The American Century reached its apogee in the immediate post-war years. The United States experienced an economic boom which signaled the ascendancy of the American way of life, brought to you by the finest minds of Madison Avenue. The country’s entertainment exports could sooth a world bruised by conflict; its conveniences pointed towards a new consumer culture. The image of American exceptionalism was sold like any other product, and solidified in the global consciousness as the benchmark of aspiration. The version of American life packaged to the world was shaped by a company man like Edward Bernays — Sigmund Freud’s nephew — who more than anyone created the industry of public relations. Bernays explained how “We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized.”
The ideological pillars of the post-war liberal consensus, like Isiah Berlin’s lecture “Two Concepts of Liberty” (1958), birthed contradictory postures in those reaping the windfall of victory. The manifold freedoms vaunted by the planet’s new hegemon engendered a strange kind of conformity, particularly among those best placed to take full advantage of them. Young men flocked into institutions which demanded uniformity, to become the invisible tastemakers Bernays invoked in books like Propaganda (1928) and Public Relations (1945). For many who were recruited into Bernays’ “invisible government,” it was an echo of their military experience, providing a solidity that was absent from the civilian life to which they’d returned.
It took a mind as acute as Rod Serling’s to unpick this company man paradox, and he did it in the fertile environs of early TV, where corporations would sponsor works which managed to transcend the form and critique the very values such patrons set out to project. In Patterns (1956), Serling contends that the war and all its tensions had simply been redirected into the boardroom. At the vertiginous pinnacle of America’s new commercial compact swirled restless specters, darkening its scrupulously scrubbed corridors. The generation that had fought the war was confronting the generation that had overseen it, staging a sub rosa assault on entrenched power.
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Serling explores the practices within this company man milieu with the same queasy fascination as countless other arcane phenomena — from the secretaries to the executives, the halls of commerce have their own codes, rituals and hierarchies. It is understood on every level that the health of the organization requires the shedding of those who are unable to assimilate into the rhythms of the machine, those who are no longer capable of keeping pace with the prevailing logic of corporate America. One such figure is Bill Briggs (Ed Begley), a vice-president at New York industrial corporation Ramsey & Co.; he is defiantly out of step with the company’s ruthless president, Walter Ramsey (Everett Sloane), who has abandoned the values upon which his father founded the company. Ramsey derides Briggs’ appeal to “good will” and “the human factor,” of the latter’s insistence on maintaining an equitable balance between capital and labor.
Briggs is a wounded beast who the jungle will devour in the interest of initiative and efficiency; it is a remarkable performance from Begley, one can almost see the corridors getting narrower and the shadows lengthening in his crestfallen eyes. Ramsey sets Briggs’ company man demise in motion with the arrival of Fred Staples (Van Heflin), an industrial engineer from a recently acquired company. Briggs understands from the outset that Staples is his assassin, but it takes Heflin’s character a while longer to come to that realization. Ramsey informs Staples that he must “learn to accept success,” to jump into the mud of battle and secure what is rightly his. But it falls upon Ramsey himself to do the job, driving Briggs to his death. Staples rails against Ramsey’s callousness, but he falls into his strategy. Staples has finally got the taste for a form of mutually sustaining combat; Ramsay affords Staples a measure of agency in order to keep the company man at “peak efficiency”; Heflin’s character can salve his conscience while continuing to meet the requirements of the company.
Heflin’s was a generation which expected its reward for services rendered to the cause of freedom and democracy (the actor served as a combat cameraman during World War II). But in the end, none of it seemed to be satisfactory. Nunally Johnson’s adaptation of Sloan Wilson’s novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956) depicts a company man, Tom Rath (Gregory Peck), who seems to have emerged from his service with an enviable life: three children, a dutiful wife and a home in suburban Connecticut. But a mood of presentiment hangs over the Rath family home, an unease underlies the apparent security of the “safe spot” into which they have settled.
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Spurred on by his wife, Betsy (Jennifer Jones), Tom abandons the security of life working for a foundation to tread into the heady waters of public relations. The woman is a restless spirit who uses her company man husband as an avatar, pushing him to “go out and fight for something” in the places she is not permitted to venture. The war was 10 years ago, but it won’t leave Tom alone; memories of it are triggered everywhere; the impetus to fend off insecurity comes from the understanding of life’s fragility which the proximity to death on that scale engendered in a generation of young men. Everything at home seems lightweight in comparison to what was endured overseas, and the company offers a bulwark against confronting this realization. The company’s structures present the possibility of keeping one’s past actions at bay, sublimating one’s anxieties into the logic of the “rate race” and trading one uniform for another — the olive drab for the gray flannel.
PR becomes a way of reshaping reality when it refuses to yield to the promises of the new abundance sold at the cessation of hostilities; it is the elevation of abstraction into an artform, the emotional resonance of a product becomes more valued than its utility. Entering the PR department of the UBC television network, Tom has a moment of clarity; the promises are exposed before his eyes in the form of the company’s president, Ralph Hopkins (Frederic March). Hopkins is an undisputed titan of industry, but his success in business is matched by his failure as a husband and parent — the first rumblings of teenage disaffection come from Hopkins’ daughter, Susan (Gigi Perreau), who regards her father as a stunted being for his single-minded pursuit of wealth: he is a stranger to his own family, a visitor in his own home.
Hopkins tries to mould Tom into a surrogate son (his own son was killed in the war), but Peck’s company man character resists the blandishments of the executive class; he grasps the sacrifice such a role would require; it would necessitate the switching back on of the killer instinct which the world had tried to mute in the decade since the citizen soldier was called into action. Tom has to live with the extremes of emotion and reckless abandon which prevailed in wartime; he has to reconcile the parts of himself that are in conflict, and come to an understanding of who he wants to be. Tom concludes that he is a “nine-to-five fellow”; the company man is content to serve his employers, to lend his weight to the war effort, but he cannot stomach the conquest which has so blighted Hopkins’ life. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit charts the progression of Tom’s acceptance that his defining moment is behind him, that there are no more fights, and stability is its own victory.
The company man became such a cultural fixture that it was ripe for satire. Ironically, Jack Lemmon played put-upon insurance agent C.C. Baxter to such perfection in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960) that it became the definitive cinematic portrait of the harried office drone. Wilder was always capable of exploring the darkest territory in the most charmingly acerbic manner, and his collaboration with writer I.A.L. Diamond offers some sly class analysis with its risqué humor. When Baxter permits various executives to use his apartment for their extramarital affairs, in exchange for advancing up the career ladder at the insurance corporation where he works, he enters into a deal which will forever brand him in the eyes of the upper echelon as a company man resource whose life is an adjunct of the business, constantly at its beck and call.
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Baxter’s predicament symbolizes the encroachment of work into every aspect of life. The company man is surrounded by the remnants of the apartment’s dual use; the master’s fingerprints are evident wherever he turns, sullying his solitary hours in front of the TV with reminders of his compromise. The line between the private and professional has been punctured, lending a downcast note to the ersatz glamour and choreographed violence which accompanies his TV dinner. In this respect, Baxter is no different from the young women who still hold onto the hope that one day these men of means will throw it all away to build a new life with them. It is this promise that sustains both Baxter and elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine); that every affront to their dignity will pay off with a life of substance. When Baxter and Kubelik end up getting what they want, they discover that the cost of attaining it is too heavy to endure.
Baxter will do whatever it takes to rise out of the morass of the 19th floor, with its sea of desks filling every inch of the frame, to the opulence of a private office on the 27th floor. But when his “efficiency” in assisting the extracurricular activities of the executives finally does get him “kicked upstairs,” the company man finds that he cannot out-climb the terms of the deal. Baxter’s new boss, personnel manager Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), is wise to the arrangement, and he wants in on it. Baxter learns that he must continue to mollify those who hold his fate in their hands, moulding himself into the archetypal junior executive, but forever marked by the manner of his ascension in this “conservative firm.” Wilder and Diamond explode the bromide that merit and hard work will eventually pay dividends for the assiduous company man; it’s what you’re willing to do. But the real has to intervene, the human toll of what Baxter has abetted.
Baxter cannot exist on his island forever, living “like Robinson Crusoe” in his atomized state, “shipwrecked among eight million people,” seeking the solace of a bachelor lifestyle which is romanticized by the married company men who seek to sample some of its excitement. Baxter and Kubelik are both looking for a way out the transactional cycle which reduces them to a function, the asymmetric relationships which only benefit the more powerful party. They both cling to the belief that Sheldrake can deliver them a new life: Kubelik the happy wife, and Baxter the esteemed executive. Baxter’s fraught existence is contrasted by his neighbor, David Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen), a happily married doctor who urges Baxter to “be a mensch,” to embrace his humanity and reject the empty promises the company is promulgating. When Sheldrake refuses to commit to Kubelik, she takes an overdose of Baxter’s sleeping pills. It is Dreyfuss who saves her life, while Sheldrake asks Baxter to clean up this embarrassing mess.
In the end, the mensch wins out over the company man. Baxter finally understands that he will never have enough leverage to become an equal in the eyes of the executive class. They will take what they want from him, and hold it against him, no matter how high he climbs. “Some people take and some people get took,” as Kubelik reminds Baxter. Lemmon’s character has entered into a world of mutual incrimination which keeps everyone in line, a strategy of mutually assured destruction to deter any company man thinking of breaking ranks. Ensconced in his swish new office, Baxter realizes that he is turning into Ralph Hopkins; a company man with everything to show for his success except what is truly valuable. Baxter breaks his conditioning and reclaims his humanity, just as Kubelik realizes that she will never be anything more than a temporary diversion to Sheldrake. Baxter and Kubelik find in each other what the company cannot provide: a meaning beyond status, a bond which encompasses more than conditional affiliation.
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Staples, Rath and Baxter each make their own negotiation with the company. Staples is content to be an antagonist within the system, a reformist who believes he can hold power to account with the force of his indignation. Rath accepts his standing as an auxiliary force within the company, striving to strike a balance which serves life and work. Baxter can no longer exist within the company; he is determined to break from its proscriptions and prioritize personal happiness. As the notion of job security began to founder, all three men would have to contend with the neoliberal currents which were gaining momentum as the 1970s began, in response to a series of crises which shook the economic order and undermined the integrity of the company.
D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.