How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
I can probably count the musicals I really 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 of Frank 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 seasons 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, and “a 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 ass-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: 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. Examples include 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). And also, 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”.
*Addendum 21/07/22: Obviously, you can’t just “reach” the presidency. You need to be carefully vetted, chosen and have all the right forebears. I guess, even then, maybe someone might slip through…