Tom Rath provides a fantastical example for aspiring career men in The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit. People everywhere sought better positions so that they could live in better homes with better appliances and generally become better consumers. These are exactly the kinds of challenges that face Tom and Betsy Rath, whose lives are otherwise difficult to read. The film is equivocal on many matters.
Rath begins the film as an employee of "the foundation": the work of which is apparently charitable or philanthropic. The position is safe but does not pay well. Riesman describes a society in which bureaucracy and work relating more with other people than with things replaces production. Appropriately, Rath's hope to bring happiness to his domestic situation relies on finding a job in a bigger bureaucracy, not on entrepreneurship.
Rath would have stuck with the job at the foundation if it brought him enough money to support his family. As it is he commutes from a town in Connecticut, not Levittown. The home is humble, even tacky, but appears to be large enough. He gets home just in time to tell his kids to turn off the television and go to bed. The three Rath children are obsessed with television and death. The film not-so-subtly suggests that these two obsessions are related; a shoot-'em-up western appears to be the only show they ever watch. As Rath observes at one point: "Do they ever have but the one picture?"--just before it transfixes him.
The Raths seem to have every necessary modern convenience, although the washing machine has a shaky track record. Still, Betsy is not happy. She perceives that other people, who may appear less happy than they, are actually happier. This comment is puzzling and perhaps patronizing given the condition of civil rights at the time, but very revelatory of her anxiety. She stands complaining in her kitchen, which is a tad drab but modern and in Connecticut. Many audience members would envy her. If they wish for her life, and she wishes for something more, they might even envy her envy.
Some reviewers described Betsy in unflattering terms. John McCarten of The New Yorker even suggested that "it's hard to imagine why the fellow doesn't clear out" (75), particularly considering that he did have a love affair with a sweet young girl in Italy during the war. While McCarten may be simply exuding the sort of hip, acerbic wit for which his magazine is famous, he does show remarkable blindness. His little column is couched among full- and half-page advertisements for status symbols. The New Yorker is a status symbol itself. To read The New Yorker is to be a hip New Yorker, even if one lives in Akron. The entire system of popular culture is wrapped up in issues of anxiety and desire. It is just these kinds of semiotics that drive Betsy to be surly.
Betsy's stinging challenge convinces Tom to take up a fellow commuter rail rider on his offer of an interview with United Broadcasting Company, a stand-in for any of the three major networks. Television held powerful sway in the burgeoningly other-directed society. The position he seeks is in the public relations department of the broadcasting company; it is redundantly other-directed. The fellow tells him that the only requirements for the job are good hygeine and a clean suit.
While Rath commutes to what will become a fateful day of work in New York City we learn that he suffers from what would now be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder. He suffers flashbacks to his experiences in the war; Rath's domestic disquietude certainly does not help either. In the first flashback, he kills a young German guard for his coat. In the second, longer one he recalls his affair with Maria, an Italian girl, whose consumption desires stop at Spam.
Rath has his third flashback in the offices of UBC. They have asked him to write an autobiography that will explain why he wants the job and what the most significant thing about him is. While Rath smokes a cigarette and stares out at the New York skyline for inspiration a passing airplane flashes him back to a particularly scarring war experience in the Pacific Theater. Captain Rath is leading his platoon in an effort to take out a mortar position. Protected by machine gun cover by Caesar, the platoon member who introduced Rath to Maria, Rath takes a position from which he can toss grenades at the mortar launchers.
Capt. Rath expertly takes out the mortar position with two grenades. Lofting a third for good measure he accidentally kills his best friend Hank, the captain of another platoon. This is the only indication we have that Rath has ever had any friends, as he attempts to save Hank with valiant denial of his death. Along the way, he pulls a knife on a group of medics. A young soldier has to convince Rath to take a rest by speaking to him as if the captain were a child or a simpleton. These are not particularly heroic moments.
Contemporary reviewers found the film too long. Several blamed the flashbacks, which they found to be superfluous to the cinematic experience if not to the prosaic plot. Johnson seems to have included them for a few reasons. These scenes inject two elements of classic Hollywood-action and romance-into a film that otherwise lacks either. Also, we see what became of the self-assured, heroic, inner-directed Tom Rath whom Betsy misses. These scenes must have struck a chord with war veterans and their families, helping the audience identify with Rath. Veterans could appreciate the valor behind Rath's actions; if the scenes are somewhat lacking in true heroism, then a veteran might judge his own actions in their light. This is another way in which the film says, "You, too are a hero."
Rath' s autobiography is very paradoxical. After reflecting upon his war experience, Rath basically tells UBC that the most significant thing about himself is that he is a private man who wishes to give up part of his life to UBC. The other-directed thing to do would be to portray himself as somehow exceptional but that he would be willing to give up all of himself for the company. Thus, the brashness of Rath's refusal to fully play along makes him seem simultaneously a strong individual and a potentially very willing dupe.
Rath gets the job as the assistant to the assistant of the president, Ralph Hoskins. Rath reminds Hoskins of his son who died in the war, mostly due to his brazen sense of individuality. His first assignment is to work on a speech that Hoskins will give to an assembly of doctors. This prospect becomes difficult immediately. In the doublespeak of the "chromium jungle" Rath is really not writing the speech. He is doing the research and sketching out a rough outline so that Hoskins can write is own speech. Of course, it is understood that Rath and the other staff members are the ones doing the writing.
The goal of this speech is to position Hoskins as the head of a national mental health campaign. Hoskins wishes to position himself as a judgment maker for the hegemonic peer group. Hoskins has feelings of anxiety about the public's perception of the broadcasting industry. He believes that his speech should come across humbly, and the sycophants at the office go along with this plan; Tom knows that the only reason Hoskins should head such a program is because he wields the power to do so.
This becomes a difficult point for the Raths. Tom learns that Madison Avenue requires tremendous tact. Each man must tread lightly in order to make certain that he does not stand squarely opposed to any other man in the office. Because his thoughts are at loggerheads with the party line Tom fears his job is in jeopardy.
If Betsy feels the appropriate ammount of anxiety, she has not yet internalized the logic of other-direction. She attempts to persuade Tom that if Mr. Hopkins asked for his advice that he should get it; he should tell Hopkins just how terrible the speech is. Tom attempts to explain to Betsy that direct speech is not getting him anywhere. A man has to take a diplomatic approach. It is more important that you leave the other man feeling warm and fuzzy than it is to be honest. The peer group, against which Rath fears he must not fight if it means he may lose his sweet position at UBC, determines right and wrong.
When Rath meets with Hoskins to give him advice, he decides that Betsy was correct; Rath proves in one scene that he has learned the ways of other-direction, then discards these lessons because he knows they are wrong. He follows the direction of his psychological gyroscope and tells Hopkins exactly what he thinks of the speech. Hopkins must politely give the doctors a "take it or leave it" offer; with a vast media network he can persuade the populace of the wisdom of the mental health program. Essentially, Rath tells Hopkins that he is wrong, something that apparently does not happen often.
Amazingly, Hopkins takes this very well. As stated before, Rath reminds him of the son he lost. The boy must have been very spirited. This whole time Hopkins has experienced the final collapse of his own family. His daughter elopes with a remnant from "the Scott Fitzgerald era" and his wife no longer wishes to speak with him.
Hopkins persuades Rath to stay for a drink with him. Lubricated slightly, and upset over recent events, Hopkins spells out the crisis. Hopkins typifies the inner-directed man upon whom the infrastructure of society relies. The long, single-minded hours through which such men must suffer preclude them from the joys of the nine-to-five life. Is either way of life correct by any measure?
In this way the two men stand as models. Hopkins is the sort of man you might envy, but Johnson reveals the true misery of his life, despite his wealth and the tremendous view of Central Park his apartment offers. Rath is the sort of man one might wish to be. In a society where everyone hopes to consume the right things, Rath lives in South Bay Connecticut, the same town in which his boss owns a home.
The South Bay home exemplifies many things. Rath inherits the home in a curious way: from his grandmother, of whom he is sole heir. There is no mention of the missing generation, or of any other Raths. Rath's inheritance of the estate must survive a challenge from a shady housekeeper/butler. This challenge is thwarted on the basis of this butler's reputation around town; he is punished by the hegemonic peer group. Also, Betsy has cooked up a plan to develop the acreage of the estate. They can divide it up into lots and build houses on them, thus creating a potentially Gatsby-esque assemblage of cottages around the palacial Rath mansion. This land speculation venture would dovetail with his adventures on Madison Avenue to make the Raths post-Fordist tycoons.
Hopkins seems to view Rath as his last chance to be a father to anyone. He wishes to make Rath his right-hand man. But that would require that Rath work the same long hours that he does, complete with travel. Working so long would keep him from being a good family man and consumer: the two would come hand-in-hand.
Riesman describes a switch in parenting in the transition to other-direction. Among other things, parents tend to be less authoritarian. They seek the approval of their children, just as Hopkins seems to desire the approval of Rath. Before, presumably, children sought the approval of their parents. In many ways children work to raise their parents; modern children seem to be naturally predisposed to the ways of consumption. Parents rely on their children to acquire the commercial semiotics of the day; parentless children are out of the loop.
This bourgeois tragedy seems to have a happy ending. But to get there we need a certain suspension of disbelief. Tom Rath got the position on the recommendation of a casual acquaintance, and then only because he reminded Mr. Hopkins of his son. Along the way Rath has to learn the finer points of negotiating other people, then Hopkins miraculously rewards him for discarding his lessons.
Any young executive watching this film would have to wish he could be Rath, and that his relationship with his boss might be so good.
All of this is colored by the fact that this is Gregory Peck playing Tom. If he is supposed to be another anonymous man in a gray flannel suit, he does not quite pull it off due to his commanding presence. His impressive height, broad shoulders, and strong voice make him distinctive. He does not blend into the crowd; the crowd parts before him. Rath stands head-and-shoulders above everyone else in the express elevator. This adds to his enviability. Another actor, perhaps Jimmy Stewart or Farley Granger, may have been a more natural fit for the role.
Above all, Rath has to compromise on all fronts. He cannot have as full a role at UBC as he might have if he could give his whole self to the corporation. Hopkins allows that this is the correct decision, and will allow Rath to have tremendous influence within the corporation in an officially lesser role. Rath will drink less martinis on the expense account, but will dine with the family more often.
At home Rath' s relationship with his wife remains potentially pyrotechnic. Because honesty worked in the office, he decides to be forthright with her about the son he has in Rome. This causes the Raths' biggest argument. Initially, Betsy cannot excuse Tom's philandering. When she becomes upset, he becomes more tactful; he baldly lies when she asks if Maria was prettier than she, and dodges when she asks if the girl had a better figure. Presumably, we are to believe that the answer to each question would be a resounding "yes!". Honesty is not always the best policy.
After the blow-up and a long evening apart, the Raths decide they will provide for this boy, his oldest, with a trust fund. We are led to believe that Betsy Rath is the most wonderful woman in the world for not leaving Tom and for giving the trust her blessing. Meanwhile, Rath falls back on his lessons in diplomacy by evading betsy 's questions about her beauty relative to Maria' s.
The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit shows the Raths as having everything for which a family could hope, with the significant exception of friends. While the novel portrayed the community as lacking any real bonds, the film eschews the subject entirely. If things go smoothly from here on out, Tom will be one of the most important men at one of the most important corporations in the world. Betsy's plan to develop the land should bring them a small fortune.
The irrationality of the whole situation and the tenuous nature of the Raths' happiness leaves the audience ambivalent. In some ways they aspire to be like the Raths; in others, they are thankful their lives are less eventful. The film elides some issues, like friendship, that could be more difficult to gloss. Above all, the film leaves the audience feeling that their lives are worthy of melodrama. If the mise-en-scène is bland, and it is, it merely affirms the blandness of the suburban life. It is the blandness of gin. It is the blandness of Pat Boone, Perry Como, and other popular musicians, against whom rock 'n' roll railed. It is a safe, assuring blandness--and it is dangerous.