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The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit: Fox Studio Classics

It's freeze-dried in its bygone milieu, and even its moments of drama and revelation rarely rise above the intensity of televised golf. Released in 1956, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is an unctuous morality tale about an Organization Man struggling between his own sense of what's right and his status within the "chromium jungle." This adaptation of Sloan Wilson's bestselling urban-pop novel aims for the straight, white pocket square of a postwar America adjusting to a new social rule book.

Today, during its dragged-out 153 minutes, we can relate to its examination of integrity-vs.-paycheck, the trade-off between power and personal contentment, or the often mutually exclusive definitions of success. But the film is so reductive, so often substitutes subtlety with theatrical gravitas, and so transparently stacks the deck in favor of a preordained outcome that it threatens to become a buttoned-down Reefer Madness for the corner-office set. Fifty years on, its chief value is as a cultural self-portrait, a detailed museum exhibit of 1950s WASP America from hat styles to platitudes.

Gregory Peck plays Tom Rath, a decent family man tempted by the "rat race" toward becoming a "cheap, slippery yes-man" in a Madison Avenue PR office. He's helped by a strong supporting cast (minus one big exception, which I'll get to shortly), a Bernard Herrmann score, and high-gloss production values.

During the climax of World War II, Tom was a take-action leader of men, the captain of an elite squad of paratroopers. He killed enemy soldiers face-to-face and accidentally gutted open his best friend with a hand grenade. Via flashback, we see that while in Rome he fell in love with beautiful Maria (Marisa Pavan). Just before the war ends and Tom gets sent back home to his wife, Betsy (Jennifer Jones), Maria tells him that she's pregnant. Now ten years later, Tom in his suburban Westport, Conn. home is a stolid yet ambitionless family man with three kids, a busted refrigerator, and a status-conscious wife scraping at him to get the balls to move up the ladder and provide her with a bigger, better house. After impressing the president of a Manhattan television network (Fredric March) with his humble, straight-arrow honesty, he finds that his new job has moved him from one battlefield to another. On this one, though, it's harder to tell who's shooting at you, or why.

Subplots thicken like quicksand. Tom must appeal to a small-town judge (Lee J. Cobb) to keep a weasely conniver (Joseph Sweeney) from stealing a family inheritance. March's powerful network president is estranged from his upper-crust wife (Ann Harding) and loose-living daughter (Gigi Perreau). The boss sees in Tom a surrogate for the son he lost in the war. And when one of the men from Tom's outfit during the war (Keenan Wynn), now an elevator operator in the highrise where Tom works, tells him that there's a ten-year-old boy in Rome who needs his help, Tom's past life collides with his current one. Telling Betsy about Maria propels the final act, forcing (too neatly) his decision about joining his boss — who's now questioning his own life choices — on a high-profile business junket.

Although a prestige project taken from a book everyone had on their coffee tables, this passionless and overlong social parable didn't earn much critical or commercial affection in its day. Not a single Oscar nom in the year of The Searchers, Giant, The Ten Commandments, and The King and I, to name a few. Screenwriter Nunnally Johnson had adapted The Grapes of Wrath for John Ford 16 years earlier. This time he's also the flat and undynamic director. He appears to be under orders from Darryl F. Zanuck to make an advertisement for CinemaScope, with deep-focus w-i-d-e-s-c-r-e-e-n compositions as meticulously staged as dioramas at the natural history museum.

Peck is appealing even if he plays only within the box where his familiar low-key strengths were stored. Most of the second-tier actors put in good work. (Look for an uncredited DeForest Kelley as an army doctor whose line, "He's dead, Captain," predates his Star Trek role by ten years.) The exception is Jennifer Jones, who appears to invoke Liz Taylor by playing in a stage melodrama while everyone else is in a domestic novel. Peck's relationship with Pavan is more convincing than his marriage to Jones. Tom and Betsy never exist as people, just blanks filled in for message-making that's slightly more sophisticated than the Sex Ed and social behavior classroom films of the day.

The only clever moments involve Tom's kids, who embody the film's sidelong commentary on a creeping menace of the times: the first Television Generation, desensitized and in the thrall of that little black-and-white screen in the living room. As they ignore their pop, then shoot each other bang-bang to die dramatically at the breakfast table, we sense a fearful forewarning of the generation that's going to come of age in the 1960s.

*          *          *

This title makes a mediocre addition to the Fox Studio Classics line, but there's no faulting the quality of this presentation. The result of a first-class restoration, the print is a beauty and the transfer flawless. Definition, clarity, Technicolor: all excellent. The CinemaScope spread comes through as letterboxed 2.35:1 (the box says 2.55:1). Audio is a strong and clean DD 4.0 that does well by Bernard Herrmann's score.

The disc's best extras are the film's trailer, newsreel footage of its premiere, a restoration comparison, and a brief stills gallery.

The commentary track by James Monaco of readfilm.com is, honestly, one of the poorest on the shelves. Starting off by stating "My main qualification for doing this commentary is that I'm still alive," afterward he merely throws in make-do narration, bullet-point obviousness, and mundane descriptions of period cars, washing machines, men's hats and shirt collars, and interior design. He breaks the frequent dead air with digressions about his father and uncles, some rather tasteless use of fatality numbers from the Iraq war (as of spring '05), and observations such as "That machine is a typewriter."

Finally, the disc front-loads a loud, obnoxious anti-piracy ad that's unwelcome, unnecessary, and insulting. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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