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The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit

DVD cover.
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
Editing by Dorothy Spencer
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release date(s) May 8, 1956
Running time 153 min.
Country US
Language English

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, by Sloan Wilson, is a 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 US 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.[1]

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."[2]

In 2002, the book was returned to print in a new edition with a foreword by author Jonathan Franzen.


Plot summary

Tom and Betsy Rath live in a rundown house in Southport, Connecticut around 1953. They have three TV-addicted kids (two girls and 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 (an unlikely scenario, but it sets the stage for his wartime love affair).

Tom has haunting flashbacks of the affair as well as his combat experiences — clearly the stuff of PTSD, as it is recognized today. He killed 17 men in combat. His stay-at-home wife only knows 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 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 solve 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 much more sensible. Hopkins is impressed. Tom reminds him of his own son, who was killed in combat.

There are a number of subplots: (1) An attempt by the caretaker of Tom's late grandmother to fraudulently inherit her home; (2) Hopkins' estrangement from his wife and daughter (who quits school to elope with an undesirable man), and (3) Tom's adulterous behavior during the war and an out-of-wedlock son conceived in Italy, whose mother suddenly contacts him to seek monetary support at a most inconvenient time. Betsy goes berserk on hearing of this secret, but eventually calms down and understands mutual emotional support — not just mutual ambition — binding wife and husband.

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



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 on the general social attitudes of the time.

In popular culture

In a season-two episode of Mad Men ("Six Months' Leave"), comedian Jimmy Barrett (Patrick Fischler) refers to ad man Don Draper (Jon Hamm) as "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" -- a reference to Draper's outward professional smoothness and tumultuous homelife.

In an episode of the documentary series Wings of the Red Star, narator Peter Ustinov refers to Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev as "The Red in the Gray Flannel Suit".

In an episode of The Honeymooners, Ralph Kramden is startled when Ed Norton emerges from a manhole in full sewer worker gear. Norton replies, "Who did you expect, the man in the gray flannel suit?"


  1. ^ "Festival de Cannes: The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit". Retrieved 2009-02-04. 
  2. ^ Bob Greene (1992-07-05). "Another view of the man in the gray flannel suit". Chicago Tribune. 

External links

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