Making it without 'Mad Men'
|By James Sanford|
Suffering from Don Draper deprivation? These '50s and '60s dramas may help get you through
You’ve heard the news: “Mad Men” is on hiatus until sometime next year. No more illicit entanglements in the advertising world. No more early-‘60s fashions to ogle. No more flashbacks to the days of Mother’s Little Helpers and Daddy’s After-Work/Pre-Dinner Glass of Scotch.
But don’t hang up your fedora or your pillbox hat just yet. You can survive the downtime. There’s plenty of “Mad Men”-style material out there — and much of it comes straight from the time period in which the show is set. To get you started, let me recommend a few films that will give you a little added perspective on the moods and attitudes that shaped the early 1960s.
All of these titles are available through Netflix and/or Amazon On Demand — how very un-early 1960s of us.
Let’s start in the mid-1950s, with “Executive Suite,” which was considered a no-holds-barred look at the world of big business in 1954 (it doesn’t even have a musical score, so you know it’s meant to be taken quite seriously). William Holden, then at the peak of his powers, plays Don Walling, who has risen from the assembly line at Tredway Corp. (a furniture manufacturer) to become a vice president. When the company president suddenly dies, the sharks in the company begin fighting for the coveted top spot. But the bright-eyed Don, who has one of those dreamy-eyed, ever-lovin’ wives (June Allyson) every mid-level executive was entitled to in the Eisenhower era, is more interested in doing what’s best for his employer than he is in putting himself in the driver’s seat.
The natural successor might seem to be Julia Tredway (Barbara Stanwyck), the daughter of the company founder and the corporation’s largest shareholder. Unfortunately, it’s the 1950s, and she’s a woman — plus, she was having a secret affair with the late president that wasn’t quite as much of a secret as she’d thought. When Don senses the not-so-good guys are conspiring to take Tredway in the wrong direction, he decides he’s got to do what’s right (even if it means taking a bigger salary and a more impressive job title).
One of the fascinating aspects of the film is its still-valid question of whether a company’s reputation is more important than its stock price. Although some of the top brass are all in favor of producing cheap, easily breakable tables and chairs that can be sold at a nice profit, Don argues that applying the Tredway name to junk will be detrimental to the corporation in the long run.
Holden and Stanwyck were close friends in real life, and the chemistry in their scenes together is potent. The mind games in the boardroom are expertly played by a superb cast, including Fredric March (playing against type as a cold-hearted efficiency expert), Walter Pidgeon, Louis Calhern and Paul Douglas. Nina Foch earned a best supporting actress nomination for her role as a depressed secretary, and you get the added bonus of seeing both a pre-“My Three Sons” Tim Considine as Holden and Allyson’s baseball-crazy son and the young va-va-voom Shelley Winters, long before she set sail on the Poseidon.
The stolid Gregory Peck is "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" in a curious 1956 drama that theorizes that behind every boring businessman is a potentially haunted soul. For Peck's Tom Rath, the torments date back to his harrowing experiences and intimate indiscretions during World War II, which — in typical '50s fashion — he's never discussed.
His inner conflicts begin to affect his home life as his wife, Betsy (Jennifer Jones), candidly tells him she's ashamed of his lack of ambition. Unlike the gentle, soft-spoken spouses we're used to seeing in films of this time period, Betsy is secretly bitter and frustrated; when Tom finally reveals a sad (and, luckily for us, juicy) secret he's been keeping, she stops just short of bursting into flames. The combination of Peck’s stern, almost unflappable calm and Jones’ mercurial rages makes for delicious drama.
Meanwhile, the couple’s trio of weird kids watches one violent Western after another on TV, oblivious to the family troubles. "Flannel" stridently argues against sacrificing your personal life for a career — Tom's workaholic boss (Fredric March), who has all but deserted his weepy wife and trampy teenage daughter, is displayed as a cautionary case — but the picture it presents of domesticity is so chilling it might have made millions of men actually want to work overtime.
Venturing further into the suburban minefield, there’s “Strangers When We Meet,” a 1960 romantic drama in which architect Kirk Douglas and miserable housewife Kim Novak meet in the most innocuous of places — a school bus stop — and end up contemplating an arrangement that’s anything but innocent. It’s a perfect companion piece to Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet’s “Revolutionary Road”: Director Richard Quine, adapting Evan Hunter’s novel, turns a sunny neighborhood into a spiritually suffocating circle of Hell, where nothing ever goes unseen or unheard by nasty neighbors.
Novak, who specialized in playing tantalizing but emotionally disconnected beauties in movies like “Vertigo” and “Bell, Book and Candle,” goes out all here, drawing a scary sketch of a woman who seems to be barely able to maintain her “nice” faade. It’s made clear that she’s already looked for a good time outside of her marriage, so Douglas may be just one more short-term fling for her. Douglas is portrayed as being considerably more conflicted about the prospect of cheating. Walter Matthau, of all people, plays the sleazy, vicious busybody who gets his kicks from tormenting Douglas and roughing up Novak. The movie was not a major hit in its day — and the critic for Time magazine went so far as to call it “pure tripe” — but it provides some intriguing insights into the mindsets of the Douglas and Novak characters, both of whom are presented as sympathetic figures in a world full of hostility and hypocrisy.
Need a little more extramarital hanky panky? You’ll get plenty in “From the Terrace,” another 1960 melodrama that’s chiefly notable for its casting of real-life married stars Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward as a couple whose relationship heads straight for the rocks as he rockets to the top of the business world. The movie takes a full half-hour to set up the background of Newman’s Alfred Eaton, a World War II vet with a demanding father (Leon Ames) who runs a steel mill and a hard-drinking mom (Myrna Loy) who’s running around behind her husband’s back with a thug who treats her badly. Just when you think the movie is going to be about Alfred getting his parents back on track, the plot abruptly shifts gears, dumping Mom and Dad altogether and focusing instead on Alfred’s whirlwind courtship of the frosty but spirited Mary St. John (Woodward). What starts off as a merry marriage eventually deteriorates into a high society horror show as Alfred gets a plum job with a major firm through an almost laughably contrived twist of fate. When work takes him away from home for long periods of time — business trips that last two months? — Mary resumes her flirtation with her ex-fiance, a sneering psychiatrist (Patrick O’Neal) who seems like he might benefit from a few sessions on the couch himself.
“Terrace” was based on a novel by John O’Hara, who specialized in cooking up seamy stories about supposedly glamorous people (his other books include “Pal Joey,” about a philandering nightclub star, and “Butterfield 8,” which follows the downward spiral of a high-priced call girl). Glossy as all get-out, the movie offers a great opportunity to see the often classy Woodward get down and dirty, engaging in scathing verbal duels with Newman that must have been great fun to rehearse. Off-screen, of course, Newman and Woodward remained happily wed until his death in 2008. Asked once if he was ever unfaithful to Woodward, Newman gave a now-classic reply: “Why go out for a hamburger when you have steak at home?”
Hear that, Don Draper and company?
(Next column: A few comedies from the "Mad Men" era)