a telephone call from an AP reporter informing him that his daughter has just married and asking for a quote. Hopkins says all the right things to the reporter, then phones Helen, who asks that he never call her again. As played by Frederic March and Ann Harding, the scene rips one's heart out with a quiet, resigned, understated dignity and grief.
One day Rath meets Caesar (Keenan Wynn), a sergeant with whom he'd served in the war, now an elevator operator at the network's headquarters. Over drinks Caesar tells Rath that his wartime lover, Maria, did in fact give birth to his child and is in dire straits. In the film's worst, most melodramatic scenes-scenes in which Jennifer Jones chews up all the scenery there is to digest-Rath returns home to Betsy to reveal both the affair and the child's existence. After some additional melodrama (Betsy driving recklessly off into the night) and an even-more-bizarre and out-of-character about-face by Betsy, Rath and she appear in Judge Bernstein's office the following morning to make arrangements for monthly support payments to Maria and Rath's illegitimate child. The film ends with Rath and Betsy embracing in the front seat of their car and driving away from Judge Bernstein's office.
Upon its release, the film received widespread (and, in this observer's opinion, utterly unwarranted) critical praise. Bosley Crowther (then the cinema critic for The New York Times) called it "a mature, fascinating and often quite tender and touching film." In his April 1956 review, Mr. Crowther goes on to say "It was not a simple, easy story that Mr. Wilson wrote, and it is not a simple, easy drama that Mr. Johnson has translated to the screen . . . . He has, in short, a full, well-rounded film."
Where to begin?
The novel was a runaway critical and commercial hit-the kind of material mainstream Hollywood snaps up in hopes of replicating such success. 20th Century Fox (or perhaps more accurately, the film's producer, Darryl F. Zanuck) apparently felt that translating such a work to the screen necessitated treating the project as a big-budget, star-studded "prestige picture."
He couldn't have been more wrong.
Mr. Johnson's rather florid-yet-lukewarm, overly earnest but at the same time really rather lazy realization of the film begins with the-well, one is tempted to use the word "unfortunate," but this critic finds the phrase "wildly inappropriate" more apt-choice to film in CinemaScope and in color. The use of both is jarringly inappropriate for the piece. Rath's existential dilemma and alone-ness, the always-gray world of corporate politics, his fundamental abstruseness and (as Mr. Peck plays it-although not necessarily intentionally or appropriately) ambivalence, the new and strange moral ambiguity of the postwar world and its new and strange anxieties-all these leitmotifs scream for black-and-white treatment. Additionally, CinemaScope robs the film's few great scenes of the intimacy their subject matter deserves. Cases in point include the scene in which Helen begs Hopkins to intercede with their daughter, telling him "If you don't, Ralph, if you don't make this effort, I'll never want to see you again" and the wonderful scene in which Judge Bernstein utterly destroys Edward's character and claim to the Rath estate. The former scene calls for an intimacy and the latter an immediacy which both CinemaScope and the really quite garish color process used rob the scenes of utterly.
An overly-sentimental score by Bernard Hermann trivializes the film's subject matter throughout. Additionally, Mr. Johnson's choice of shots and framing offers nothing new, much less innovative, and frequently diminishes scenes which might have been great. While many shots are well-composed, there's more to mise-en-scène than composition. Realization of the film's goals-or, perhaps more accurately, what should have been the film's goals-is seriously compromised by poor and frequently garish set design, bad (and certainly not subtle) lighting, and other poor aesthetic choices.
The director's cinematic vocabulary seems limited, relying heavily on medium and long shots in scenes which call for close-ups or deep focus (which appears not to have been in Mr. Johnson's vocabulary) or perhaps other innovative camera work. A prime example is the scene in which Susan Hopkins (Gigi Perreau, who pulls off the dubious achievement of being simultaneously both overwrought and tepid) accuses her father of caring for nothing but money, telling him "You don't love me and you don't love mother. To tell you the truth I don't think you love anybody," an intimate moment shot entirely in medium shots with no close-ups (also an example of the staggering misuse of CinemaScope).
One wonders whether Mr. Johnson's cinematic hand wasn't rather forced into over reliance on medium and long shots by the really quite terrible performances handed in by Mr. Peck and Ms. Jones (Mrs. David O. Selznick at the time). Mr. Peck's Rath is a leaden performance with little or no depth, making it difficult to relate to his character (which is why this reviewer refers to the character as "Rath" rather than "Tom"). Jennifer Jones's Betsy veers from annoying shrillness to high melodrama to a barely-passable attempt at quiet dignity (in the piece's final scene).
Some mercy can be shown Ms. Jones (Mrs. David O. Selznick at the time) for what is a TRULY awful performance. Mr. Johnson's overly earnest adapted screenplay fails to develop the characters in any meaningful or interesting ways; hence Jones's Betsy veers wildly from avaricious shrew to indifferent mother to ambitious schemer to the aforementioned attempt at quiet dignity. The screenplay attempts to convince us, unsuccessfully, that Rath is a man suffering the pain, confusion and alienation of mental illness (specifically, PTSD) while perversely treating Rath's relationship to the mental health project which comprises his work with (at best) indifference or (at worst) mindless ambition. Additionally, while the screenplay achieves some success at showing us the terrible price Hopkins has paid for success on a grand scale, it does little or nothing to explore the psychic price exacted-for that we must rely on yet another outstanding, understated performance by Frederic March.
One of the film's most interesting aspects seems entirely accidental as it is never fully explored or elucidated: The treatment of the Rath children. Early in the film, prior to and during the scene in which Betsy tells Tom she is ashamed of him, there is a touching scene between Rath and his son Pete (convincingly but not spectacularly played by Mickey Maga). Pete wants to bring the family dog indoors to sleep with him. Betsy denies him; Pete dresses up in a pirate costume and threatens to run away. After Betsy tells Rath she is ashamed of him, Rath goes outside, retrieves the family dog and carries it upstairs to Pete's room.
It is the only truly tender, memorable scene between parents and children in the film. While there is the occasional nod to parental responsibility (e.g., Rath-checking in on one of his daughters who have chicken pox, Rath insisting the children turn the television off and go to bed), both the Raths more or less abandon their responsibility as parents, Betsy "outsourcing" child care to a shrill, cold drill sergeant of a nanny (Mrs. Manter, in a competent if obvious performance by Connie Gilchrist). The childrens' obsession with television, and with death, is touched upon only briefly and obliquely. The adult Raths' relationship to their children-or rather, the increasing lack of one-is not explored in any depth, and makes Rath's ultimate decision to choose family over professional advancement seem inexplicable given a parental indifference bordering on neglect.
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is a good novel (not a great one) which explores some of the psychic and social issues which arose in and dominated the existential landscape of postwar America. In giving the book "the full treatment," i.e., in treating it as a big-budget, star-studded "prestige" film, Hollywood took an important, sensitive work and turned it into mediocre media fodder.
Note to mainstream Hollywood (or a plea, if you will): Learn from your mistakes.
Gregory Peck is his usual stoic self, a style which works fine for him but no one else. The other main characters are far from noteworthy. The female characters are all prime material for the worst soap operas ever, with such progressive lines as, "Don't you ever say a thing like that again. I know what kind of husband I've got, and I wouldn't change that for anyone else in the world. If I ever say anything to make you feel like that again, you hit me right across the head, you hear?"
In brief, this is a lengthy mess of social commentary.
The story has more branches than a rainforest tree, and each one is promising, yet when it comes down to execution, the formula hurts the film about as much as it juices it, as the story structure and telling is hardly tight. There's a very large chunk early on in the film that deals with Peck's Tom Rath character having flashbacks of his time in WWII, with particular emphasis on a love affair that he had in Italy, and while that plot segment feels really crowbarred into the midst of the main story of a veteran Raph looking for work for the sake of his family, you're expecting them to come back and work on the war plot here and there throughout the film. In actuality, they just drop it on the spot, after spending way too much time and effort focusing on it over the main plot and while the film's unevenness rarely gets that severe, the fact of the matter is that the film will not simply spend too much time focusing on the branches of its story, with Fredric March even having a rather prominent, late-to-arrive subplot that's almost entirely irrelevant to the central Rath storyline, thus leaving the film uneven in focus, taking too long to tell the subplots, alone. To make matters worse, some of the various branches are quite different in dramatic tone than others, a fact made clear by the unevenness of the story focus. After a while, we grow too used to what tone is presented for too long, thus making the eventual tonal shifts jarring and the story as tonally uneven as structurally uneven. The project is with a strong premise and promising formula, yet both the storytelling and editing is so loose that the film is rendered too uneven to really lock you in all that thoroughly. However, on the whole, the film hits more than it misses when it comes to executing the promising premise, maybe not to where it really knocks you out, but certainly to where it rewards, particularly when it comes to sweep.
Now, this isn't quite a David Lean film, where plenty of things are bigger than they probably should be, as the film, even with its two-and-a-half hour runtime and grand story, doesn't stand as all that much of an epic. Still, it has occasions in which it does, in fact, incorporate epic sweep and recieves fine results, particularly during the, of course, incredibly brief, but still fairly nifty war sequences, which are grand and well-produced to make for some intense set pieces and supplements to the atmosphere. Again, Nunnally Johnson's structure and execution of the story is messy, so much so that it really takes a bit of life out of it and leaves its drama to lose some juice, yet never to where the film's intrigue runs dry. Certain dramatic moments are more impacting than others, yet on the whole Johnson manages to really draw from the atmosphere and intrigue of the story with a confidence and audacity that was impressive at the time, and remains engaging to this day, making for dramatic depth that really keeps this film going through all of its missteps. Still, Johnson is not the only person to thank for the film's engagement value, as credit also goes out to the performers, some of whom are better than others, yet almost all of whom impress to a certain degree, with the exception of the simply unbearable kids who are unpalatably obnoxious, and it doesn't help that they're written to have every despicable non-sense trait found in little brats. Outside of them, this the grown ups' show, and they don't let you forget it, with Greg Peck, in particular, really stepping up. Peck is as charismatic as he always was, yet incorporates some of that good old fashion subtle, yet touching emotional resonance that really defines the depth within the Tom Rath character and, by extension, the film itself, standing among the key aspects that really bring to life the compelling story, which may still be very much a mess, yet ultimately satisfies and makes for an ultimately worthy watch.
Overall, the film's focus is wildly uneven, picking up and dropping subplots - some of which are inconsistent in tone with other story branches within he film - left and right, thus drying the juice within the resonance and leaving the film periodically disengaging, as well as generally quite improvable, though rarely, if ever improvable from underwhelming, as the film is at least consistent in keeping what steam it does have in it pumping strongly, supported by the occasional bit of gripping sweep to compliment Nunnally Johnson's generally inspired emotional resonance, though not quite as much as the mostly strong performances, particularly that of a charismatic and compelling Gregory Peck who helps in making "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" an ultimately generally engrossing dramatic effort.
3/5 - Good
The movies theme of how a man gets back to normal life after the war is a decent one. The movie falls a bit flat though when it introduces several different storylines on top of the main one. There's a story about a girl not wanting her dads fortune, a story about a love child in Italy, the time to stand up to your boss, etc. There's just so much and the film moves at a snails pace that it's hard to keep up.
I liked the acting in the film especially Gregory Peck. Overall, give this one a rent!
I have just, as I sat down to write this, started watching [i]Mad Men[/i]. It's set a few years later, which means that few of the executives in the show have the experiences the executives in the movie had. At the heart of this movie is what happened during World War II, ten years earlier. Gregory Peck was young enough and more importantly seemed young enough so that he'd still be a Leading Man for another decade or better, and I mean the kind of leading man who Gets the Girl. However, it was also recent enough so that you believe he was an officer during World War II. I think that generational difference was probably important, and I suspect it caused a lot of conflict as time went by. I don't know if I'd say that the world changed faster in those ten years than it ever had before, but I think possibly the changes have become more obvious with every recent decade. The life these characters lived permitted the one the characters in [i]Mad Men[/i] lead, and that would not have been comfortable.
Tom Rath (Peck) lives in Connecticut and works in The City, just like thousands of men leading similar lives. He has a young, pretty wife, Betsy (Jennifer Jones), and three kids (Portland Mason, Sandy Descher, and Mickey Maga). He makes seven thousand dollars a year, which works out to roughly fifty-six thousand today. He's applying for a new job, which will work out to about eighty thousand a year. In public relations. His grandmother died recently, but her estate turns out to be mostly worthless except for the house, which they may not be able to keep after all. He also had an experience in the war which he won't discuss with his wife. It's said that he was a lot more ambitious ten years ago, before he got back, and we certainly learn things about him that his wife did not know. It all comes back in the person of Sergeant Caesar Gardella (Keenan Wynn), who had been in his unit.
The problem I had with the movie was that it seemed to be doing too much. I was reasonably sure that Gregory Peck was headed for a nervous breakdown, because that was where the beginning of the movie seemed to be taking us, but nothing seemed to come of the trauma he experienced. It didn't really seem to have much to do with anything. I think the whole thing with Ralph Hopkins (Fredric March) and his daughter's elopement was to show the destructive effect too much work can have on a family, but it bothered me how much was shown from his perspective. The main character would have had no way of knowing what was going on, and it didn't really have anything to do with him anyway. Drinking with his boss at that pivotal moment probably improved his career, but that's about all there is to it. It's as though the movie (I haven't read the book) is trying to make at least three important points, and it gets too hung up in that to really even make one.
In fact, if I were to choose, I'd want a full movie out of the mental health plotline and one of the Italian plotline. Not mixed, mind. Separate movies. I find it intriguing that a man could go from the start of a case of PTSD to a normal life, only it turns out that it's a normal life wherein he has to write a speech which would get his boss a job as head of a commission in charge of mental health activism. Arguably, Tom Rath was ideally placed to advise his boss, but of course he could never mention that. Look how hesitant Betsy is when she has to mention the word "nerve" to him. And of course, there's no way a movie from 1956 would condemn that; movies today are ill inclined toward condemning that attitude. But taking someone like Gregory Peck and giving him that problem would have maybe meant people would have thought about it as a problem that real people have. Gregory Peck was the kind of man we could all take seriously. We trusted him and always would. He might have been the best chance for that kind of story.
And the Italian thing . . . okay. I don't want to give away spoilers on this, though of course after over fifty years, it's not as though you'd have no way of knowing what was going on. But I understand Tom's actions during the war. He really did think he was going to die. He grabbed onto life in the way people have been grabbing onto it as long as there have been people. He made a move he wouldn't have in any other circumstances, and he walked away. Was flown away by the US military. But what I really find interesting is how Betsy responds. She's angry, and she has a right to be. Her initial reactions all make perfect sense to me. What's interesting, though, is her final decision on what should happen. No, they don't exactly go spreading around to everyone what happened to Tom in Italy. Indeed, they're quite intentionally keeping quiet about it. But it's a marriage where they're willing to work through their problems, and for once, it's believable.
Some get elevator jobs, like a fellow war veteran of Peck's, while Gregory Peck gets the good job as an executive writer at some million dollar company. So starts our film.
Men leave America, indeed men leave homes all over the world, to kill or be killed or at least be a part of the killing. Our lead actor, Gregory Peck, is just one of many who lands a great job in corporate position in New York City, at a mere $7000 a year (salary adjusted this would be more like 70,000 a year).
Gregory Peck, and his nagging, pushy wife Jennifer Jones get things going in this film with their modest home (which always dissatisfied Jones hates) in the suburbs. Peck is ok with the home, but Jennifer whines and harps on Peck about her dislike of the home and her desire for Peck to be more ambitious, a fighter she says, like the one she married. (this scene made me vomit)
Of course, Peck who knew and admits in the film he killed 17 people up close and personal and not from a distance, has a different view of the world. Jones was a stay at home girlfriend of Peck who didn't suffer more than a paper cut, but she has the audacity to tell Peck how to act and how to do things. The book, we are told in the special features (watch it if you can), never had her being so "bitchy".
As the film progresses, we detect a huge difference between home and office. This is what the film is all about. The corporate head played by Fred March is atypical in my opinion. I have met in my corporate life vice presidents and lower who were never this socialable or kind. Of course, our lead actor Peck gets favorable treatment because he reminds our corporate head of a son he lost in the war. This stands Peck in good order as he gets fired from his new position by his unfeeling boss, only to hang on because of the Fred March connection.
Family or success, this is the ultimate question. March bemoans giving up his family life for the role he now plays and advises Peck to not neglect his family. Peck later refuses to obey March because of his strained marriage. It seems he had a child back in the war years with a girl he truely loved. Of course, this is a problem the married Peck must face at some point with the never understanding Jones.
Jones keeps pushing the honesty line on Peck, but when Peck gives her a dose of honesty she goes nuts and wants to leave Peck. He lets his secret be known to her after a girl he left behind during the war needs funds to live in Italy. There is a boy, not sure if its his (how could it be? He only knew her for a few days and she admitted at the time to him that she was pregnant).
This is a very powerful film built on a best selling novel at the time. Its about memories, secrets, money, ambition and peace of mind. Due to Gregory Peck's impecable performance, a necessary addition to any film student's library.
Highly recommended, it has no special effects, no perversion, no nudity, no profanity. It does have some WWII scenes which are pretty graphic and intense. It is undoubtly slow paced for moviegoers today but uses Cinemascope to great effect.
Most likely because of the above it would not have succeeded in todays market...
NOTES about the film:
1 In the end, it is a story of taking responsibility for one's own life. The book by Wilson was largely autobiographical, drawing on Wilson's experiences as assistant director of the US National Citizen Commission for Public Schools.
2 The film was entered at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival.
3 Both movie and book became hugely popular. The novel continues to appear in the references of sociologists to America's discontented businessman.
4 The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit II appeared in 1984 - by the time of the sequel a decade has passed in the story-line.
5 In an episode of The Honeymooners, Ralph Kramden is startled when Ed Norton emerges from a manhole in full sewer worker gear. Norton replies, "Who did you expect, the man in the gray flannel suit?"
6 Starring as Bones in TV's Star Trek, DeForest Kelley appears in this movie as a medic in one of the war scenes. Appropriately, his lines generally consist of variations of "This man is dead".
Gregory Peck - Tom Rath
Jennifer Jones - Betsy Rath
Fredric March - Ralph Hopkins
Marisa Pavan - Maria Montagne
Lee J. Cobb - Judge Bernstein
Ann Harding - Helen Hopkins
Keenan Wynn - Sgt. Caesar Gardella
Gene Lockhart - Bill Hawthorne
Gigi Perreau - Susan Hopkins
Portland Mason - Janey Rath
Arthur O'Connell - Gordon Walker
Henry Daniell - Bill Ogden
Connie Gilchrist - Mrs. Manter
Joseph Sweeney - Edward M. Schultz
Sandy Descher - Barbara Rath
Directed by Nunnally Johnson
Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck
Written by Nunnally Johnson (screenplay)
Sloan Wilson (novel)
Music by Bernard Herrmann
Cinematography Charles G. Clarke
Editing by Dorothy Spencer
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release date(s) May 8, 1956
Running time 153 min.
Peck has the mid-Century American Dream in his back pocket - a Harvard degree, distinguished WWII military service, a gorgeous wife in his idyllic home out in Connecticut and the keys to the executive washroom at a major television network.
But the Dream begins to unravel as he spends his time on the daily commuter train reliving the atrocities he saw - and committed - during the war. At the office, his choice is becoming the successful sycophant with the cushy chair and executive secretary - or taking the risk of doing good work toward real accomplishment.
To appease his wife, Peck may have to play the toady - and lie to her about his wartime past. Peck's a man come to his turning point, where he must decide which suit really fits best, morality or security.
The story does not play out as dramatically as it could, as the dialogue doesn't really have much bite to it - as compared to, say, "Executive Suite." Still, in its time, it was surely a good critical examination of what kind of dogs were stuffed into Manhattan wingtips.
RECOMMENDATION: For students of business or the era, worth a viewing.