The movies have been influencing style since the early silent film era. Audiences gawked at Gloria Swanson's gowns in her DeMille films. During the Depression and war years, they escaped their shabby mended and re-mended wardrobes in the glamourous clothes they saw on screen. Later, they reminisced about the Jazz Age fashions in Singin' in the Rain. This month we contemplate movies about clothing designers and focus on an industry that looks very different today than it did in the classic movie era. This week, Adam and Samantha watched I Can Get It For You Wholesale.
ADAM WILLIAMS: This film concerns the meteoric rise of Harriet Boyd (Susan Hayward), from showroom model to co-owner of a dress company. Her dogged pursuit of success is summed up in one of the film’s brightest moments: “I know plenty, and I’ve learned it the hard way. I’ve worked days and studied nights. I’ve modeled those 7th Avenue dogs while cheap salesmen and buyers from the West clawed all over me. I’ve been pinched, patted, and kissed. I’ve fought my way out of cabs, bars, and hotel rooms but I’ve learned this business. It took a strong stomach, but I’ve learned it.” That’s the thrust of the film—a woman valiantly embarks on a journey through a male-dominated field.
SAMANTHA GLASSER: Rayna Maughan for Screenland said, "The risk is a formidable one, especially since Susan craves fur coats, Cadillacs, and Fame, do you hear! FAME!"
I am of two minds when assessing this film. On one hand, it is refreshing to see a woman rise from a manhandled model to a successful businesswoman to a respected dress designer. She knows it won’t be easy, but she has a goal and does what has to be done to get her there. She is crafty and manipulative and she gets what she wants, almost. However, it is difficult to ignore the many people whose heads she walks on on the way up. She uses her femininity to convince Teddy Sherman (Dailey) to abandon his success as top salesman for their prior company in order to start a new one. He believes his efforts will be rewarded not only financially, but matrimonially. How naïve. Sweet old hardworking Sam (Jaffe) has a family to support, but he believes in Harriet’s potential and risks his retirement to support her. Her sister Marge (Randy Stuart) and her mother (Mary Philips) do their best to help her even when they don’t understand what she is doing or why, but Harriet takes advantage of their loyalty and doesn’t repay it. I might respect her, but I don’t like her.
AW: I wanted to see this movie on the strength of the two writers who adapted Jerome Weidman’s novel, Vera Caspary, and especially, Abraham Polonsky. Force of Evil, which Polonsky wrote and directed three years earlier, is such a gripping movie that I was curious how much of that vitality remained. Was I Can Get It for You Wholesale Comrade Polonsky’s final attack against filthy capitalists before his blacklisting? Unfortunately, it’s not that explosive. If Force of Evil is a nearly blinding 100-proof vodka, Wholesale is a comparatively safe 20-proof. In a 1964 Film Quarterly interview, Polonsky dismissed the film as a “stopgap” project without much elaboration. This indifference shows. There are times if you listen closely to the dialogue, you’ll hear the droning sound of a writer earning a paycheck. I could listen to George Sanders read the federal tax code but even his velvety tone can’t compensate for the blandness of some of the dialogue here. “He loves you, but he wants to own you because he is a man who has nothing. I have everything and all I want is to share my pleasure in it with you,” he limply explains in a line that should have been half as long and twice as sharp.
SG: Both Polonsky and director Michael Gordon were named as Communists during the HUAAC investigations. Gordon made a comeback and directed Pillow Talk in 1959.
Caspary wrote Laura, Bedelia, and Bachelor in Paradise, all featuring strong female leads, so it is no wonder Weidman’s original novel was changed from a male to a female protagonist. There is a great moment at the fashion show when Harriet lights Noble’s cigarette, not the other way around. What threw me for a loop was the abrupt change of heart the character makes in the end. It felt like a studio meddling with original source material to bring the audiences a happy ending, but I could find no evidence that that was the case.
AW: An unsafe ending could have redeemed this movie, but instead it just further mired in mediocrity. The movie has the generic glossy veneer expected from a 20th Century Fox production. Milton Krasner’s photography is faultless but not distinctive; the only visually arresting moments are the location shots. The film opens with a quick tour of Manhattan, leading the viewer from the dress shops of 5th Avenue to the grungier environs of the Garment District. This sequence culminates with a sweeping shot from a busy intersection that zooms into the 7th floor window of a designer. Susan Hayward appears in that window and takes a drag from her cigarette. Cut to a reverse shot: Hayward looks away from the window in a studio 2,000 miles away. I love these distinctly Hollywood moments that transcend space and time. It’s also of note because, presumably, the shot was filmed without closing the street. The people going about their day were inadvertent extras with a starlet looking down upon them. I fixated on this shot so much that I trawled online street maps to find the building and eventually I arrived at the intersection of 38th and 7th. That probably won’t be on any NYC sightseeing tour.
There are other fleeting glimpses of the real New York City. Marvin Kaplan carries two mannequins down a busy sidewalk on an obviously frigid day, Hayward and Dan Dailey walk across the Bow Bridge in Central Park (before cutting to process shots for the dialogue), and there’s an aerial shot of Manhattan (hard to fake that in a studio). Each of these moments generates momentary excitement in an otherwise sterile, studio-bound picture.
SG: The film felt much more modern in terms of pacing and camerawork. There is a lot of movement throughout and creative establishing shots and transitions.
It was also a lot of fun to see the garment district in action. If you’re familiar with The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, you’ll associate Miriam’s father-in-law with the doings in the early portion of this movie. Harriet begins designing $10.95 dresses, what we would call ready-to-wear pieces now, but she aspires to design couture gowns. There is a big difference between the two types of designs. Ready-to-wear has to be practical, often with multiple ways to wear, or versatility between seasons. These pieces are made in utilitarian fabrics that can be made cheaply and easily without a lot of intricate details like embroidery and embellishments. They also need to serve a variety of body types. Couture gowns are more exclusive, expensive and unique. Harriet dreams of being valued the way these gowns are valued, to be looked at as posh and special. When J. F. Noble (Sanders) picks her out as someone who is better than the rung of the social ladder she currently occupies, she becomes drunk on the notion that what she has felt her whole life is true; she is destined for greatness.
Each night after the day's shooting, director Gordon and Dan Dailey met in Dailey's dressing room to discuss the work. "We recognized that no matter what else was involved, we had a common cause-- a good picture," Dailey said in a Modern Screen article. From the sounds of that, the two butted heads quite a lot but were pleased with the final result. I was impressed with Dailey’s performance in this film. Having watched him in many musicals where he plays a smirking placeholder dance partner for Betty Grable, I was shocked to find him displaying depth here. I believed his conflicted feelings of attraction to Harriet and his exhaustion by the thwarted pursuit.
AW: When Susan Hayward gets wound up, she’s ferociously fun to watch. It’s a shame she’s surrounded by such milquetoast characters. I must have had an allergic reaction to Dan Dailey and his boorish character. Sam Jaffe plays up the gentleness so far that he fades into nothingness. Marvin Kaplan is a one-note caricature. Harry von Zell somehow makes lechery seem quaint. For some unfathomable reason, George Sanders—Mr. Dreadful himself—was cast as a likable fellow. Where is the pathos? Like so many off-the-rack garments, this movie was designed for mass appeal and, in doing so, makes itself entirely unappealing. Two stars.
SG: Jaffe always delivers a good performance. Kaplan is great fun, though he certainly fills the comic relief slot. George Sanders, just by being himself, lends a sinister quality to Harriet’s endeavors, although he is doing nothing more than boosting her confidence to let her feel capable of achieving her dreams.
Liza Wilson for Photoplay called it, "this rather routine comedy drama which has three excellent assets, Susan Hayward, Dan Dailey and George Sanders." Mandel Herbstman for Motion Picture Daily said, "The manners and morals of Manhattan's fabulous garment industry has been given a superb screen treatment in I Can Get It For You Wholesale. The picture's story-substance has been matched by persuasive acting and sound production support." I would agree. It makes sense that this story was adapted to the stage, because it is so character-driven. It is also a unique look into the gritty side of what the public sees as a glamorous industry. Here we see the gears in action behind the scenes with all their grease and grime. Three stars.