Skip to main content

A day without a wicket is like a day without sunshine.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
(1967)

(SPOILERS) I can probably count the musicals I like on the fingers of one hand that has lost several digits in a dreadful viola accident. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is one of those, however. A satire very much of its era (leaving stage remounts the option of ill-advisedly attempting to update it or looking dubious in intent), infused with commentary on sexism in the workplace that may now seem outmoded (but, in some respects, has simply become less overt), David Swift’s adaptation ofFrank Loesser’s 1961 musical, adapted from Shepherd Mead’s 1952 book, is a dazzling dissection of business politics and the backstabbing, treacherous, cutthroat art of scaling the corporate ladder. Most importantly, though, it’s very, very funny and, sealing the deal, the songs are outstanding: catchy, clever, witty and choreographed (based on the work of the late, great Bob Fosse) to within an inch of their lives.


Random Employee: What the hell is a wicket?

Indeed, if Swift’s direction is adequate rather than inspired, he nevertheless fully engages the vibrancy and infectious energy of the stage show. We willingly tag along for the ride with David Morse’s unscrupulous, cynical yet wholly likeable window cleaner J Pierrepont Finch (“F-I-N-C-H”) as, upon thieving the titular book, he uses its advice to get his foot in the door of the mailroom and doesn’t stop until he’s reached the top of the Worldwide Wicket Company (itself a dig at manufacturing for its own sake; the details of a wicket – or widget – are left unrevealed; you could insert anything in its place, with exactly the same characters dedicated to exactly the same manoeuvring, wheeling and scheming).


Morse headed up the original Broadway production (Rudy Vallee also played JB Biggley on both stage and screen: “Damn, damn. Coal-burning dithering, ding ding ding ding ding ding ding”), and brings the disposition of a competent Jerry Lewis to Finch, somewhat vital if you’re to sympathise with a character who does everything he can to step over others on his ascent (revealingly, comments on the Daniel Radcliffe stage revival opined that he failed to make you like Finch). I’m chastened to admit, I watched seven season of Mad Men and never even realised he and Bertram Cooper were one and the same.


The voiceover narration of the book is a running font of sly and insightful wisdom, from the company to join (“It should be at least large enough so that nobody quite knows exactly what the other fellow is doing”), to the pitfalls of the course, and through its matter-of-fact, authoritative instructiveness provides permission for Finch’s dubious actions. That, and almost everyone he runs into on his rise is even more thoroughly dubious than he.


Finch begins in the mailroom, where Mr Twimble (Sammy Smith, who also plays Wally Womper, a traditional double role for the show) announces his “inborn gift for mail” and, holding a status of job security now unthinkable, asserts that, due his certainty about having no point of view or desire to rock the boat, “Whoever the company fires, I will still be here” (so really it ought to be worrying him that, after 25 years, he gets promoted to the Shipping Department).


While Twimble’s a loveable old sort, Finch’s fellow mailroom menial Bud Frump (Anthony “Scooter” Teague), nephew of the boss, decidedly is not, taking up position as our hero’s young nemesis. He’s gleefully despicable in sufficiently requisite ways that Finch’s favour in our eyes is ensured. Twimble announces he will, when promoted, choose his successor “on merit. On merit alone”. “That’s not fair!” exclaims Bud, used to running to his uncle.


JB Biggley: Yes, yes. I know that blood is thicker than water, but Bud Frump is thicker than anything.

Except Bud isn’t – he’s scheming and nefarious, anda damn poop”. In fact, the main difference between him and Finch, besides not having the book, is that his silver spoon prevents him from being ambitious enough to go out and achieve. That, and he’s utterly charmless.


The narrative has a number such structural confusions, such that Finch’s swift rise casts doubt on why others have been so stuck, given their own get-ahead qualities (Finch is distressed at his lack of progress after he has been “working here two full hours” and complains that “I don’t even have my own office yet” after he has, as Rosemary notes, “only been working here two full days”). It’s Bud who is bright enough to blackmail his uncle for a promotion as soon as he spies Hedy LaRue (Maureen Arthur), so why, with such perspicacity, he hasn’t escaped the mailroom sooner? 


It’s as questionable as the circumspect Ovington (Murray Matheson), who tells Finch “So, before you try to take over my job, you’re fired”; why is he stuck where he is, as Head of Advertising, reading the same volume as Finch, particularly since he’s in a position the book expressly warns against (perhaps he’s just bought it)?


The tome’s congenial advice not to linger in the mailroom, that if a gorgeous secretary seems too good to be true it’s because she is, and most saliently, not to get stuck in advertising (“Get a brilliant idea or steal someone else’s”) culminates in Finch appropriating the disaster that is Bud’s idea, but which he brilliantly reworks (“I’m combining greed with sex”). In so doing, he neatly exposes the unflattering kernel of advertising, that it’s not about the quality of the idea but the way it is presented.


This section also features one of the musical’s most memorable songs in the I Believe in You reprise, during which, led by Bud, the executives in the washroom announce they’ve “Got to stop that man, before he stops me”; Fosse’s choreography here was surely an inspiration for the Allied Dunbar ad in the ‘00s (“There may be trouble ahead”).


The picture’s subject matter is as much keyed into sexual politics of the era as the manoeuvring of business, though (and with regard to the latter, it has a similar absurdist coherence to that of Joseph Heller’s take on the military mind-set in Catch 22). It’s understandable, given the piece’s quality – not least that of the songs – that revivals are popular, but How to Succeed at Business Without Really Trying is very much a period piece, and as such the time capsule of the movie may be its ideal, preserved form; it’s very easy to mistake a playful critique of sexism as guilt of the same (because it’s certainly far from prurient in exploring the subject).


The signature song, “A Secretary is Not a Toy”, in which a pre-HR department office employs choreographed arse-pinching, comes after Gatch’s admonitions that “I’ll have to stop reading Playboy” (on making a play for Rosemary). So yes, being a workplace sex pest is treated fairly lightly, but on the other hand it’s far from advocated. Of course, you also have the depiction of the secretarial pool, studiously obsessed with doing their hair and makeup, rather than any proper work, after which a coffee break is announced (“It’s about time!” – the subsequent song Coffee Break was cut from the movie, although it appears on the soundtrack album; it isn’t (whisper it) that good).


Hedy: It is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever did before.

When Hedy arrives, accompanied by erection gags (sunglasses flip up, a cigarette lighter erupts with the force of a flame thrower), she’s the personification of the caricature bubble-brained bimbo in a movie that’s already making a feature of primary colours and cartoon characters. Arthur is sublimely empty-headed in the role, but even from her clueless position she despatches barbs at the less-than-worthy world of the office (“At least in the Copa when I got pinched, I got tipped”), and the gag of sending her to dispatch those impeding Finch’s path (Jeff DeBenning’s Gatch, certainly) is brilliant, up to the point where every man in the building gives her a wide berth.


Rosemary: Lunch?
Finch: Huh?
Rosemary: I said, ‘Lunch?’
Finch: What about Lunch?
Rosemary: I’d love to.

Michele Lee’s Rosemary presents the antithesis of the corporate miasma on one hand, in an environment where the most senior woman is still just a secretary (Miss Jones, an impeccably thunderous portrait of a harridan with a heart of gold from Ruth Kobart). One might argue that Rosemary’s prioritisation of what’s really important – life, love and happiness – gives her a far more admirable footing than one who strives for an equal footing in the inherently patriarchal corporate world, such that it’s actually rather disappointing that she chooses to curl up with Business Week at the end of the day.


However, she does seem to exist firmly to support her man, even if she’s the only one can instantly put Finch (or “Ponty”) off balance. Lee is hugely winning in the role (although I always preferred Kathryn Reynolds’ Smitty), although there’s little in the way of character arc for Rosemary; she’s knowingly maternal and indulgently non-judgemental of “helpless little muffin” Finch’s single-minded quest to reach the top, and forgives him very quickly when she finds him in a compromising position with Hedy (of note too is that some of her songs were cut for the movie, making it even more focused on Finch).


I’ve seen How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying so many times over the years, it’s probably hard for me to treat it with any kind of objectivity. I might suggest the Grand Old Ivy song is a bit of showmanship that, unlike the other tunes, has no narrative content. But it’s still a bit of fun, particularly as Ponty attempts to keep up with JB.


The level of wink-wink cleverness throughout How to Succeed… is consistently engaging, satisfying and canny, from the lucky coincidences (Finch, about to be fired by Wally Womper, Chairman of the World Wide Wicket Company, is reprieved when it is discovered that Wally too started out as window washer, at which Morse indulges the last in a series of to-camera facial tics, in emphasis of the “Would you believe it?” fact – he’s also a masterful close talker throughout) to the not-really sincerity of self-sacrifice (he passes on the mailroom job, suggesting Bud is the better man, making it look like magnanimity but only because he has his sights set higher). Meanwhile the finale, the rousing Brotherhood of Man is actually a paean to justifying incompetence on the grounds of fellow male co-identification. Possibly presciently, it also finishes by showing us how to reach the presidency without really trying.


There have been a fair few solid takes on the bureaucratic minefields of the workplace over the years, from Office Space, to The Hudsucker Proxy, to the not dissimilarly titled and not dissimilarly structured Michael J Fox The Secret of My Success, but none come close to How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying for sheer wit and invention, and great songmanship. After seeing it, you too may come to believe that “A day without a wicket is like a day without sunshine”.






Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…

‘Cos I’m the gringo who always delivers.

American Made (2017)
(SPOILERS) This is definitely more the sort of thing Tom Cruise should be doing, a movie that relies both on his boyish™ charm and at least has pretensions of ever so slightly pushing the envelope of standard multiplex fare, rather than desperately attaching himself to an impersonal franchise (The Mummy) or flailingly attempting to kick start one (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back); remember when Cruise wouldn’t even go near sequels (for about 20 years, The Color of Money aside, and then only the one series)? American Made is still victim to the tendency of his movies to feel superstar-fitted rather than remaining as punchy as they might be on paper (Made’s never quite as satirically sharp as it wants to be), but it at least doesn’t lead its audience by the nose.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

Two hundred thousand pounds, for this outstanding example of British pulchritude and learning.

The Avengers 4.18: The Girl From Auntie
I’ve mentioned that a few of these episodes have changed in my appreciation since I last watched the series, and The Girl from Auntie constitutes a very pronounced uptick. Indeed, I don’t know how I failed to rate highly the estimable Liz Fraser filling in for Diana Rigg – mostly absent, on holiday –for the proceedings (taking a not dissimilar amateur impostor-cum-sidekick role to Fenella Fielding in the earlier The Charmers). I could watch Fraser all day, and it’s only a shame this was her single appearance in the show.

By Jove, the natives are restless tonight.

The Avengers 4.17: Small Game for Big Hunters
I wonder if Death at Bargain Prices’ camping scene, suggestive of an exotic clime but based in a department store, was an inspiration for Small Game For Big Hunters’ more protracted excursion to the African country of Kalaya… in Hertfordshire. Gerry O’Hara, in his second of two episodes for the show again delivers on the atmosphere, making the most of Philip Levene’s teleplay.

Romulan ale should be illegal.

Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)
(SPOILERS) Out of the ST:NG movies, Star Trek: Nemesis seems to provoke the most outrage among fans, the reasons mostly appearing to boil down to continuity and character work. In the case of the former, while I can appreciate the beef, I’m not enough of an aficionado to get too worked up. In the case of the latter, well, the less of the strained inter-relationships between this bunch that make it to the screen, the better (director Stuart Baird reportedly cut more than fifty minutes from the picture, most of it relating to underscoring the crew, leading to a quip by Stewart that while an Actor’s Cut would include the excised footage, a Director’s one would probably be even shorter). Even being largely unswayed by such concerns, though, Nemesis isn’t very good. It wants to hit the same kind of dramatic high notes as The Wrath of Khan (naturally, it’s always bloody Khan) but repeatedly drifts into an out-of-tune dirge.

Old Boggy walks on Lammas Eve.

Jeeves and Wooster 2.5: Kidnapped  (aka The Mysterious Stranger)
Kidnapped continues the saga of Chuffnell Hall. Having said of 2.4 that the best Wodehouse adaptations tend to stick closely to the text, this one is an exception that proves the rule, diverging significantly yet still scoring with its highly preposterous additions.

Jeeves: Tis old boggy. He be abroad tonight. He be heading for the railway station.
Gone are many of the imbroglios involving Stoker and Glossop (the estimable Roger Brierley), including the contesting of the former’s uncle’s will. Also gone, sadly, is the inebriated Brinkley throwing potatoes at Stoker, which surely would have been enormous fun. Instead, we concentrate on Bertie being locked aboard Stoker’s yacht in order to secure his marriage to Pauline (as per the novel), Chuffy tailing Pauline in disguise (so there’s a different/additional reason for Stoker to believe Bertie and she spent the night together, this time at a pub en route to Chufnell Hall) and …

Cally. Help us, Cally. Help Auron.

Blake's 7 3.7: Children of Auron

Roger Parkes goes a considerable way towards redeeming himself for the slop that was Voice from the Past with his second script for the series, and newcomer Andrew Morgan shows promise as a director that never really fulfilled itself in his work on Doctor Who (but was evident in Knights of God, the 1987 TV series featuring Gareth Thomas).

I think we’ve returned to Eden. Surely this is how the World once was in the beginning of time.

1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992)
Ridley Scott’s first historical epic (The Duellists was his first historical, and his first feature, but hardly an epic) is also one of his least remembered films. It bombed at the box office (as did the year’s other attempted cash-ins on the discovery of America, including Superman: The Movie producers the Salkinds’ Christopher Columbus: The Discovery) and met with a less than rapturous response from critics. Such shunning is undeserved, as 1492: Conquest of Paradise is a richer and more thought-provoking experience than both the avowedly lowbrow Gladiator and the re-evaluated-but-still-so-so director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven. It may stand guilty of presenting an overly sympathetic portrait of Columbus, but it isn’t shy about pressing a critical stance on his legacy.

Sanchez: The truth is, that he now presides over a state of chaos, of degradation, and of madness. From the beginning, Columbus proved himself completely incapable of ruling these islands…