Sunday, August 15, 2010

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967, Swift)

Rating: **

With his rabbit teeth and flat, helmet-like hair, Robert Morse looks like a tamer version of Jerry Lewis in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967). Indeed, the character he plays isn’t unlike the persona Jerry so often brought to life: more efficient, true – but for the most part as clueless and entirely dependent on external sources of authority (in this case, on the eponymous handbook). Morse’s character, J. Pierpont Finch, is part ruthless, part hapless – once set on the fast track of career-climbing, he sticks slavishly to whatever he reads in his little book, and it is the movie’s great unresolved puzzle what makes him so endearing to Rosemary (Michelle Lee). (Or rather, by what means does the initial endearment hold up, since J.’s actions reveal nothing but a single-minded drive to upgrading his professional status.)

Less an executive Candide than a sunny Julien Sorel, Finch has remarkably few tricks up his sleeve to buttress his way up, and thus the subsequent steps in his climb strike one as rather mechanical and dull. People Finch flatters have their defenses way down all the time, and cling automatically to mere hints of sympathy, common interests, or shared past that Finch throws at them.

Towards the end, Rosemary’s sunny virtue triumphs over Finch’s sunny drive, with the embarrassingly literal “Brotherhood of Men” number to seal the deal. The movie, as crude and pasted together as it is, serves best as a showcase for Morse’s remarkable responsiveness and humor, both of which can be wasted away, but still shine beautifully.


  1. Michal, I grew up with the original cast album of "How To Succeed," saw the movie when it was new-ish (GAWD, I'm old!) on a double-bill with the Mankiewicz "Honey Pot," and then later saw the La Jolla Playhouse production with Matthew Broderick before it went on to New York.

    What this is leading up to is ... "I don't think that the "Brotherhood of Man" number is as simple as all that. (Or at least I hope it's not.) I think that it is, at least by implication, about a "brotherhood" [sic] of mutual shafting. "Keep giving each brother all you can," they sing. And do notice that Finch keeps talking of punishments and making dim evaluations when nobody else is doing this.

    On top of this, the number functions as a parody/pastiche/etc. of the old-fashioned Big Revivalist Number (cf. "Blow, Gabriel Blow" in ANYTHING GOES or Arlen's "Get Happy" or the Vincent Youmans "Great Day"). It's not sentimental, the number, but it's a sort of jokey evocation of that evangelical style.

  2. The irony you mention was largely lost on me -- but then again, I blame the fact that I only saw the movie version and prior to that I wasn't acquainted with the show at all (save for some Tony Awards clips). The movie seemed to me a hack job on many levels -- it was rather unimaginatevely put together and I might have projected some of my impatience with it onto the sung material, too.