It had to happen. In that populist 1950s culture of men in grey flannel suits following patterns of upper-middle class ascension and/or the women yearning for the best of everything, someone was going to take the next logical step: turn the paranoia and American dream angst into a musical. And, boy, did they! If ya don’t believe me, check out the new Blu-Ray of 1967’s HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING, now available in a limited edition from the CEOs at Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.
Debuting in 1962, the Broadway production of HOW TO SUCCEED became a star-making smash hit with audiences and critics alike. Better yet, it became one of only eight musicals to win a deserved Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The brilliant score by Frank Loesser and book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert achieved the seemingly impossible: creating a likeable, song-filled, toe-tapping universe surrounding the human shite that decides how we look, dress, talk and smell (it was actually based on Shepherd Meade’s 1951 satiric volume of the same name, subtitled A Dastard’s Guide to Fame and Fortune). Certainly one of the snarkiest musicals ever, SUCCEED succeeds on so many levels; it was obvious that a movie deal would soon be in the works.
The plot revolves around an over-achieving take-no-prisoners go-getter, J. Pierrepont Finch, who, after finding the title book at a subway newsstand, quickly rises from window washer to young executive at a top super-mega-colossal Manhattan firm known as World Wide Widgets (the first prophetic use of the letters “WWW”).
The scenario, like Finch, offers no solace to the myriads of wounded victims, ripping the masks off every ass-kissing, back-stabbing, toadying coworker, skank and relative employed at even a marginally sized company that anyone has ever had the misfortune to share adjoining cubicles with (believe me, I speak from experience).
The songs, as indicated, are terrific – each one a masterpiece that, once exposed to, you won’t be able to stop humming. I used to apply each ditty to the matching staff member in my office (“hmm-hmm-hmm, the company way…”). It made the stress so much easier.
The show had legs, not only spreading out into a gazillion worldwide road companies, but joining a mini-genre of cynical “big biz” theater/movie ancestors/spinoffs, including Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, The Apartment, Lover Come Back, and, the most unknown work of genius ever How Now, Dow Jones (check the credits, you’ll plotz).
UA, which scored big with The Apartment, eventually won the film optioning stakes (the Mirisch Company paying a then unheard-of $1M for the picture rights), immediately began planning the transition to the screen. The backstage politics involved in that morphing were nearly as hostile as the inappropriate display that had theatergoers laughing (albeit sometimes uncomfortably) in the aisles.
In 1964, Tony Curtis campaigned vigorously to play Finch; the underrated actor surmising he could speak the sensational lyrics a la Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady. The idea of Sidney Falco in HOW TO SUCCEED is indeed an enticing one (in the Broadway version, the Pierrepont Finch character is way darker, and more ruthless). Alas, by the early/mid-1960s, Curtis’ marquee value had waned, and United Artists told 39-year-old he was too long in the tooth to play the energetic 20-something. Immediately, they pursued Dick Van Dyke (then also 39). Van Dyke nixed the part for the identical reason UA trounced Curtis.
Hollywood being Hollywood, no one naturally thought of casting the ultimate Finch, its Broadway personification Robert Morse. Morse had previously done some TV and a couple of movies, and had just been signed by MGM. His bravura turn as Finch had also won him a Tony Award. “Hey, why not use him?” finally cried some wag at The Mirisch Co. Duh. Like casting followed suit, and soon the majority of the original Broadway roster caught a jet for the West Coast.
The transition still wasn’t without bumps – and weird ones. The outrageous Coffee Break number was scratched from the final cut, although the hilarious preamble to it remains (you’re expecting a full-fledged ensemble of lady typists and junior execs to converge upon the screen, but are met only by a guy wheeling in a beverage and danish cart). More bizarre was the omission of all the Michele Lee character’s songs. As compensation, she was given Morse’s signature tune I Believe in You; he, in turn, got to perform the piece later on in a washroom reprise.
The reason UA cited was the playing down of musicals, which were not as popular as they had once been. Odd, since West Side Story, A Hard Day’s Night, Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady, and The Sound of Music had racked up international grosses of close to a billion dollars (the first two being UA titles).
But, again, who can explain the workings of a Hollywood mind?
What remains on the screen is a firecracker of laughs (many brutal), fantastic music (so many memorable songs, it’s hard to pin down a favorite; I’m torn between Company Way and Been a Long Day — the second malevolent, of the two versions performed by the class-conscious cast) and marvelous performances. Morse and Lee (who made her big screen debut in SUCCEED) are perfect. But we can’t NOT mention the splendid participation of the awesome supporting cast, particularly Rudy Vallee, Maureen Arthur, Anthony Teague, John Myhers, Carol Worthington, Ruth Kobart, Jeff DeBanning and Murray Matheson. That said, the unsung-singing hero of SUCCEED is the amazing Sammy Smith, who perfectly essays the dual roles of meek mail room head Twimble AND the company founder Wally Womper (originally, I never knew until the credits, even taking into account the lousy toupee).
Our retro love affair with the 1960s makes SUCCEED more engaging as ever. Several years ago, a Broadway revival starring Daniel Radcliffe wowed audiences once again. Cleverly, it was hyped as “Mad Men – the Musical!” A not so deceptive tag (just ask the wary young ladies in the show as they harmonize “A Secretary is Not a Toy”). Furthermore, in a brilliant casting in-joke decision, the groundbreaking award-winning AMC series cast Morse in a recurring role as one of Sterling Cooper & Partners’ top execs.
David Swift, who directed a non-musical look at big business (1964’s very funny Good Neighbor Sam), moves his cast through the proceedings with verve and panache. The camerawork by the great Burnett Guffey is top-notch, utilizing the decade’s pop colors in a Panavision galaxy, reminiscent of Princess phones, fluorescent ad signs and the New York World’s Fair mod imagery.
The Twilight Time Blu-Ray is a revelation. This fresh transfer looks as if it was shot yesterday, featuring colors that seem to burst off the screen with 1080p crystal clear visuals. Unlike the previous 2000 MGM DVD, which was in compromised scope, this rendition is in full 2.35:1 Panavision. Equally relevant is that all-important audio; the old DVD was mono; Twilight Time presents SUCCEED in spectacular 5.1 stereo-surround (it truly sounds as if one is in a first-run theater). For SUCCEED‘s legions of fans (like moi), there’s the option of listening to the matchless score as an IST; furthermore, there are several short documentaries, one with Morse, and another with Lee. Plus the theatrical trailer.
One of the finest musicals ever made, HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS finally conquers the home entertainment arena via this must-have platter. But hurry, it’s a limited run, and once they’re gone…
One final note: The bloviating, blow-hard, inept, physically unfit, adulterous womanizing, golf-fanatical New York head of WWW – the creep who is lured into a reality-type game show production is named Biggley.
HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 DTS-HD MA. Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios. CAT # TWILIGHT267-BR. SRP: $29.95.