How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967)

Part two of my three-part series of reviewing Mad Men-related films concerns How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, another adaptation of a 60s stage musical. While not referenced directly in the TV show, the closer of the most recent episode (spoilers!) sparked plentiful reminiscing about actor Robert Morse’s previously most famous role, which happens to be the lead in How to Succeed.

Like the previous entry in my “series”, the film is a satire, but one with a far more worthy target than rock’n’roll: business culture. Morse plays a lowly window washer who, on his way to work, “obtains” (we never really see him pay for it) a book with the title of the film. Taking advice from the book, young Ponty Finch rises the corporate ladder in record time, to the chagrin of his harder-working and longer-employed colleagues.

Said advice is never fully spelled out for the audience. What glimpses we get of the book’s content are quite similar to the “How to” Disney shorts featuring Goofy. There’s even a disembodied voice that occasionally seems to react directly to what Ponty is doing. The comparison is apt, since How to Succeed feels a bit like a live-action cartoon. The credit sequence even begins with an animated sun. Ponty enters his future workplace by a window in plain sight, with no one ever asking him what he’s doing, and people just freeze while he continues reading his book to figure out what’s next. The sets are simple, bright and colourful, as are the costumes. The dance choreography, partially based on that done by Bob Fosse for the original musical, is highly stylised, too.

In keeping with the satirical tone of the movie, there aren’t really any supporting characters, only stereotypes. The secretaries are gossipy, the younger executives are sycophantic yes-men, the boss has an affair, and said mistress is as dumb as a brick. Merit doesn’t come into play other than as part of a bromide. It’s simply never shown whether any of these people are any good at their job, except with the mistress, who was hired for other reasons. That’s not the point. What Ponty shows the audience is that competence has no bearing on your career. Instead, it’s all about the navigation of office politics and using your knowledge of people’s personal lives to your advantage. Some of this is realistic, like taking an unreliable co-worker’s place and subtly bad-mouthing him while the latter’s on an unsanctioned smoke break, or pretending to have been working all night to impress the boss, while other tricks are more far-fetched (like following a dangerous rival and finding out that he went to a university the boss abhors), though no less entertaining to watch.

Amazingly, Ponty remains likeable throughout the movie despite the often underhanded and always entitled ways his ambition comes to the fore. This is partly a testament to Morse’s performance, but also thanks to the fact that none of the people Ponty dispatches on his way to the top can claim to not deserve it. They’re farcical to begin with, so you can’t really blame Ponty for taking out a serial groper, an adulterer or a beneficiary of nepotism. The only guy who catches on from the beginning what Ponty is doing is someone who’d also used the book to get ahead, so putting one over him is fair game and a demonstration of Ponty’s ability to think on his feet.

Plus, Ponty didn’t create the system that rewards appearances, style and flattery over hard work and creativity, he’s merely taking advantage of people’s complacency and willingness to be suckered. And in fact it’s not true that Ponty gets where he gets to “without really trying”: he does put work in gathering information and building relationships, just not the work he’s supposed to be doing as far as “the company way” is concerned, which would result in him still being in the mailroom after 25 years.

I haven’t mentioned the romance angle yet because even the film treats it as a bit of an afterthought. Ponty and a secretary fall in love basically at first sight, though Ponty needs to be kissed by another woman before he realises it (in song form, naturally). It’s not completely sweet either, since the secretary initially judges and underestimates Ponty based on his looks and never gets called out for the fact that he turns out to be far less help- and clueless and noble than he really is. The whole thing integrates fairly well into the rest of story because it shares the cynicism that lies at the biting heart of the movie. A profession of trust in the form of a love song to Ponty isn’t received as a romantic gesture, but as inspiration for his next bit of hucksterism. A scene that follows might be interpreted as Ponty reminding himself of his girlfriend’s love in a different movie, but is really a way for him to psych himself up, unsettle his rivals, and remind himself of a showy advertising pitch that literally ends with a giant picture of Ponty’s head.

“Mediocrity is not a mortal sin”, the film’s final big song suggests to the chairmain of the company’s board, but it’s still a continued issue I have with musicals that the songs often aren’t particularly memorable. I don’t think I can say that about How to Succeed, with lovely music and clever lyrics by Frank Loesser of Guys and Dolls fame. Not all the songs are great (though quite a few are), but none are superfluous or melodical wallpaper, and they’re all interestingly staged by director David Swift, who also adapted the story for the screen. In short, the movie is a triumph, and I thank Mad Men for introducing it to me in a roundabout way.

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