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  • Wilder’s Mensch:United Artists and the Critique of Fordism
  • Ben Rogerson (bio)

There could be no starker critique of the mid-century white-collar workplace than The Apartment (1960). In Billy Wilder’s iconic film, “Consolidated Life” names more than the powerful Manhattan-based insurance company that employs the protagonist C. C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon); the phrase also describes the modus operandi of the new model of Fordism. The corporation literally consolidates life, extending its rationality beyond the walls of the office in order to underwrite the very elements that we generally regard as exempt from work—the subjects, activities, and spaces of our familial and communal lives. More to the point, The Apartment implies this consolidation by depicting work and leisure as increasingly indistinct, for both are integral parts of a Fordist “mode of accumulation” that depends, Nancy Fraser has argued, “on mass industrial production, mass commodity consumption, and the vertically integrated corporation” (161).1 While Consolidated Life executives spend their after hours as carefree playboys, their leisure never accedes to authenticity, because it is manufactured and canalized by its reliance on commodity consumption. In The Apartment, Fordism even threatens to automate and standardize virtually every aspect of individual existence, right down to the capacity to care for others. What was life—spontaneous, creative, and unpredictable—becomes prefabricated, deadened, and calculable. Thus, Wilder’s film initiates its critique with an indelible image that depicts the common Fordist denominators to which the consolidated life would reduce all leisure, if not all love: the white-collar corporate drone repeating a monotonous task in the open-plan office.

But this summary neglects the degree to which cautionary tales [End Page 53] about the consolidated life had become no less standardized and ubiquitous than their target. By 1960, influential sociological jeremiads such as David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950), C. Wright Mill’s White Collar (1951), and William Whyte’s The Organization Man (1956) had saturated public discourse with anxieties about corporations, conformity, and the rat race.2 Even mass-circulation magazines like Life, Look, and Reader’s Digest fretted about “Gary Grays” and “The Group” without any noticeable irony (Leonard 25, 29). Excluding its ample efforts in other genres, Hollywood had directly examined the Fordist corporation through the “classical corporate executive film,” a short-lived postwar genre that includes films like Executive Suite (1954), Woman’s World (1954), The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956), and Patterns (1956) (Boozer 18).3 Given these various examples, the sociologist Daniel Bell noted a “curious fact” in The End of Ideology (1960): despite widespread alarm, “no one in the United States defends conformity. Everyone is against it, and probably everyone always was” (35). In short, critiques of Fordism had spawned their own mass-production industry. The film critics Pauline Kael and Dwight Macdonald panned The Apartment upon release for that very reason. The film, Kael wrote, articulated a “machine-tooled commercialized social consciousness” perfectly suited, no doubt, for the consolidated life (41). Baxter, his love interest Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), and the other characters abused by Consolidated Life are less “little people” than “little dolls,” ciphers that Wilder deploys to serve predictable, sentimental ends. Such sentimentality culminates in the film’s pat, humanistic solution to the specter of the corporate drone in the open-plan office: Baxter’s eventual decision to refuse “the old payola,” quit his job at Consolidated Life, and restart his life as a caring “mensch—a human being.”4

However, Kael and Macdonald fail to address what Bell identified as the primary “problem” associated with ubiquitous critiques of Fordism: “to know who is accusing whom” (35). If The Apartment shows that Hollywood is, in Macdonald’s words, “out of touch with reality,” it is because the film so closely follows the contours of the film industry in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 1948 Paramount decision (118).5 By forcing the major studios to divest ownership of theater chains, the Paramount decision put an effective end to the “factory-like” Old Hollywood studio system (Lev 24). In that system, the major studios typically kept creative and technical personnel under long-term contract in [End Page 54] order...


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pp. 53-80
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