the film snob

A cyberspace journal about my experiences as an NYU film school grad student, reviews of current and classic films, film and TV news, and the rants and raves of an admitted (and unapologetic) film snob.

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Esse Quam Videri -- To be, rather than to appear

Friday, May 05, 2006

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit

For the past year or so, I have been writing film and TV reviews at Here are synopsis' and links to those reviews.

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is an adult film. No, not that sort of adult film, of course. The Man in a Gray Flannel Suit is a film saturated with the sort of grown-up drama and mature themes—financial hardship, keeping up with the Jones’, a mid-life crisis, adultery, illegitimate children, betrayal, deception, friendly-fire death, post-traumatic stress disorder, the influence of television on children—that make for a story of immense seriousness. All the more staggering when one considers that it is the product of squeaky clean 1950's America.

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit has all the components of a Leave it to Beaver episode: the beautiful wife cooking her husband’s dinner while clad in her best dress, the funny children, the fine job in the city, the perfect house, even the cute family mutt. But it dares to pull back the cinematic veneer, even while it clothes itself in it, inverting the narrative to show what those who grew up in the ‘50s or any decade already know—life, no matter when or where you live, is never easy, and the hard choices, no matter who you are, are always riddled with practical and ethical pitfalls.

Tom Rath (Gregory Peck) is the quintessential everyman. While tall, dark and handsome (he is Gregory Peck, after all), he is played so that Tom Rath is the sort of man who blends easily into a crowd, who rarely attracts attention, and who, when asked, cannot even answer what is the most significant thing about him. He lives in a United States that has emerged from the horrors of World War II as an economic juggernaut, but also an emotional cripple.

Tom is employed in a job which pays little but lends adequate security. It seems to provide enough for he, his wife Betsy (Jennifer Jones), and their three children, but just barely. They live teetering on the edge of financial ruin. At least that is how Betsy sees it. She hates her husband’s job, hates the house in which they live, and admits that she has become embarrassed of her inert and stagnant husband – a negative trait, she claims, that was never there before he went into the war.

The war figures prominently in this film. Like many movies of the period, it is obsessed with examining the character and psychology of the returning veterans. [NOTE: see 1946’s The Best Years of our Lives for the ultimate film of this variety.] The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit visits Tom’s European and Pacific theater memories through a series of extended flashbacks, which are executed with extremely modern sensibilities and are exceptionally dramatic and spectacularly staged. Trapped within these memories is Tom Rath’s darker, secretive side: the close-quarter killing of more men than he can count; an affair with an Italian girl; an illegitimate child. His family knows none of this. He, like most veterans of the WWII, never talks about it. But he knows these events have reshaped him.

It is obvious that Tom is a moral and virtuous man who, as we have seen in the flashbacks, has shown more than his fair share of courage and hard work. Yet the war has scared him, and he no longer yearns for prosperity and affluence. He yearns now for peace and quiet. Ten years later, Tom is satisfied where he is. But Betsy wants the American Dream she sees blooming around her, though she is not quite conscious of the hard work, the superficiality, and the sacrifice required to get it. Tom decides that perhaps his wife is right, if only for her and the children’s sake, though he fears the stress and complications of change. When a friend on the commuter train tells him of a position within his company, a fictional television conglomerate, Tom decides to apply. His straight-laced candor and authenticity endear him to the company’s president, even though his innate goodness bristles at the dog-eat-dog politics of the corporate game. He is hired as an assistant and put to writing a major speech for his boss on the social evils of mental illness.

It isn’t long before the company life begins to twist Tom into a company man. He soon struggles to live a balanced life that places his family on an equal footing with his career. Just as the corporate television world is destroying their father’s life, the film also shows the hypnotic and often debilitating effect of the entertainment medium on children. Oblivious to the world, the children are glued to their flickering, violent, black and white westerns which they then reenact at the kitchen table, “killing” each other with toy pistols.

The film goes to great (and protracted) lengths to draw dramatic parallels between Tom and his workaholic boss, Ralph Hopkins (Fredrick March), a decent man whose work is his life and who no longer even knows his wife and children. He has gained the world, but lost his soul. Tom, the film postulates, is on his way to becoming just like him. Unless he can break away and set his priorities in order, he is in danger of becoming just another (gray flannel) suit.

To read the full review, click here.


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