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…

Garage freak? Jesus. What kind of a crazy fucking story is this?

All the President’s Men (1976)
It’s fairly routine to find that films lavished with awards ceremony attention really aren’t all that. So many factors go into lining them up, including studio politics, publicity and fashion, that the true gems are often left out in the cold. On some occasions all the attention is thoroughly deserved, however. All the President’s Men lost out to Rocky for Best Picture Oscar; an uplifting crowd-pleaser beat an unrepentantly low key, densely plotted and talky political thriller. But Alan J. Pakula’s film had already won the major victory; it turned a literate, uncompromising account of a resolutely unsexy and over-exposed news story into a huge hit. And even more, it commanded the respect of its potentially fiercest (and if roused most venomous) critics; journalists themselves. All the President’s Men is a masterpiece and with every passing year it looks more and more like a paean to a bygone age, one where the freedom of the press was assumed rather than a…

You’re the Compliance Officer. It’s your call.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)
(SPOILERS) The mealy-mouthed title speaks volumes about the uncertainty with which Tom Clancy’s best-known character has been rebooted. Paramount has a franchise that has made a lot of money, based on a deeply conservative, bookish CIA analyst (well, he starts out that way). How do you reconfigure him for a 21st century world (even though he already has been, back in 2003) where everything he stands for is pretty much a dirty word? The answer, it seems, is to go for an all-purpose sub-James Bond plan to bring American to its knees, with Ryan as a fresh (-ish) recruit (you know, like Casino Royale!) and surprising handiness in a fight. Yes, Jack is still a smart guy (and also now, a bit, -alec), adept at, well, analysing, but to survive in the modern franchise sewer he needs to be more than that. He needs to kick arse. And wear a hoodie. This confusion, inability to coax a series into being what it’s supposed to be, might explain the sour response to its …

Oh look, there’s Colonel Mortimer, riding down the street on a dinosaur!

One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing (1975)
(SPOILERS) There’s no getting round the dinosaur skeleton in the room here: yellow face. From the illustrious writer-director team who brought us Mary Poppins, no less. Disney’s cheerfully racist family movie belongs to a bygone era, but appreciating its merits doesn’t necessarily requires one to subscribe to the Bernard Manning school of ethnic sensitivity.

I’m not going to defend the choice, but, if you can get past that, and that may well be a big if, particularly Bernard Bresslaw’s Fan Choy (if anything’s an unwelcome reminder of the Carry Ons lesser qualities, it’s Bresslaw and Joan Sims) there’s much to enjoy. For starters, there’s two-time Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner Ustinov (as mastermind Hnup Wan), funny in whatever he does (and the only Poirot worth his salt), eternally berating his insubordinate subordinate Clive Revill (as Quon).

This is a movie where, even though its crude cultural stereotyping is writ large, the dialogue frequen…

It's not an exact science, this business.

The Mummy (2017)
(SPOILERS) A pinch of salt is usually needed when reports of a blockbuster’s rep as great or disastrous start singing from the same song sheet, as more often than not, they’re somewhere in between. A week ago, Wonder Woman was being hailed as some kind of miracle (or wonder), when really, it’s just another decent-but-formulaic superhero movie. This week, there have been post-mortems up the wazoo over The Mummy’s less-than-remarkable opening gross (which have a predictably US-centric flavour; it’s still the biggest global figure for a Tom Cruise movie). Is The Mummy as terrible as has been made out? No, of course not. It isn’t particularly good, but that doesn’t make it significantly worse than any dozen or so mediocre blockbusters you’d care to pick that have been lavished with far less opprobrium.

The thinking behind the savaging is understandable, though. There’s so much hubris on display here, it’s ridiculous, from Universal assuming they can fashion a Dark Universe …

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989)
(SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins. Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon. 

It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy (Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Big Lebowski, “got it” on fi…

The head is missing... and... he's the wrong age.

Twin Peaks 3.7: There’s a body all right.
First things first: my suggestion that everyone’s favourite diminutive hitman, Ike “The Spike” Stadtler, had been hired by the Mitchum brothers was clearly erroneous in the extreme, although the logistics of how evil Coop had the contingency plan in place to off Lorraine and Dougie-Coop remains a little unclear right now. As is how he was banged up with the apparent foresight to have on hand ready blackmail tools to ensure the warden would get him out (and why did he wait so long about it, if he could do it off the bat?)


Launching right in with no preamble seems appropriate for his episode, since its chock-a-block with exposition and (linear) progression, almost an icy blast of what settles for reality in Twin Peaks after most of what has gone before this season, the odd arm-tree aside. Which might please James Dyer, who in the latest Empire “The Debate”, took the antagonistic stance to the show coming back and dismissed it as “gibbering nonsen…

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…

I have a problem with my liver.

Twin Peaks 3.6 Don’t die
The season resumes form with the sixth episode, and incongruity abounds – as much as anything in Twin Peaks is any more or less incongruous than anything else – from the most endearing to the most alarming. The latter of which is up there with the very nastiest nastiness witnessed in a David Lynch joint in the form of butcher for hire Ike “The Spike” Stadtler (Christophe Zajac-Denek), the most alarming killer dwarf since Donald Sutherland led himself on a wild goose chase around Venice in Don’t Look Now.


Lynch’s use of music in Don’t die is both eclectic and exemplary. He concludes with Sharon von Etten crooning Tarifa over the credits, but it’s Ike going on a bloody frenzy to the innocuous and innocent sound of BluntedBeatz’ “I AM” Oldschool HipHop Beat that really sets the episode on edge. This is Lynch at his most visceral, immediate and palpably perturbing. You hear it before you see it, the screams of the first victim in Lorraine’s office, before the pint-…

I will beat you like a Cherokee drum.

Fast & Furious 8 aka The Fate of the Furious (2017)
(SPOILERS) Fun. Brio. That’s what any director needs to bring a sense of to the ever more absurd Fast & Furious franchise at minimum. Action chops are definitely up there, but paramount is an active affinity with how plain silly the series is. And it’s a quality F Gary Gray doesn’t really have, or if he does, he’s never shown it, previously or here. Even his action leaves something to be desired (his The Italian Job remake is far superior in that regard). Which isn’t to suggest there isn’t fun to be had from Fast & Furious 8/The Fate of the Furious, but it’s much more sporadic and performance-based than the previous outing, lacking the unbridled gusto James Wan brought to Furious 7.

But maybe I’m wrong about this. While I’ve seen every instalment in the franchise (only the once, mind) I haven’t followed it avidly in order (1, 4, 5, 2, 3, 6, 7, 8, I think, only the first and last two at the cinema), although, it isn’t as if t…