Directed by Nunnally Johnson
Written by Nunnally Johnson (based on the novel by Sloan Wilson)
Starring: Gregory Peck, Jennifer Jones, Fredric March, Lee J. Cobb, Keenan Wynn
Tagline: He loves . . . . his world . . . both past and present . . . . and the crisis they caused!
Trivia: Montgomery Clift was the author’s choice to play Tom Rath.
Gregory Peck stars as Tom Rath, an “ad man” with a wife and three children living in the stultifying world of 1950s suburbia. Troubled by memories from his service during the Second World War, he must also hide away some traumatic secrets. His wife Betsy (Jennifer Jones) frets about money and pressures him to be more ambitious in the dog eat dog world of advertising. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit reveals much about the 1950s, especially the cold emotion and frustrated landscape of post-war America.
The film begins with Tom coming home after a long day at work. The kids are more interested in the television. His wife complains about the house and questions Tom’s choice in career. However he’s been offered a job interview with a public relations firm and a potential higher salary.
Meanwhile Tom’s memories go back to the war in flashback sequences. These scenes do a good job of seeing things from Tom’s viewpoint, the reality of being involved in life and death decisions a decade before to dealing with petty household dramas in the present.
Frederick March plays Tom’s fatherly boss Ralph at the agency. Tom must either say what his boss wants to hear or say what he really thinks and risk getting fired. Do you be a team player or risk being a social outcast?
Other subplots involve an inheritance dispute and Ralph’s troubled relationship with his daughter. With a 150 minute running time these subplots do slow down the movie.
The best scenes are between Peck and Jones. Each struggle with the pressures of raising a family and their disappointments with each other. The lush music score by Bernard Herrmann expresses the emotional vulnerability between the characters.
Social commentators of the time cited the novel and film as illustrations of how consumerism and the corporate attitude were subsuming American life, everyone sacrificing their individuality to be a “Yes Man.” There’s a quiet soulfulness to Tom Rath in his conflict to balance those two forces.
Fans of the AMC series Mad Men (2007-2105) will see how The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit provided a template for the Don Draper character. Mad Men would add layers of complexity to the character and spend more time on the culture of the advertising world.
These days many Americans romanticize the 1950s as a beacon of stability and order, but that’s mostly an illusion. Order and security are worthy goals for a society, but not at the expense of freedom and individuality. That’s how the film still speaks to us.