Movies of my Yesterdays: The Secret of My Success

I’m not sure how this evaded my first pass through the filmography of Michael J. Fox in middle school/high school when I discovered Back to the Future. Maybe it was because the library didn’t have it. This one, I found in a rummage sale. I feel like the idea of seeing his character get rich successful quick was an element that attracted me, but mostly it was just that I was a fan of his work.

The Secret of My Success. Rastar 1987.

I think there’s a reason I get a bit of a similar feeling to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in parts of this movie aside from the fact that they both use “Oh Yeah” by Yello, which I’m sure is the main link between them. Perhaps it’s a general 80s yuppie aesthetic.

Brantley Foster, fresh out of college from Kansas, arrives in New York with the promise of a job in big business and high hopes of growing an impressive career from it, only to find that the job evaporated the day he arrived. Stymied everywhere by entry level jobs demanding experience he hasn’t got, he seeks an audience with Howard Prescott, the CEO of Pemrose Corporation, with whom he has the sketchiest of family ties. Impressed by his brief moment with his “nephew”, Prescott begrudgingly gives him a job in the mailroom. Eager to make the most of this opportunity, Brantley uses his position in the mailroom to learn everything about Pemrose’s operations, and after answering a phone in a vacated office and making good executive decisions for the harried manager on the other end, Brantley hatches a plan to create a fictional executive named “Carlton Whitfield” from his vantage point in the mailroom and commandeer that vacant office to prove his worth to everyone who won’t give “Brantley from Kansas” a chance. Not only do “Whitfield’s” ideas shake up the status quo so much that Prescott worries that he’s a spy from the corporate raider trying to make a hostile takeover of Pemrose, they get him close to the beautiful executive of his dreams Christy Wills. However, his time in the mailroom also got him the attention of an executive’s wife seeking revenge on her cheating husband by having an affair of her own, the executive in question turning out to be Howard Prescott himself.

While the first few times I watched this movie I learned a lot about how hostile takeovers work and vaguely got the idea that the trendy but panicked cuts to expenditures would cause a panic in the market while bold expansion could strengthen the company’s value, what struck me this time is just how much inefficiency is in the upper levels of Pemrose. Of course, Brantley notes in his studies that there are departments with overlap that don’t talk to each other or do their job well, but for all the talk of cutting the company’s expenses to the bone, no mention is made of options like reducing executive salaries, putting the space taken by the company gym to better use, or not using the limousines from the motor pool to chauffeur around non-employees (though Prescott’s wife is technically the company owner). The Suits really do live comfortably on the backs of the trench workers they’re ready to turn out in the streets to raise stock prices a few cents.

The directorial choices often feel like a dream. There are multiple mopey montages set to sad power ballads. Flashbacks aren’t accompanied by any visual language identifying them as flashbacks, leaving it to the intelligence of the audience to work out that this already happened. There’s also one or two dreamy imagine spots just intercut with the scene like they’re supposed to be diegetic. The climax also feels a bit underwhelming. After spending so long frantically keeping all these plates spinning with some big, madcap close calls, Brantley gets outed relatively quietly.

This movie is the main source of my interest in mailroom work. I’ve also since gotten experience that translates well to a corporate mailroom, but mostly I always thought what I saw Brantley, or rather his slacker partner, doing in the mailroom, was work I could handle pretty well. Even that looks better than anything I’ve done until my latest job. And there are plenty of “worked their way out of the mailroom” stories, even if most didn’t do it with the flash of Brantley Foster.

When I first saw this movie I was a bit entranced by not only the elegance of the executive lifestyle, but also the raw independence of Brantley’s meager life on his own in a new city. Having lived through my own “starting out alone in a new city” and gotten jaded by the excesses of the wealthy, a lot of the shine has worn off this movie, but there’s still a kind of melancholy splendor to it. It’s a more mature movie than I could really appreciate at first.

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