The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit (1956), or We’re All The Same

15 08 2009

You know, looking back, the 50s really sucked. We had some good things come out of it, without a doubt, but was it worth having to go through ALL the 50s just to get to it. Besides rock and roll and the birth of schlock horror genre, I think we all could have done without the decade that brought us conformity and Batman in space. In my review of Revolutionary Road, I mentioned the idea that the suburbs might have been slowly killing the Wheelers by making them choose between their dreams and their stability and social standing. That idea isn’t exactly new; even in the 50s, some few intellectuals were acutely aware of the cage their safe white life was doing to them. Sloan Wilson was one of those intellectuals, and in his own time he wrote The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, a condemnation of the corporate slave and his self-imposed exile from real life. The work was very influential and became a rallying cry in its time for emancipation from the fabricated American Dream. It also became the subject of a film shot during the height of the era of the disenfranchised business class, 1956. And while it’s not as good as the novel or its modern-day counterpart, Revolutionary Road, it is nevertheless a good movie with something to say.

It revolves around a businessman named Tom Rath in 1955. He is 33, a veteran of both the European and Pacific theaters in WWII (somehow), and has a tumultuous home life where his kids are too busy watching TV to care about him and his wife is too estranged from him since the war to comfort him. It’s a sad state of affairs he lives in while the organization he works for pays too little for him to even lose himself in creature comforts. We are taken to Tom’s past through flashbacks and we are shown his dreadful experiences in war as well as his steamy wartime affair, which might be the very thing that changed him and his marriage. We are also taken to his present, where he is offered a public relations job where he can excel. Things are going good, but he feels even more aloof from his family after he takes the job, and is forced to decide if the American Dream is worth the emotional distance between you and the ones you love. Can Tom get his head back in the game of life and turn himself around?

This is a movie that I feel to be somewhat of an epochal classic. At the time, many people felt that this was THE movie of their generation, the film that gave them a voice and a face. Now that time has passed, we can look more objectively on it to see that it was a good film, but not without its faults. The score by Bernard Herrmann is straight-up 50s gold, the performances were good, and the message of the film was both important and influential for a generation.

On the other hand, issues do arise. Gregory Peck is obviously not putting 100% into this role. He must have been upset that his previous outing, The Purple Plain, didn’t perform. At all, really. But whatever it is, he seems distracted and slightly out of his role. He is Tom in some key moments, like the flashbacks, but I wasn’t terribly impressed with him in many of the 50s scenes, where he seemed less pained and more, well, bored with the project. Peck’s normal white-knuckled quiet frustration is replaced with something else, something not appropriate, and it put me off at times. Also, two theaters of WWII? Really? What an unnecessary and random thing to add! It not only seems like a ploy to make the character needlessly heroic, but it only adds logical questions that this movie doesn’t need! And the dialog can be a little more than uninspired at times. Just watch the clip above to see what I mean. “What is Public Relations?” HUH? Is that a real question a grown man would ask another grown man?

But I digress. There’s a lot to enjoy, too. It’s a window into a bygone age. The white businessman, while still extremely privileged, was nevertheless putting himself in a trap of his own bland and practical design. And it’s fascinating to watch Peck, as if awoken from a happy dream, interacting with people who want the same things he does, just in a more mindless and compulsive way. And watching a nuclear family now seems both saddening and relieving. While the forced happiness of the era was a despicable sham that needed a good whack to the teeth, there is something undeniably comforting about the Leave It To Beaver ideal of the swell Mom and Pop, the precocious kids, and the rarely-seen-but-much-beloved family pet snuggled away safely in the suburbs.The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit captures the dichotomy perfectly, and it’s again interesting to note that this was made at the height of this very trend.

With standout performances from stars Jennifer Jones and Lee J. Cobb, it’s easy to see why this was such a beloved movie for so many. It has a lot going for it, including insight, a very important commodity in the age of blind consumerism. It’s not perfect, certainly, but time has been pretty good to this film, all things considered, and if anyone is actually reading these reviews for older movies, you’ll have an appreciation both historically and aesthetically for Tom Rath’s plight. As I said, it’s no Revolutionary Road, but that’s a tough act for anyone to follow (or in this case, predate). I give The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit 7 1/2 mysterious Public Relations jobs out of 10.

Tomorrow I’ll watch a movie, but I really don’t know what yet. Any suggestions? I’m dying to hear them!!!

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