Saturday, November 21, 2015

From the DVR: The Garment Jungle (1957)

Today’s edition of “From the DVR” can be considered a companion piece to Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s previous essay on I Can Get it For You Wholesale (1951).  The Garment Jungle (1957) focuses on a far grittier look at New York’s 7th Avenue garment district…and best of all—no Dan Dailey.

Returning from overseas, young Alan Mitchell (Kerwin Matthews) wants to “learn the ropes” at Roxton Fashions, a dressmaking company founded and run by his father, Walter (Lee J. Cobb).  Alan’s apprenticeship coincides with a sticky situation involving the firm’s status as a “closed shop”; a large percentage of the employees wants an affiliation with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union—represented by organizer Tulio Renata (Robert Loggia)—but Walter is determined that Roxton will not be unionized.  His partner, Fred Kenner (Robert Ellenstein), was amenable to allowing the workers to start a union…and for his efforts, he winds up dead after a twenty-eight floor plunge in a broken freight elevator.

The senior Mitchell’s campaign to keep Roxton non-union has received an assist over the years from Artie Ravidge (Richard Boone), a greasy hoodlum who uses considerable muscle to keep “malcontents” in line with the considerable sums Walt is paying him for protection.  Suspicion that Ravidge participated in Kenner’s murder (the audience is tipped off to his complicity when two of his goons, Paul [Wesley Addy] and Ox [Adam Williams], are the same men who were “repairing” the freight elevator) reaches a fever peak when some of his thugs turn up at an ILGW meeting and start threatening those in attendance.  Later, as Tulio, his friend George (Joseph Wiseman) and three other union members picket outside Roxton, they are visited by Ravidge’s men and in the melee that ensues, Tulio is stabbed and killed by Paul and Ox.  What is not known—George is the only witness, and he’s too scared to talk—is that the other three members are also working for Ravidge, which explains how the mob broke through the picket line so easily.

In the wake of Tulio’s murder, Alan comforts his widow, Theresa (Gia Scala)…and is convinced that unionizing Roxton is the right thing to do.  His father takes a lot of convincing, but when Walter finally agrees…well, every time you think you’re out, someone pulls you back in.

The behind-the-scenes story on The Garment Jungle might actually be more interesting than the movie itself—not that I didn’t think the film was a keeper, you understand.  It was the second of three movies that director Robert Aldrich contracted to do at Columbia Pictures (the first was the 1956 Joan Crawford film Autumn Leaves), and Aldrich had high hopes for Jungle, tagging it the “first pro-labor picture” (I guess Bob never got around to seeing Salt of the Earth, released three years earlier).   Based on a series of Reader’s Digest articles (“Gangsters in the Dress Business”) by Lester Velie, the ambitious screenplay by Harry Kleiner (who also produced) set out to expose how hired goons, working for big business, deliberately intimidate and threaten “outside agitators” in a manner similar to the studio’s On the Waterfront (1954)—though in that movie, the gangsters have already corrupted the union.  The positive slant toward union activity in Jungle was really surprising to me, with OTR veteran Bill Bouchey acquitting himself nicely as one of the ILGW officials.

The experience on Jungle was not a happy one for Aldrich, who later disowned the picture.  He objected to much of the casting, particularly the studio’s insistence on using contractees like Harry Cohn discovery Gia Scala (who’s serviceable but nothing special) and Kerwin Matthews (pretty weak—he looks like he’d rather be voyaging as Sinbad somewhere).  (Aldrich also wasn’t wild about Robert Loggia—though that might be because Loggia was an unknown entity [Jungle was his first credited feature film]; he actually gives one of the strongest performances in Jungle.)  But Bob also had problems with some of the veterans, notably Lee J. Cobb—Lee thought his role in Jungle was a little too much like mob boss Johnny Friendly from Waterfront.

Aldrich also had to contend with Columbia head Cohn’s meddling; Harry wanted more emphasis on the romance between Matthews and Scala (to be honest, this really drags the picture down) and less on the “corruption in the garment district” angle (sounds like a few people got to Harry on this).  When Aldrich missed a day of shooting due to a bout of flu, Cohn pulled him off the picture and substituted him with Vincent Sherman.  (Bob later claimed it was because Harry had finally figured out that the Rod Steiger character in Aldrich’s The Big Knife [1955] was modeled after the man writer Ben Hecht once nicknamed “White Fang.”)

Sherman originally thought he was hired on to get caught up on the shooting that had been halted because of Aldrich’s illness, but he soon found himself rewriting (with Kleiner) and reshooting the movie (Vincent told Cohn it would take him a week—Harry gave him three days).  In his autobiography My Life as a Film Director, Sherman spotted right off the bat the problem with Lee J. Cobb’s character (that, sadly, remains in the finished product): “I pointed out that I was confused by Lee Cobb's character:  if he knew that his partner had been killed by Boone and did nothing about it, he was monstrous and irredeemable.  If he did not know or even suspect Boone, he was stupid.”  Sherman would later clash with the actor when Cobb insisted on doing scenes his way instead of the director’s.  “He was talented but stubborn and filled with his own importance,” was Sherman’s verdict on the star.

Cobb is quite good in The Garment Jungle, even if I did expect him at times to start rambling about having the fattest piers in the fattest harbor in the world.   Loggia, as I mentioned earlier, also gives a standout performance, with solid support from Wiseman and Harold J. Stone as Cobb’s production manager.  (My mother—who tends not to notice these things—remarked that she recognized Ellenstein and Williams as the two assassins in the elevator from North by Northwest; I think her movie education is coming along nicely, don’t you?)  Richard Boone is swell, though he succumbs to a lot of the gangster clichés by the final third of Jungle—in a year that saw The Man Called Paladin play one of the greatest Western villains in movie history (in The Tall T), I would have liked to see Dick tackle the role of Artie Ravidge with similar nuance…but of course, I’m just nitpicking.

With sensational monochrome cinematography by Joseph F. Biroc and a suitably moody score courtesy of Leith Stevens, The Garment Jungle was a most pleasant viewing experience.  I was even willing to put up with the Matthews-Scala romance as long as Dan Dailey didn’t start horning in.


policomic said...

Entertaining review of an interesting-sounding movie. And no Dan Dailey! (Also a plus in my book.)

I don't comment often, but I'm awfully glad TDOY is up and running again.

ClassicBecky said...

Why haven't I seen this one? I think I'd love it, and of course I would watch anything with Lee J. Cobb. That man is just fantastic. I had to laugh about the fattest harbors -- wasn't he perfect in that movie? I'll have to look for Garment Jungle.