The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit

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The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit - 1955 - poster.png
1956 Movie Poster
Directed by Nunnally Johnson
Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck
Written by Nunnally Johnson (screenplay)
Sloan Wilson (novel)
Starring Gregory Peck
Jennifer Jones
Fredric March
Music by Bernard Herrmann
Cinematography Charles G. Clarke
Edited by Dorothy Spencer
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release dates
  • May 8, 1956 (1956-05-08)
Running time
153 min.
Country United States
Language English
Budget $2,670,000[1]
Box office $4,350,000 (US rentals)[2]

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, by Sloan Wilson, is a 1955 novel about the American search for purpose in a world dominated by business. Tom and Betsy Rath share a struggle to find contentment in their hectic and material culture while several other characters fight essentially the same battle, but struggle in it for different reasons. In the end, it is a story of taking responsibility for one's own life. The book was largely autobiographical, drawing on Wilson's experiences as assistant director of the U.S. National Citizen Commission for Public Schools.

The novel was made into a movie in 1956, starring Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones as Tom and Betsy Rath, with Fredric March, Lee J. Cobb, Keenan Wynn and Marisa Pavan in supporting roles. (March plays Tom Rath's boss, a character based on Roy Larsen, Wilson's boss at Time, Inc.) It was entered at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival.[3]

Both movie and book became hugely popular. The novel continues to appear in the references of sociologists to America's discontented businessman. Columnist Bob Greene wrote, "The title of Sloan Wilson's best-selling novel became part of the American vernacular—the book was a ground-breaking fictional look at conformity in the executive suite, and it was a piece of writing that helped the nation's business community start to examine the effects of its perceived stodginess and sameness."[4] Historian Robert Schultz argues that the film and the novel are cultural representations of what two-time presidential candidate (1952 and 1956) Adlai Stevenson described in a 1955 commencement address to Smith College women as a "crisis" in the western world, one Stevenson defined as "collectivism colliding with individualism," the collective corporate organization of postwar social and economic life.[5] That increased corporate organization of society, Schultz notes, reduced white-collar workers' (represented by Tom Rath and the other gray-suited "yes men") control over what they did and how they did it as they adapted to the "organized system" described and critiqued by contemporary social critics such as Paul Goodman, C. Wright Mills and William H. Whyte, Jr.[6]

The book was re-issued in 2002, with a foreword by author Jonathan Franzen.

Plot summary[edit]

Tom and Betsy Rath live in a rundown house in Westport, Connecticut around 1953 (1955 in the movie). They have three television-addicted children (two girls and a boy) and have money problems. Tom is 33 years old, a Harvard graduate. He barely survived as an Army paratroop officer during World War II, having fought in both the European and Pacific combat theaters, during which he had an extramarital affair.

Tom has haunting flashbacks of the affair as well as his combat experiences. He killed 17 men in combat. His stay-at-home wife knows only that Tom is somehow "changed" since the war. She feels his job with a Manhattan charitable organization pays too little, so she and a fellow train commuter urge him to interview for a job at a New York-based television network.

Tom lands a public relations job, working for Ralph Hopkins, the top man at the network, an empire-builder surrounded by politicking yes-men. Hopkins is to propose the establishment of national mental health services to a group of physicians and offer his own prestige and network toward that end. Tom must figure out how his boss can best present the proposal so that the learned doctors will rise in unison and appoint Hopkins to spearhead the campaign.

Hired on a six-month probationary basis, Tom reports to a humorless game-player who rejects five different drafts of the speech and ends up substituting one of his own. Hopkins is satisfied, but Tom persuades him that the approach is all wrong, that it misrepresents Hopkins' qualifications to head the campaign. Tom's approach is more sensible; Hopkins is impressed. Tom reminds Hopkins of his own son, who was killed in combat.

There are a number of subplots:

  1. The fraudulent scheme of the caretaker of Tom's late grandmother, who forged a will in an attempt to inherit the deceased woman's home.
  2. Hopkins' estrangement from his daughter (who quits school to elope with an undesirable man).
  3. Tom's adulterous behavior during the war, which resulted in a son conceived in Italy, whose mother suddenly contacts him to seek monetary support at a most inconvenient time. With no understanding of the horrors of war, Betsy becomes furious upon learning of this secret and becomes estranged from Tom. However, she comes to understand that mutual emotional support—not just mutual ambition—bind wife and husband.

In the end, seeing the example of how his boss's marriage and family life have been ruined by overwork, Tom turns down a high-pressure position involving travel, in order to work normal hours and spend more time at home.

Film cast[edit]

Sequel (novel)[edit]

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit II appeared in 1984—by the time of the sequel a decade has passed in the story-line. Like the original novel, it too reflects the general social attitudes of the time.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Solomon, Aubrey. Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History (The Scarecrow Filmmakers Series). Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1989. ISBN 978-0-8108-4244-1. p250
  2. ^ 'The Top Box-Office Hits of 1956', Variety Weekly, January 2, 1957
  3. ^ "Festival de Cannes: The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit". Retrieved 2009-02-04. 
  4. ^ Bob Greene (1992-07-05). "Another view of the man in the gray flannel suit". Chicago Tribune. 
  5. ^ Schultz, Soured on the System: Disaffected Men in Twentieth-Century American Film (McFarland, 2012), 37-43; Stevenson, "A Purpose for Modern Woman," Woman's Home Companion (September 1955): 29-31.
  6. ^ Schultz, Soured on the System, 48-50, 53-54, 64-69, 71-72; Goodman, Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organized System (Random House, 1960); Mills, White Collar: The American Middle Classes (Oxford, 1951); Whyte, The Organization Man (Simon & Schuster, 1956).

External links[edit]