Savage satire and show tunes mix remarkably well in How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying

Savage satire and show tunes mix remarkably well in How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The Internship inspires us to reflect on some of our favorite workplace comedies.

How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying (1967)
Adapted from a hit musical that was in turn adapted from a best-selling satirical book, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying embodies its smartass title in more ways than one. (Does anyone believe that Hollywood, which simply tosses viewers whatever properties they’ve enjoyed in other media, is “really trying”?) But at least the film is cheerfully, openly rapacious, and thus a good deal of fun. The source material also lends it more narrative structure than musicals generally possess, as protagonist J. Pierpont Finch—whose name alone would seem to portend a lucrative career of some kind—follows the titular manual’s step-by-step instructions to climb the corporate ladder, from his initial lowly position in the mail room to being a stone’s throw from the executive board. That he achieves this meteoric rise with a combination of backstabbing, chicanery, and sheer impudence is belied by how hummably tuneful it all is.

The movie’s improbable secret weapon, however, is lead actor Robert Morse, reprising his role from the Broadway run. Rarely do stage actors get cast in movie adaptations of hit plays, and that’s arguably for good reason—they’re very different disciplines, and the skill set doesn’t necessarily translate. But Morse’s embodiment of J. Pierpont Finch is truly sui generis. It may be the single smuggest performance in motion picture history, deployed in a context where smugness is precisely what’s required. Replace Morse with any likeable actor—Matthew Broderick, for example, played Finch in a 1995 revival, while Daniel Radcliffe donned the suits just a couple of years ago—and much of the vicious satirical punch gets lost. Despite the romance and the happy ending, How To Succeed is fundamentally the story of a despicable human being shaped by a corrupt society, and Morse’s ever-present shit-eating grin, worthy of a jab to the mouth, ensures that there’s no danger of identifying with its anti-hero. Achieving that degree of subversion in a musical that includes numbers like “A Secretary Is Not A Toy” is no small feat.

Availability: MGM released a non-anamorphic DVD about a dozen years ago (i.e., it’s a window-boxed 2.35:1 picture on widescreen TVs), which still appears to be the only one available. The film is available for digital rental and purchase from the usual sources, though, and that would almost have to be an improvement.

Filed Under: Film

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