05 Wednesday Mar 2014
The International Ladies Garment Workers Union, the ILGWU, has a fabled name in labor and progressive circles, once one of the biggest of American unions, and the only one with a majority of female members. A dozen movies could be made of its early years, as early as the 1900s. A few have been made of the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (1911.) One, With These Hands, was produced by the union but directed by Hollywood’s Jack Arnold, better known for The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and High School Confidential (1958). The Triangle Factory Fire Scandal was a documentary directed by Mel Stuart. As to one with organizing at its core we only have one that I know of, and that for only some of the movie.
The Garment Jungle, a 1957 release with Lee J Cobb as the compromised factory owner and Richard Boone as his hired ‘protector’ came from late 1940s exposes of New York City’s garment industry, its owners, unions and gangsters written by Lester Velie. Directed by Vincent Sherman with an uncredited assist from Robert Aldrich [The Dirty Dozen and the very interesting The Twilight's Last Gleaming] it does a good job for most of its 88 minute run-time of bringing us to the tenement-streets of New York, interiors of an old garment sweat-shop and the real emotions of a factory owner who “built this business with my own hands!” and a union organizer who “isn’t doing this for himself but for all of us.”
Cobb plays Walter Mitchell, the factory owner, father and gentlemen friend, caught in a protection web he doesn’t fully understand, woven by Boone as Artie Ravidge. The opening minutes set the scene well. Cobb and his partner argue loudly over allowing the union to organize. On his way out the partner takes the freight elevator which goes into free-fall, and he to his death. Mitchell’s young son, Alan, returns from 3 years away, some of it in Europe and some of it in the military, having decided to take up his father’s earlier offer to join him in the business. He arrives the day of the funeral and hears from Lee Hacket [Valerie French], the chief buyer and Walter’s “very good friend”, of the tragedy and soon begins to run into rumors of gangster activity; the elevator death was no accident.
As we know so well, movie jades that we are, his clean, young looks tell us he is on the ‘good side’ and will probably prevail. He gets to know Tulio, [Robert Loggia] the organizer, after seeing him evicted from the shop floor, and meets his lovely wife, Theresa [Gia Scala], both Italian-Americans, with their young baby, In one interesting scene the union is holding a dance evening in the union hall, part of the social union efforts of the time. Alan gradually comes to believe that his father is indeed using gangsters for protection and father-son tension rises quickly — allowing some of the most genuine lines of the movie as Walter Mitchell stakes out the still often heard claim that “I (and I alone) built this with my own hands. No union is going to tell me what to do.”
Unfortunately for this viewer, the story digresses away from union organizing and scenes of the workers taking action and educating each other and the public into a noirish crime story complete with dark back alleys and stabbings in secluded places. In fact the night of a vital picket line only 5 or 6 men seem to be available. Other murders follow, and with them news of betrayal within union ranks. Young Alan continues to be a stand-up guy and in the end is running the factory, the mobsters chased off by a complete set of books detailing the payments made to them and the resulting prison term. Appropriately, for the Ladies Garment Union the closing scene has Alan, the new boss, flanked by the two women of the film, the organizer’s widow — who has saved his life and the day with a daring run over tenement roof-tops– and the father’s lady friend.
For our ears the script and dialog are unsubtle, even in places ham-handed. We are used to much more indirection and understood gestures and intimations. The plot signals its intentions pretty clearly. Alan Mitchell is too good, Lee Hackett too naive and Theresa Renata not quite convincing in her Italo-histrionics; its all a bit too much of a story-board for our modern tastes. Still, tension rises. We know another killing is due, just not where and how. We like the young people — though we wish Alan, just out of the Service, knew how to fight better. We are certain of whom to boo. The good guys finally win and the workers are finally allowed a lunch break.
Curiously no mention is made of which war the son is coming home from, nor does the expected trope appear, as he tangles with his father, that he fought for freedom and democracy and not the thuggery he is witnessing. There are some great documentary-like scenes of masses of people following Tulio’s hearse down 7th Avenue. Since the killing of an ILGWU organizer, William Lurye, and subsequent mass mourning actually did happen in 1949, when Velie was writing, we might best assume the setting is meant to be just after WW II, not after the Korean war which preceded the making of the movie. Curious in another vein are the posters for the film — all come-on shots of women in the act of undressing. In fact there is a scene which must have opened eyes in 1957 when the film was released of the owners (men) walking into the changing room for the semi-attired female models without so much as a bye-your-leave. The publicists must have thought this image would bring in more paying customers than a picture of a stabbing or a shop-floor walk out.
There are other, more recent, films about organizers, workers and unions — Matewan by John Sayles and Norma Rae by Marin Ritt come quickly to mind, but for old-fashioned organizing and gangsters cooked with innocence and noir have a look at The Garment Jungle.