Monday, November 24, 2008

In Praise of Three Movies

Sydney Pollack directed some mediocre movies, some fair movies that are overrated, and a couple that are flat-out gems. One, in fact, deserves to be on anyone’s “ten best” list. It is Out of Africa, and it is so good that, despite its length, it wears well with a second or third viewing. How Pollack put it all together staggers the imagination, but one factoid illustrates his determination to get it right: Though the film was shot in Kenya, Pollack wanted animals that were not available locally, so he shipped them in by air from Europe!

Meryl Streep as Karen Blixen owns the picture, but the supporting cast is brilliant, especially Klaus Maria Brandauer as Karen’s husband. And Pollack gives us one terrific scene after another, set against the majestic African landscape. The story and script are solid, and John Barry’s score, like so many of his scores, is luscious. The tale is a sad one, ending with Blixen returning to Denmark, leaving behind her dead lover (Robert Redford) and her beloved native servants. But some sad (a better word would be “poignant”) stories leave you somehow uplifted, moved by the knowledge that you’ve just watched larger-than-life characters doing important things. Directing this movie must have been a Herculean undertaking, and off this one project Pollack ranks among the very best.

Most critics have given Out of Africa its due, and it deservedly won a Best Picture Oscar, but another Pollack film came and went without much notice, which is too bad because it, too, is Pollack at the top of his game. This was the 1995 remake of Sabrina.

Usually, I don’t see the point of remakes unless the original was a bad telling of a good story. But good movies are often recycled even though the original was just fine. I liked Judy Garland and James Mason in A Star Is Born, but I liked their predecessors, Janet Gaynor and Frederic March, at least as much. I thought Showboat with Irene Dunne was better than the later extravaganza with Katherine Grayson and everyone on the MGM lot. Marlon Brando, good as he is, couldn’t match Clark Gable in Mutiny on the Bounty, nor could the talented Steve Martin compare with Spencer Tracy in Father of the Bride. The list goes on, but you get the idea.

But the original Sabrina was a badly flawed reworking of a witty Samuel Taylor play (Sabrina Fair), and it deserved another chance. All right, the original had Audrey Hepburn, but that is all it had. Humphrey Bogart and William Holden, two excellent actors, were horribly miscast as a tycoon and his playboy kid brother – just how miscast you realize when you see Pollack’s 1995 version. (I rewatched both versions recently.) Here Harrison Ford is believable as a captain of industry, and Greg Kinnear, a TV actor making his film debut, is a more than a believable playboy; in fact, he’s perfect.

Julia Ormond is no Audrey Hepburn, but she is a fine Sabrina – pretty and vulnerable, as she should be, in this Cinderella story of the chauffeur’s daughter and the millionaire. The color cinematography is a feast for the eyes (Paris, Long Island, Martha’s Vineyard). Best of all, Pollack resisted the temptation to “sex it up” for the juveniles in the audience and played it straight. You can poke a few holes in the plot, but so what? This is a romantic comedy, where you don’t analyze, you sit back and enjoy.

Another Samuel Taylor play that must be mentioned here is Avanti!, directed not by Sydney Pollack but by Billy Wilder. In fact, this may be the best of all the Wilder movies, if the least known and the most underrated. The plot: Important Businessman Wendell Armbruster, Jr. (Jack Lemmon) flies to Italy to collect the body of his father and bring it back to Baltimore for a big funeral. The old man, who died on vacation in Ischia, was head of Armbruster Industries, a major corporation, and the funeral will be sized accordingly (the Secretary of State will be among the dignitaries). En route to Ischia, Lemmon meets Pamela Piggott (Juliet Mills, of the theatrical Mills family), who is headed to Ischia to claim her mother’s body. It develops, to Armbruster’s (a) disbelief and (b) horror, that the two dead people have been trysting for years in Ischia and died together in a car crash.

That much alone is a pretty good framework for a play, but there’s much more to savor. The unctuous hotel manager (played wonderfully by Clive Revill) is one of several characters who will stick with you long after you’ve seen the movie, along with a valet who is shot by a housemaid because he done her wrong, a family of farmers who steal the bodies for ransom, an officious mortuary clerk with his ever-ready rubber stamp, the restaurant maitre d’ (who, when the dieting Pamela orders an apple for dinner, asks, obsequiously, “Shall I peel it for you?”).

In fact, it’s a hugely enjoyable movie, with gorgeous scenery and evocative Neapolitan music. Unfortunately, Lemmon is as miscast as a business big wheel as Humphrey Bogart was in Sabrina. He is too edgy, sort of like the kind of irritable scold he played in The Out of Towners. Wilder should have informed Lemmon that not all successful businessmen are pathological cranks (see Ford, Harrison, in Sabrina). But that minor complaint aside, this is one delicious movie, not to be missed.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The K Plan

In 1933, a Cambridge, MA electronics company faced the challenges of a deepening economic depression. Over an 18-year history, it had recruited a formidable engineering staff, mostly out of MIT, as well as a corps of highly skilled instrument assemblers. It had built an enviable reputation as the world leader in the technology of radio (the word “electronics” was just coming into vogue in 1933), and its name – General Radio Company – symbolized the breadth and depth of its ambitions.

But now, with sales dropping, General Radio faced a dilemma familiar to companies from that day to this: How do you preserve the treasure of the company – the talent you have marshaled over the years - when the money is running out? Some day that talent will be valuable again, if you can somehow keep the ship afloat during the gathering storm. But how?

The founder and President, a young Oregonian named Melville Eastham, huddled with his Treasurer, Henry Shaw, and the two dreamed up an innovative compensation scheme, unlike any other seen in the United States. If they were forced to slash expenses, say 20 percent, they would not react in the traditional way, cutting the work force by 20 percent. Instead, they would cut the work week by 20 percent. The 40-hour week would become a 32-hour week, trimming the payroll accordingly.

There was one hitch: While the loss of factory hours could easily be justified (if booms required overtime, why not undertime during busts?), the engineering hours were needed now more than ever, for the Company desperately needed the new products that would revive sales. So Eastham and Shaw devised a scheme for professionals they called “the K Plan.”

Here’s how it worked: Engineers and other professionals would have their monthly pay pegged to a “K” factor, which would rise and fall with the tide of business. If business (sales and bookings) were half of plan in a given month, K would be 0.5, and monthly salaries would be halved. And indeed, K started out at 0.5 in 1933. That was the downside (K would have a floor of 0.5). But if and when business recovered, K could rise, to a ceiling of 1.5. (Any surplus would be stored against future shortfalls.) Professionals were invited, not forced, to participate in the K Plan. To make it more attractive, the K factor was rigged to deliver a K of 1.1 when business met quota.

As a result of General Radio’s ingenious K Plan, the Company sailed through the Depression without laying off a single employee. In fact, when a local bank failed, the Company made employee-depositors whole. With the K Plan playing a decisive role, the Company didn’t simply survive the Depression; its fortunes took off later in the 1930s and flourished for decades after that. The K Plan remained in place for 36 years, serving as a cost control in the bad times and a strong motivator in the good times. The good times vastly outnumbered the bad, and the K factor remained well above unity throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.

The kind of innovative thinking that produced the K Plan has been sorely lacking lately, and most companies now react to business slumps with knee-jerk layoffs – for some reason often carried out just before Christmas. Companies show little loyalty to their employees, who show just as little loyalty to their companies. It is a world Melville Eastham and Henry Shaw wouldn’t understand and wouldn’t like. The K Plan mightn’t work today; indeed, it was scrapped by a struggling General Radio in 1979. But it did enable one company to make it through the Great Depression with its workforce, its reputation, and its financial integrity intact. There’s a lesson there somewhere, if anyone is listening.

Anyone interested in learning more about this Company should go to and search for The General Radio Story.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Paying Off Detroit

The burning issue of the day in financial circles is: Should the taxpayer subsidize Detroit’s “big three” automakers by giving them tens of billions of dollars to help them avoid bankruptcy? Put me down in the “no” column. The arguments just don’t hold water. President-elect Obama says yes, because the automobile industry “is the backbone of manufacturing.” Nonsense. It might have been that 50 years ago, but in the information age one can make a more powerful argument on behalf of the computer and semiconductor industries. Is a healthy automobile industry an essential component of our defense capability? Ask General Petraeus whether he needs Humvees more than he needs battlefield computers and communications.

My children, their spouses, my wife and I drive a total of eight automobiles. Seven of the eight were made by Japanese manufacturers. So Detroit’s share of this micro-market is 12.5 percent. It is not that we have an affinity for Japan or that we wanted to buy the cheapest cars. We thought the Japanese cars were just better than the U.S. alternatives. After driving them hundreds of thousands of miles, we still think so.

I don’t know anything about automobile manufacturing, but I do know something about the electronics industry. Today, most of our telephones, computer motherboards, television sets, DVD players, and radios are made in other countries. Does anybody care about that? Maybe they should, but globalization is a fact of life. Most of the best electronics engineers happen to be Asian. It wasn’t so 40 years ago, but it is true today. The same can be said of automotive engineers. Meanwhile, our educational machinery keeps turning out more sociologists and journalists and public-affairs specialists. And lawyers, lots of lawyers.

The clamor to bail out Detroit is wholly political. It has nothing to do with merit. It has everything to do with jobs and unions and their political allies. The worst part is that the bailout won’t work. “We just need a loan to get us through this valley” is how one industry advocate put it. But it is not a valley, but an abyss, not a loan but a political payoff. It won’t make me trade in my Accord for a Chevrolet. It will just postpone the inevitable demise of companies gone bad – and add to our staggering national debt.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A Cicero for Our Time

My high school days were filled with stories of ancient Rome and Greece, written in the language of those civilizations by the likes of Caesar and Horace and Homer and Xenophon. And the writings of Cicero, said to be the greatest orator of all time. Cicero left nothing on YouTube, so we can’t judge for ourselves, but I’ll take the words of his contemporaries. His Greek model was Demosthenes, who practiced his oratory by talking with pebbles in his mouth and shouting over the roar of the waves while running along the beach.

Oratory is largely a lost art, although historians credit Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill and John Kennedy with the ability to match the challenges of their times with the power of their rhetoric. I have heard Churchill and Kennedy, and I think their reputations owe more to their writing (or that of their speechwriters) than to their speaking ability. From what I have read, Lincoln was both a great writer and a great speaker.

Last night Barack Obama, speaking in Chicago, reminded me of the enormous power of political oratory. To grasp the effect of that 17-minute speech, one must watch the audience as well as the President-Elect. Tears on cheeks, rapture on faces, hushed reverence at inspirational moments – the speaker connected with over 100,000 celebrants in Grant Park in a way that no other politician has in my lifetime. Not Kennedy, not Clinton, not Reagan. It was electric.

Politics is not just about issues. It is also about emotions, about the capacity of a good person to project that goodness to an audience by sound and sight. Barack Obama has that capacity in spades, and either he is either exactly the leader this country needs at this moment or we have all been duped by his oratorical skill. I am by nature an optimist, so I lean to the positive view.

He is the Cicero of our time. It will be fascinating to watch and listen to this truly remarkable man as he embarks on his historic journey.