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Tuesday, January 03, 2017

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit

Before there was Mad Men there was The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, made in exactly the time period it was set in, so there was nothing retro about it. It also reflects the film style of the time--overly melodramatic.

Released in 1956, the film was based on a wildly successful novel of the same name by Sloan Wilson, which was out in 1955, so clearly it was a hot property. The film was written and directed by Nunnally Johnson, and stars Gregory Peck as a businessman who gets caught up in the rat race while confronting his memories of fighting in World War II.

Peck plays a man who takes the train in from Connecticut every day to a job that doesn't quite pay him enough. He has a wife (Jennifer Jones) and three children, and all that most people would consider the American dream, but is hanging on by his fingernails (a broken washing machine is a major undertaking). His grandmother's estate turns out to have no money but a white elephant of a house.

So when a commuter friend tells him of an opening at his company, a major broadcaster (I got the vibe it was a stand-in for CBS) in public relations, Peck demurs at first. "I don't know anything about public relations," he says, but his friend replies, "Nobody does."

He gets the job, impressing the head man, Fredric March. He has an enemy in his immediate supervisor, an office politician (the great Henry Daniell, specialist in villains, but this time in a suit and not a frock coat). Meanwhile March laments that he has given up everything to build his company. He is divorced and estranged from his daughter, who tells him she doesn't want anything to do with him and then elopes with a much older man.

Peck struggles to find a place at the company, pushed by Jones not to be a yes-man and to go for the golden ring. He is haunted by memories of serving in Italy during the war. He killed many men, including cutting a German's throat to take his coat, and had an affair with an Italian woman that Jones does not know about it.

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is basically a soap opera. There are a few other subplots, including an old servant fighting for the ownership of Peck's grandmother's house, that make the film too long at 2:30, but I must admit I got a tear in my eye at the end, which favors forgiveness and doing the right thing. I'm not sure that Don Draper ever got that.

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