Big Business With a Broadway Beat: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967), written and directed by David Swift

Michael van den Bos | May 2012

Executive backstabbing, insidious office politics and climbing the corporate ladder by way of cheeky chicanery has never been made more fun than in the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967). Based on the 1961 Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway show, featuring music and lyrics by Frank Loesser (Guys and Dolls), the film version—produced, written and directed by David Swift (The Parent Trap [1961])—is an exuberant and visually stylized farce that turns the song-and-dance of corporate ambition into a literal song and dance.

J. Pierrepont Finch (Robert Morse) is a New York City window washer who dreams of becoming a big shot executive in the World Wide Wicket Company.  With guidance from a self-help book—How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying—Finch manages to finagle a job in the company’s mailroom. From this lowly position, he launches his meteoric corporate rise by using cunning charm, devious flattery and ingenious spin control to manipulate the decision makers who could advance his career.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying possesses an infectious bounce and laser-sharp comic timing; it overflows with wild sight gags credited to noted American cartoonist Virgil Partch. I suspect, however, that director Frank Tashlin (a former Warner Brothers cartoon director) inspired the wacky gags, because they strongly evoke his style of visual humour as featured in the Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis comedies he also directed. The look of the movie is equally buoyant, with its splashy palette of pastel colours. The colour design is credited to Mary Blair, a brilliant Disney artist whose bold, whimsical style inspired the look of Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan.

The cast is superb and sprightly. Robert Morse as Finch is a whirlwind of vitality as he spins to the top of the corporate carousel. He graces his actions with delightful comic inflections and he conveys surprising sympathy for a character who is the ultimate opportunist.  Rudy Vallee—the former 1920s “Vagabond Lover” crooner—is equally hilarious as the unsuspecting company president J.B. Biggley, while Michele Lee as Finch’s girlfriend gives the movie a sweet, no-nonsense humanity. Business features two outrageous and outstanding supporting performances: both Anthony Teague as Bud Frump, Finch’s office rival, and Maureen Arthur as Hedy LaRue, the voluptuous and vacuous mistress of J.B. Biggley, contribute to the many zany pleasures in the movie.

Frank Loesser’s bright and satirical songs are nicely integrated with the story. The standout tunes are the wickedly funny ode to towing the company line, “The Company Way”; the gorgeous “I Believe in You”; and the delusional anthem of the Old Boy’s Network, “The Brotherhood of Man”. The staging of the musical numbers is imaginative, featuring work based on the original stage choreography by the brilliant Bob Fosse. His signature jazzy style is most evident in the snappy musical number, “A Secretary is Not a Toy” —which is just one giddy example of this movie’s sardonic stab at authentic Mad Men-era political incorrectness.