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Wednesday, April 6,2011

The Screening Room

'Mad Men' in limbo? Here are some alternatives

by James Sanford

You’ve heard the news: AMC’s “Mad Men” is on hiatus until sometime next year. No more flashbacks to the days of Mother’s Little Helpers and Daddy’s After- Work/Pre-Dinner Glass of Scotch.


But don’t hang up your fedora or your pillbox hat just yet. You can survive the downtime. There’s plenty of “Mad Men”style material out there — and much of it comes straight from the time period in which the show is set. To get you started, here are a few films that will give you a little added perspective on the attitudes that shaped the 1950s and 1960s.


All of these titles are available through Netflix and/or Amazon On Demand (how very un-early 1960s of us).


Let’s start in the mid-1950s, with “Executive Suite,” which was considered a no-holds-barred look at the world of big business in 1954 (it doesn’t even have a musical score, so you know it’s meant to be taken quite seriously). William Holden, then at the peak of his powers, plays Don Walling, who has risen from the assembly line at Tredway Corp. (a furniture manufacturer) to become a vice president. When the company president suddenly dies, the sharks in the company begin fighting for the coveted top spot. But the bright-eyed Don, who has one of those dreamy-eyed, ever-lovin’ wives (June Allyson) every mid-level executive was entitled to in the Eisenhower era, is more interested in doing what’s best for his employer than he is in putting himself in the driver’s seat.


The natural successor might seem to be Julia Tredway (Barbara Stanwyck), the daughter of the company founder and the corporation’s largest shareholder. Unfortunately, it’s the 1950s, and she’s a woman — plus, she was having a secret affair with the late president that wasn’t quite as much of a secret as she’d thought. When Don senses the not-so-good guys are conspiring to take Tredway in the wrong direction, he decides he’s got to do what’s right (even if it means taking a bigger salary and a more impressive job title).


One of the fascinating aspects of the film is its still-valid question of whether a company’s reputation is more important than its stock price. Although some of the top brass are all in favor of producing cheap tables and chairs that can be sold at a nice profit, Don argues that applying the Tredway name to junk will be detrimental to the corporation in the long run.


The stolid Gregory Peck is "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" in a curious 1956 drama that theorizes that behind every boring businessman is a potentially haunted soul. For Peck’s Tom Rath, the torments date back to his harrowing experiences and intimate indiscretions during World War II, which — in typical ’50s fashion — he’s never discussed.


His inner conflicts begin to affect his homelife as his wife, Betsy (Jennifer Jones), candidly tells him she’s ashamed of his lack of ambition. Unlike the gentle, soft-spoken spouses we’re used to seeing in films of this time period, Betsy is secretly bitter and frustrated; when Tom finally reveals a sad secret he’s been keeping, she stops just short of bursting into flames.


Meanwhile, their trio of weird kids watch one violent Western after another on TV, oblivious to the family troubles. "Flannel" argues against sacrificing your personal life for a career — Tom’s workaholic boss (Fredric March) is presented as cautionary case — but the picture it presents of domesticity is so chilling it might have made millions of men actually want to work overtime.


Venturing further into the suburban minefield, there’s “Strangers When We Meet,” a 1960 romantic drama in which architect Kirk Douglas and miserable housewife Kim Novak meet in the most innocuous of places — a school bus stop — and end up contemplating an arrangement that’s anything but innocent.


It’s a perfect companion piece to Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet’s “Revolutionary Road.” Director Richard Quine, adapting Evan Hunter’s novel, effectively turns a sunny neighborhood into a spiritually suffocating circle of Hell, where nothing ever goes unseen or unheard by gossip-crazed neighbors .

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