Thursday, November 24, 2005

The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit

Imagine seeing George Washington being interviewed before he went out to fight the British, or watching the first performance ever of Hamlet. Indeed, up to the times as recently as one hundred years ago we can only imagine what our world was like, and how its people lived, looked and sounded.

Because of the DVD, our descendents a thousand years from now – probably no longer living on earth, since it will have been rendered uninhabitable, but living instead on Mars or whichever other planet they escaped to - will be able to see that video of the president of America landing on the aircraft carrier and declaring "Mission Accomplished" in Mesopotamia, and otherwise see us as we are now, and to see also the films we love today, like “Freddy Got Fingered” and those with Adam Sandler in them.

Although we will never be able to see our distant past as it actually was, we can at least now see our immediate past as portrayed in its classic films in their now restored form. The value of watching these old films is that they incorporate values and views of society as they were held in the times the films were made, since their directors and actors were themselves of those times which shaped their consciousnesses. So a film made now, but whose story is set in the past, will tell us as much about our world of today as about the time in which the film is set.

More and more of the old classics are being re-issued every day. So when we go out to buy a video, we needn’t feel restricted to “Freddy Got Fingered” or films with Adam Sandler in them. No, we can buy for example, “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit”, made in 1955, a seemingly wholesome tranquil time when the husband went out to work and the wife stayed home – solid Family Values; when we were ruled Ike and Dick – solid Family Men, the role models for the Family Men who on Saturday nights took their Families to the drive-in to see films like “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit” – solid Family Fare.

“The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit”, being of its time, enables us to see the world through the eyes of the generation which Tom Brokaw has called The Greatest Generation, which fought and won World War 2, then came home and created the prosperity of the nineteen-fifties, of which we baby-boomers and generation Xers are the legatees.

Who better to play the leading role in “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit” than Gregory Peck, always so hard put upon, always so decent – whether as Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird”, or as the upstanding small town lawyer menaced by Robert Mitchum in “Cape Fear”.

Gregory Peck, as The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, plays an advertising man, a solid Family Man in the middle rung of a large corporation in New York City. Each morning he takes the train into the city while reading the Wall Street Journal in company with some of his fellow Men in Grey Flannel Suits, solid Family Men all – and uniformly White. As the train carries them to their offices they exchange gossip about job openings in the city. It is the quintessential Old Boys Network of the sort arguably not much different from how it still is in today’s corporate world.

One difference between the corporate world then, compared with now, is that it was then de rigeur for men to wear grey flannel suits to the office. Today, corporate head honchos like Bill Gates wear sweaters and no ties, and their male underlings in addition to no longer having to wear ties, can also wear coloured shirts, and on Fridays – dress-down day - can even wear jeans. However, the decorative sartorial freedom enjoyed by today’s corporate employees may simply be to compensate them for their lack of real freedom.

But there was one big difference between the Men in Grey Flannel Suits then, and their counterparts today. The Men in Grey Flannel Suits then, had all fought in World War 2. Only a few years before, they had been storming beaches killing Germans, and wading through jungles killing Japanese. This was the shared experience which bound all these Men in Grey Flannel Suits together.

Consequences from being overseas in the war sometimes came back to haunt them, such as letters from ladies asking for money to help raise a child they had fathered - the result of a brief encounter while taking R and R away from the front. Gregory Peck, our Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, gets such a letter. What to do? Should he tell his wife? He does. But instead of taking the news calmly, she goes hysterical. She throws crockery about and storms out of the house, driving off in the family station-wagon with which, in her overwrought state, she nearly kills herself. Later she comes to her senses, but it was a close thing.

How would a wife today, even in our cool and knowing times, react to such news? It is for those of you, of the female gender, to ponder. And be honest.

An issue explored in “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit” is how much time a Family Man should give to his Family, and how much to his job. The Boss of the company, for which our Man in the Grey Flannel suit works, had built the company from scratch. But the Boss lives alone in his big house, being separated from his wife who longer wishes even to speak to him. He is also estranged from his only daughter who has eloped with a ne’er-do-well. And to top it off, his only son had been killed in the war.

One evening the Boss gets a summons from an important client, which necessitates flying immediately across the country to Los Angeles. The Boss asks Gregory Peck to accompany him. But Gregory has already made an important family commitment for that evening, and says “no” to the Boss, explaining that he has to be with his Family. The Boss is angry, but later recognises there are two types of men. There is the man – like the Boss – with the pioneering spirit, who works night and day creating companies, getting rich, making things happen. But the downside is that he will be alone. And there is the other type of man who, in order to have a happy family life, works only from nine to five, so to spend more time with his Family.

The Boss, realizing he will have to fly alone to Los Angeles, says to Gregory Peck: “I suppose you’re a nine-to-five-man?”

And Gregory Peck, in his inimitable bass voice, says: ”Yes, I’m a nine-to-five man”.

So I ask those of you of the male gender: What sort of man are you? A pioneering mover and shaker? Or a nine-to-five man?

And be honest.