Midcentury Modernism in Film

For five consecutive Sundays this summer, the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, Texas will be showing a series of design-conscious feature films to revisit the vibrancy of 20th Century Modern life. Suits & Sleuths: Midcentury Modernism in Film will include two dramas, a comedy, a suspense thriller, and soap opera that capture the attitudes, architecture, and design aesthetic of the 1950’s.

The series begins on July 10th with a screening of Executive Suite, a dramatic film made in 1954 depicting the power struggles in corporate America. Directed by Robert Wise, Executive Suite was adapted from a novel with the same name written by Cameron Hawley, and nominated for four Academy Awards. The dramatic plot follows the challenge to find a new leader for a furniture company, the Tredway Corporation, after the sudden death of the company’s president causes conflicts between ambitious successors for power. The merits of quality manufacturing versus shoddy output help decide who will win the struggle.

Sloan Wilson’s popular 1955 novel, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, was adapted for screen a year later by Nunally Johnston in a poignant drama. The story revolves around the post-war life of an ex-soldier, Tom Rath (Greory Peck), who contemplates ethics and balance in his life at work, his loving wife, Betsy (Jennifer Jones), and their three children. The set design, both corporate and residential, is as uptight as the gray flannel suits and closely cropped haircuts of the time.

Desk Set, directed by Walter Lang, takes place at the “Federal Broadcasting Network,” a New York media giant negotiating a secret corporate merger. Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy), employed to computerize the office meets Bunny Watson (Katharine Hepburn), a brilliant woman who heads up the research department, and the two interact in entertaining banter. This 1957 romantic comedy explores the transition of American corporate culture with the introduction of computers in sleek, modern interiors where the Emeco’s Navy chair is one of the office fixtures, along with a room-sized computer, and unruly IBM punch-cards.

Also based on a book with the same title, The Best of Everything follows the professional and private lives of three women who work together in a paperback publishing house on Madison Avenue. The 1959 romantic drama examines the traditional roles of women and how their aspirations evolve in the more liberated, postwar era. The fashions are as interesting to watch as the New York City streets.

An ordinary advertising executive (as ordinary as Cary Grant can get), is mistaken for a government agent when he collides with foreign spies in North by Northwest, the sardonic thriller masterpiece directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1959. Roger O. Thornhill’s gray suit, worn by Grant throughout the film, was recognized in 2006 by GQ magazine as the most influential and iconic suit in film history. This classic also features a memorable opening title sequence by graphic designer Saul Bass, recognized as the first example of kinetic typography.

All screenings are free with museum admission and will take place at 2PM on Sundays in the Chiego Lecture Hall. There will be a brief discussion at 1:30PM prior to each showing.

Categories: Arts + Culture