Weekend Film Recommendation: How to Succeed in Business (Without Really Trying)

An incisive take on the life of corporate suits and their sexy secretaries in 1960s Manhattan, with Robert Morse as the star. No, it’s not Mad Men, but 1967’s toe-tapping, uplifting and funny “How to Succeed in Business (Without Really Trying)”.

Based on the smash Broadway hit, the heart of the film is of course the music. The songwriter is the great Frank Loesser, and some of his most enjoyable pieces are rendered with energy and talent by the cast (“Brotherhood of Man”, “The Company Way”, “I Believe in You”). Bob Fosse’s choreography is consistently creative and the colourful costumes by Micheline enliven every scene.

The agreeably silly script tells the story of an ambitious window washer named J. Pierpont Finch (Robert Morse, whose bravura performance deserved an Oscar nomination) who climbs the corporate ladder with shocking speed, aided by the titular self-help book. He is pursued by Rosemary Pilkington (Cutely played by Michelle Lee), who is every bit as ambitious in love as he is in work. Many veterans of the stage production (including Rudy Vallee) contribute their comic and musical gifts.

David Swift, famous as a Disney animator and TV writer/director, seems an unlikely writer/producer/director for this film. In some ways, one could say it was an easy job because the choreography and cast had mostly been worked out already on Broadway. But on the other hand, adapting a beloved Broadway show to the screen is a big risk for a director because fans of the stage version can get upset at the inevitable changes in the film version. Here they were apparently delighted along with the rest of the movie-going population, so kudos to Swift for a smooth translation of play to screen, and congratulations on what was the high mark of his career as a film maker.

I am embedding one of my favorite numbers from the movie because it always picked me up when I was a lowly graduate student feeling stomped on and disrespected in a really demanding doctoral programme. Enjoy.

Footnote: There are two continuity goofs in the opening minutes of the film. Finch pays for his newspaper but grabs the self-help book impulsively without paying for it and the guy running the booth doesn’t react. A few moments later, when he starts from the roof down on the window washing platform, there is another window washer working the other side. But that guy is played by a different actor by the time Finch has descended to the window. Yes…noticing these things means I have seen this movie perhaps too many times. But. Can’t. Stop. Re-Watching. So. So. Entertaining.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

7 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: How to Succeed in Business (Without Really Trying)”

  1. What a wonderful movie from a wonderful play. I’ve been a part of three runs of HtSiBWRT so far, and I’d jump at the opportunity to do another.

    Thanks for the recommendation — and if you get a chance to see a stage production with an orchestra, go. It’s a different experience entirely.

  2. Dennis — how wonderful, well done! Do you mind revealing what role you played in the productions (whether it was on stage or off).

    1. I was in the pit — tenor trombone for one, bass trombone in another. I was the music director for the third. I had the most fun playing the bass trombone book. The bass line in “Gotta stop that man” is just a lot of fun to play.

  3. I love this movie too. It’s just a shame they couldn’t find room for “I’d Be Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm,” Rosemary’s big number.

    And have you ever read the original book? As the title suggests, it’s a hilarious spoof, and Ponty in the play and movie does a number of things that the book suggests.

    1. “As he looks through me, right through me…waiting to say Good evening dear, I’m pregnant, what’s new with you, from downtown?”

      Great song indeed. Haven’t read the book, appreciate the suggestion.

  4. Apparently, this is what boyish actors who have been a huge hit with young audiences do next. The first Broadway revival of “How to Succeed” starred Ferris Buehler, the most recent revival, Harry Potter.

    It isn’t Mad Men, but the more interesting question is whether today’s Finches still play it the company way. Is corporation conformity, like the cigarettes, Scotch, and sexism of Mad Men, a quaint and unhealthy relic of a half-century ago? Or is it alive and well? (FWIW, I had a blog post about this a while ago,here.)

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