In his December 2013 New Yorker essay One and a Half Cheers for Satire, Robert Mankoff, the magazine’s cartoon editor for 20 years, wrote: “The playwright George S. Kaufman famously said, ‘Satire is what closes on Saturday night.’ Funny, but also not literally true, at least for Kaufman, a well-known satirist who co-wrote the musical-comedy satire Of Thee I Sing, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 and ran for 441 performances. What Kaufman really meant is that sharp satire is hard to market successfully to a dull populace. His line was really a flip of the [journalist H.L.] Mencken quip that ‘No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.’” Interestingly, Of Thee I Sing opened to great Broadway success on the last Saturday of 1931, and a frolicsome and catchy George and Ira Gershwin song score blithely helped the medicine of the droll political process lampoonery of the Kaufman/Morrie Ryskind book go down. In the case of another property that targeted office politics and corporate chicanery, it too mingled witty observational comedy with a clever, cartoonlike approach and a top-notch arsenal of memorable tunes, defiantly opened on a Saturday (in this case the second Saturday of October 1961) to huge acclaim, multiple Tony® Awards and the following year’s Pulitzer Prize. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, with a sharply funny book by the show’s director Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert and merry and sublimely trenchant songs by powerhouse melodist Frank Loesser.
It was wisely decided that little or no tinkering would be done in transferring How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967) to the big screen by the time it opened on a Thursday as Radio City Music Hall’s Easter Show attraction 51 years ago today. In the careful curatorial hands of adaptor/producer/director David Swift, it succeeded yet again, and remains, Thomas Hischak wrote in The Oxford Companion to the American Musical, “one of the most faithful film versions of a Broadway musical and although the 1960s clothes and hair styles have dated, the show has not.” It preserves for posterity the engaging performances of Broadway company veterans/World Wide Wickets personnel Robert Morse (as charmingly conniving go-getter J. Pierrepont Finch), Rudy Vallee (as blustery, eternally befuddled CEO J.B. Biggley) and Michele Lee (as supportive and romantically ambitious secretary Rosemary Pilkington), along with the clever and fluid original Big Apple musical staging by Bob Fosse, expanded for the Panavision screen by Dale Moreda. As a movie, it plays large and somewhat stagebound, but its eccentric energy and unflagging absurdity wins the day, just as Finch worms his wily way to the executive suite. Though muted in his overall appreciation of the film, Time’s reviewer extended props to the two male leads and the production’s style: “Vallee’s brilliant bumbling…is even better on the wide screen, as when he Freudian slips, ‘I like the way you thinch, Fink,’ and intones the college musical lampoon Grand Old Ivy. For the first time, Hollywood has cracked the Morse code: after appearing in a succession of turkeys…Bobby is finally allowed the steal a picture the way he stole the show. He burbles with the irresistible energy of a degenerate Peter Pan as he chants to a mirror, I Believe in You. To redeem itself further, the movie implements Frank Loesser’s score with inventive arrangements by Nelson Riddle, and augments the chorus with a bevy of twittering birds who assure the executives that A Secretary Is Not a Toy. Equally good is the staff of ulcerated businessmen who inch their way along the top of the company as they pinch their way around the bottoms of their secretaries. Comically caught in the act, unfaithfully married and unhappily harried, they are reminders that How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying was good show business because the structure of the satire rested, however slightly, upon a grain of truth.” The secrets of Succeed’s success may be savored – any night of the week you choose – on Twilight Time’s zany, zesty hi-def Blu-ray.