Reconsider The Apartment

by Junfeng Liu for Prof Henebry's Rhetoric course

Baxter, a young employee of a large corporation, is sitting self-satisfied in his new office, a prize for his promotion. While he is pleased by his higher status in the corporation of 50,000 people and enjoys the larger space in the office, a group of his former bosses enters his office, all with fake smiles. Ostensibly congratulating Baxter’s promotion, they indeed come to compel Baxter to keep his end of the dirty bargain he made to get the promotion: fulfilling their uncontrollable sexual need, or they would kick him out of the business. Luckily, their conspiracy is interrupted by the big boss of the company, Mr. Sheldrake, and Baxter is saved. However, the respectable Mr. Sheldrake has another hidden face, and he comes for the same purpose.1

Even though the way Baxter satisfies the sexual desires of his bosses is to lend his apartment for them to have affairs with mistresses, this particular scene of the Oscar winning movie The Apartment still conveys the movie’s critique over corporations’ dehumanization of people, and it is also the theme of the movie in many people’s minds. Ian Brookes, a professor at the University of Nottingham, and Jerrold Levinson from Maryland University both declare that the movie criticizes the inhumane aspects of corporate life.2 This judgement of this 1960 movie’s message is seemingly very accurate, since it conforms both to an intellectual trend in the fifties and to the popular anti-commercial and anti-corporatist counterculture values in sixties. However, holders of this point of view overlook the kind of issues which were actually experienced by employees living in the time when the movie came out, as well as their real responses to their corporations’ issues. After seeing the view of contemporary people on corporations, we might see the movie, unexpectedly, as exposing a message that contradicts the previous one: Not only being a critique of the extreme rationalization of “inhuman” companies, the movie contains the opposite value. It celebrates the rationality of corporations and attacks contemporary companies being too “human.”

Baxter is recently troubled by his love life. His big boss, Sheldrake, has borrowed Baxter’s apartment for affairs with his mistress Kubelik, whom Baxter always has an eye on. On the one hand, Baxter wants to show his affection to Kubelik, but on the other hand he worries that his confession would irritate Sheldrake and thus he would lose his unqualified promotion. The rest of the movie follows the stereotypical Hollywood frame: Baxter, realizing his own immoral conduct, refuses his promotion. Meanwhile, Kubelik, seeing Baxter’s change, unites with him in his apartment. All viewers of this movie would agree it is a romantic story. However, The Apartment also belongs to a genre called corporation narrative, since a large portion of this movie happens in the corporation Consolidated Life where Baxter, Kubelik and Sheldrake work. The corporation is the key stage which drives the characters and plots to develop as well. Many viewers, after seeing the movie for the first time, would agree with Ian Brooks that it is a movie criticizing the inhumane aspects of corporate life. Female characters as Kubelik in corporations are made into “not only a type of commodified feminine product but also the subject of… production line” and are deprived their “personal feelings” and “social life.”3 Furthermore, Brookes argues the movie also exposes that as administrative processes become increasingly technocratic and bureaucratic, surveillance over individuals becomes a necessary feature of corporations.

A very common scene in the movie is Baxter sitting in his little workplace. As this scene shows, Baxter and other employees in the Consolidated Life all have a fixed small place to work, and their life is also restricted by a fixed routine, based on the requirements of the company. In the scene from 20:00 to 23:35, Baxter, who is already very sick, still needs to coordinate an appropriate schedule for his bosses to use his apartment. All interactions between Baxter and his bosses are done on the telephone. As machine becomes the only connection between people, the scene shows a lack of personal relationships in big corporations.4 Baxter also does all his work while he is sick, which further proves the corporate life does leave space for a personal life. Moreover, in a conversation between Baxter and Kubelik, Baxter says he knows everything about Kubelik because he had looked at her “card in the group insurance file.”5 The scene further reveals that individuals are always under surveillance and investigation of corporation and people have limited privacy in corporate life.

Levinson takes Brooks’ argument a step further. In his book The American Success Myth On Film, he points out that the movie’s production was provoked by the widespread concern over corporation’s rationalization and bureaucracy among sociologists. In the fifties, a number of highly influential and widely read works of sociology “collectively give vent to mid-century America’s concerns about the corporation ethos.”6 The movie industry was affected by this attitude towards corporations, and a few movies which shared the similar theme in The Apartment were produced during the fifties, such as Executive Suite and Patterns. Moreover, the counterculture movement in sixties consumed the ideas of C. Wright Mills and other sociologists in the sixties. As a culture against every mainstream value in the past, the movement also criticized the commercial and conformist cultures. People in sixties began to embrace what they called noncommercial culture, which contains anti-consumerism and anti-corporatism. They despised every corporate symbol and attempted to fight against corporate control over individual life and freedom.7 We could easily find the counterparts of the counterculture generation’s beliefs in the movie The Apartment, especially the negative attitude towards conformist culture in corporations, which shapes people into identical and inhumane robots.8 Since the movie appeared on big screen in 1960, the transitional year from the fifties to the sixties, Ian Brookes and Jerrold Levinson conclude that the movie expresses popular revulsion at the control exerted by corporations over individuals.

But this reading of the movie overlooks the real attitude of the public toward corporations’ rationalization about the time when the movie came out. After searching the term “corporate life” from five major newspapers’ editorials and letters to the editor from 1959 to 1962,9 a distinctive picture appears. Out of 59 issues containing the phase or being related to the phase, not one expresses its concern over the inhumane aspects of corporate life. To the contrary, most of them were concerned that contemporary corporations were too “human”: the regular function of these corporations largely depended on personal decision of both employees and employers. For example, from a letter to the editor of Los Angeles Times, a lady who could not get the job of secretary complained the company judged her by her age and her appearance, and she called the common prejudice in workplace a “corporate mind.”10 Similarly, another letter to the editor from Washington Post “ snoopers at work” shows the author’s disagreement with the Department of Commerce doing a census of race, which allows corporations to judge their employees by race.11 In fact, a large portion of letters to the editor articulates their apprehension and anger over the racial discrimination in corporations, which I suppose is a result of the rising social impact of Civil Rights Movement. Overall, people around 1960 did not hold a negative attitude toward the rationalized and “inhumane” aspects of corporation. In contrast, they criticized that current companies were contaminated by personal decisions, biases, and prejudices and qualifications were not based on merit but on external or racial characteristics.

The sociologists’ judgement about corporations might be very influential in literary circle and movie industry. The counterculture in the sixties received its popularity and was predominant in the period as well. Nonetheless, the evidence presented above shows that their thesis did not reach the mind of ordinary people around the year the movie came out. Opposite to the previous prediction, people around 1960 believed that corporations should follow a more scientific and less “human” system. The ideas that corporations were being too rational and dehumanized were actually not very popular in the time when the movie was made. Now, seeing a distinctive picture of the cultural background of The Apartment, we might find another way to analyze the movie’s real message by reconsidering its plots and scenes. First, the major problem of this movie is not caused by extreme rationalization of the company, but is the consequence of the big bosses’ libidos to have affairs. The big boss Sheldrake, in order to get the apartment, in fact breaks the rationalized laws of the company. He gives a guy who is not qualified a promotion. In one conversation between Baxter and Sheldrake, the boss ironically describes Baxter as “loyal, resourceful, cooperative”, which are terms familiar from corporate culture.12 Sheldrake, who regards himself as “knowing everything in this building,” understands that appraisement of Baxter from his former bosses is the result of him lending his apartment to them and thus is not based on his merits. However, he still provides Baxter a big promotion because he also needs the apartment. Sheldrake, the top head of the corporation, does not truly employ rationalized strategies in his company. He takes advantage of the power of his place and creates convenience for his affair without any concern for the corporation’s interest. His conduct in fact violates the rule of a bureaucratic system which requires each position to be rationalized and to serve the profit of the corporation. The largest antagonist, Sheldrake, is a person who violates the scientific and rational management of a corporation.

Other scenes in the movie also convey the message that the corporation is led by personal need and interest. In the scene in which Baxter introduces his new office to Kubelik, Baxter says that he is the second youngest executive in this corporation, and the youngest is the grandson of the chairman of the board.13 In the beginning of the essay, I described a scene in which Baxter’s bosses try to bully him because he did not serve their personal interest anymore. Both these two scenes reveal that the personal control over power prevails in the company. The grandson of the chairman only wins his place because he is the grandson of the chairman, and the bosses’ ability to drive someone out of the company because he could not meet their personal desire is not a legitimate use of power. The abusive use of authority and power, including Sheldrake giving a promotion to Baxter, is a common phenomenon in Consolidated Life. People like Baxter’s coworker, who sits next to his desk, have worked hard for a long time, but never get a promotion. The movie indeed depicts Consolidated Life as a corporation which is corrupted by the personal and irrational use of power. The real trouble in this movie is not a consequence of dehumanization in corporations, but the effect of corporations being all too “human.”

In the face of the corrupted corporate world, the movie introduces a figure that is its opposite: the mensch. Baxter has spent a long time considering whether he should accept the promotion or not. One key scene which invokes his realization of his own immoral behaviors is a conversation between him and Dr. Dreyfuss, who is Baxter’s neighbor. After saving Kubelik from her suicide, the kind-hearted Dr. Dreyfuss, who had always seen Baxter as a playboy, warns him earnestly to be a “mensch, a human being.”14 Later in the movie, when Baxter is required to provide his apartment again to Sheldrake in exchange for another promotion, this line becomes the rope that drags Baxter from the slough of corruption and immorality: Baxter remembers what Dr. Dreyfuss had told him and says, “just following doctor’s orders. I’ve decided to become a mensch. Know what that means? A human being.”15 He rejects this promotion and leaves the corporation. When Baxter questions Sheldrake if he “knows what that means?”, the movie implies that Sheldrake, who is the source of the irrational problem of the business, is not qualified to be a human being. Moreover, Baxter’s struggle in this part, being the end of a major conflict in the movie, marks the moral standard in The Apartment. Since the decision to choose the promotion, for the protagonist Baxter, is no longer a conduct of “human being”, the movie judges the “promotion” as a necessary evil. In the meantime, the “promotion” is a product of the irrational and “human” result of the corporation’s management system. Thus the movie defines the ill-functioned bureaucracy in Consolidated Life as an evil and not “human” system. This critique of corporations further reveals that the producers of The Apartment believe that the unrationalized corporation would prevent its employees from being “human beings.”

After seeing these scenes, it is clearer for us to see another message The Apartment wants to present to its audiences. By analyzing the major plots of this movie, we could find that the focal point of the movie is not only the conflict between the individual and a rationalized and inhumane corporation. One half of the movie reveals that the producers of the movie see bureaucracy and rationality as problematic elements in corporate life. Yet another half of the movie shows that the same producers believe that a corporation under the perfect system of scientific management and rational bureaucracy would not only improve the productivity and efficiency, but also eliminate all problems that are caused by “human” decisions and prejudices. However, the contradiction in the movie does not cause the plot to be illogical or inconsistent. On the contrary, the inclusiveness of the movie makes the exposure of the various kinds of problems in corporations much more thorough and, moreover, come realistic. After all, corporations in real life are neither purely rational nor purely irrational. The movie’s success also depends on its comprehensiveness and its ability to win audiences from different points of view. If you really want to know what the “largest theme” is of the movie, the last scene of the movie might explain something: after a series of troubles, Baxter and Kubelik finally leave their corporate life and return to the warm and “human” apartment. Everything seems perfect and moves in a positive and human direction, until Kubelik, playing a card game with Baxter and nudging him to start a new game, says “shut up and DEAL.” Even though they escaped from the corporation’s inhuman system, the last line of the movie forecasts their fate: they will never get a chance to escape from the commercial culture. It is always a deadlock.

1. Jack Lemmon, and Shirley Maclaine. The Apartment, Directed by Billy Wilder, New York: United Studio, 1960, 0:42:59.

2. Julie Levinson. The American Success Myth on Film (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015); Ian Brookes. “The Eye of Power: Postwar Fordism and the Panoptic Corporation in The Apartment.Journal of Popular Film and Television 37.4 (2009): 150-160.

3. Ibid. 153.

4. Jack Lemmon, and Shirley Maclaine. The Apartment, 0:20:00.

5. Ibid 0:34:08.

6. Julie Levinson. The American Success Myth on Film, 75

7. Nadya Zimmerman, Counterculture Kaleidoscope: Musical and Cultural Perspectives on Late Sixties San Francisco (Ann Arbor: Univ Of Michigan, 2013), 148-153.

8. Julie Levinson. The American Success Myth on Film, 77.

9. Including The Boston Globe, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, and The Washington Post.

10. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times, Dec 18, 1959, pg. B4.

11. Victor Warner. The Washington Post, Times Herald (1959-1973) ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post, Feb 3, 1960, pg. A14.

12. Jack Lemmon, and Shirley Maclaine. The Apartment, 0:30:40.

13. Ibid 0:48:46.

14. Ibid 1:16:43.

15. Ibid 1:53:15.

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