Thursday, September 18, 2008

Movies--5--How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

In two previous reviews--Holiday for Love and Sabrina--I have criticized the Hollywood portrayal of business. This movie, originally a play, is a deliberate spoof on the business world. Of course, what makes a spoof funny is that there is an element of truth in the spoof. In this spoof we have a fictional company making a fictional product. Almost no one in the company knows what the product actually does or is used for. The division of labor makes this entirely possible. As Leonard Read pointed out in his marvelous essay, "I, Pencil", thousands of people contribute to the making of pencils that have no idea what a pencil even is. This is as true within individual companies as it is between companies that do business with each other. A secretary for a company that makes electrical transducers may not have a clue what a transducer is or does and yet be a marvelous secretary making a vital contribution to the company. In this movie the product is "wickets" and apparently no one knows what one is or does.

The basic story is that a young man obtains one of the myriad "how-to-do-it" manuals with the same title as the movie, and follows the directions explicitly, thereby rising from mail-room clerk to Chairman of the Board of Directors in a week or so. The advice consists largely in buttering up key individuals and stabbing others in the back. Of course, the movie portrays a company pretty much in the same light as more serious portrayal with a bit of exaggeration. In more serious movies criticizing, either directly or indirectly, the corporate executives know little about what is going on in the marketplace or even in the business end, but here they know absolutely nothing. In this movie, the hero, Ponty, holds almost every executive position in the corporation, but there is never an indication that he knows the anything about the competition or even the product itself. In more serious movies, we see secretaries who spend a great deal of time primping and flirting, but here, that is all they do. In both serious movies, and in this spoof, the idea that the corporation should serve customers is not mentioned or considered. The purpose of a corporation is to serve the people in the corporation--at least, Hollywood sees it that way.

The movie is a musical with some wonderful songs by Frank Loesser, who also did "Guys and Dolls". My own favorites were "I Believe in You" and, my very favorite, "The Brotherhood of Man". In the Brotherhood of Man scene, the chairman of the board is deciding what to do, after a marketing scheme has resulted in a disaster for the company. With the companies entire executive board assembled in a conference room, he ponders, "The question is what to do, and who to do it to?" At that juncture when Ponty, and possibly everyone else is in real trouble they sing, "The Brotherhood of Man". The theme of the song is that we are all part of the great brotherhood of man and should be treated with kindness, love, and respect. It is interesting to me, that these men, everyone of whom is much better off, financially at least, than the overwhelming majority of the "brotherhood of man" and who is hoping to hang on to his high corporate position precisely so they do not have to enter into the ordinary "brotherhood", should suddenly be waxing so eloquent on the brotherhood of man. Actually, it is probably best that we remember the fact that we are in the brotherhood of man when things are going well and, therefore in a position to support, in some way, the more downtrodden of the brotherhood. When things are going rough for us, it is probably more helpful to remember the Fatherhood of God, i. e. that it is through Him that we "live and move and have our being."

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