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Intended as a tough, unflinching expos of corruption in New York City's Garment District in the style of On the Waterfront (1954), the 1957 film The Garment Jungle was an attempt to show the volatile relationship between Union organizers and members and business owners in the clothing manufacturing industry. It was also meant to show how criminals and hired thugs were used by big business to intimidate, terrorize and even murder any potential troublemakers from the Union. Based on "Gangsters in the Dress Business," a series of articles in Reader's Digest by Lester Velie, The Garment Jungle screenplay by Harry Kleiner, who also served as producer, was a controversial one that used a father-son relationship to explore complex issues of morality and ethics in the business world. According to director Robert Aldrich, the film was the "first pro-Labor picture" to emerge from Hollywood but the journey from screenplay to screen would turn out to be one of the more troubled productions at Columbia Pictures.
The Garment Jungle was the second film in a three-picture deal between Aldrich and Columbia mogul Harry Cohn (the first was Autumn Leaves, 1956). Almost from the beginning, the director and the studio head clashed over casting, the screenplay and other issues. Although Aldrich had no problem with the selection of such experienced actors as Lee J. Cobb, Richard Boone, and Joseph Wiseman, he resented having to use some of the younger actors forced on him by Cohn, particularly Columbia discovery Gia Scala, Kerwin Mathews and Robert Loggia in his first major film role. Cohn also wanted to soften the screenplay's more harsh depictions of illegal and corrupt business practices and play up the "boy meets girl in a dress factory" romance between Kerwin Mathews and Gia Scala. While Cohn may have been responding to external pressures exerted by interested parties in the Garment District, he clearly wanted Aldrich to make a film which was dramatically different from the one the director had in mind.
None of this was helped by Lee J. Cobb's difficult behavior on the set. He was unhappy with his role as the tyrannical dress manufacturer with well-known ties to a union-busting syndicate. Cobb, who probably felt that his character was too close to his corrupt shipyard boss in On the Waterfront, wanted the screenplay to depict him as "more heroic and not as tough." Nothing was resolved to anyone's satisfaction, however, and Aldrich soon found himself fired from the production after missing one day of shooting due to a case of flu. Vincent Sherman was brought in as his replacement and Aldrich later surmised that the real reason he was fired was because Cohn had finally learned that Rod Steiger's crude, bullying studio mogul in Aldrich's The Big Knife (1955) was modeled on him.
At first, Sherman thought he was only being brought in to shoot some additional scenes while Aldrich was out sick but soon found himself pressured to take over the direction. According to Sherman in his autobiography, My Life as a Film Director, he was asked by Cohn what he thought of Aldrich's rough cut of the movie. [Spoiler Alert] "I pointed out," Sherman recalled, "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. For a moment Cohn made no comment, then suddenly hit the desk with his fist. "I knew it!" he yelled. "I knew there was something wrong with the damned picture. That's it!" Cohn then asked Sherman, "How long will it take you and Kleiner to rewrite what we've discussed and go through the film to see what has to be reshot and what can be saved?" Sherman told him a week but was only given three days to make the changes.
Like Aldrich, Sherman also had problems with Lee J. Cobb, whom he hadn't seen since an argument they'd had years earlier over creative differences. "During the first few days of shooting," Sherman wrote, "Cobb could not have been more gracious or cooperative. For that matter, so was the entire cast. They soon realized that we were only trying to improve the picture. On the thirteenth and last day of shooting, Cobb disagreed with something I asked him to do and began to argue with me. He resisted everything I suggested, reverting to his old ways, but I fought him and insisted that he do the scene the way I wanted. He left at the end of the film and didn't say goodbye. He had behaved badly once before and repeated it this time. He was talented but stubborn and filled with his own importance."
In the end, Sherman "had reshot in the thirteen days almost 70 percent of what Aldrich had shot in thirty-one days." Despite this, the film, though not as uncompromising as originally intended, is still an effective and occasionally intense melodrama enhanced by Joseph F. Biroc's striking black-and-white cinematography, Leith Stevens' dramatic score, strong performances by Cobb, Boone (as a particularly evil racketeer) and Robert Loggia (in his second film appearance) as the dynamic and doomed young Union organizer, the idealistic son of a Latino immigrant.
While The Garment Jungle received little critical attention and was treated by most reviewers as a B picture, The New York Times did note that "until it lapses into standard gangster fare in the final third, this Columbia melodrama remains the garment sector's most savagely pictorial screen appraisal to date." It also stated that the film's "frankly carbolic viewpoint is underscored by a highly graphic integration of locally photographed backgrounds, bluntly persuasive dialogue, superior acting and continuity that often crackles" and that "the most impressive acting is rendered by two other young newcomers, Robert Loggia and Gia Scala, as a tender, explosive pair of unionist newlyweds."
After Sherman completed The Garment Jungle he said "a letter came from the Directors Guild saying that they had received word from Aldrich that I had behaved in an unprofessional manner with regard to Garment Jungle. I sent back a long, detailed reply explaining every step of what had occurred. I never heard anything more from either Aldrich or the Guild. When Garment Jungle was released, I was surprised to see that I had a solo credit on it." Aldrich, of course, disowned the picture and never bothered to see it. One can't blame him since The Garment Jungle debacle prevented him from working in Hollywood for many years and he was forced to take on work in Europe (Ten Seconds to Hell , shot in Germany, was his next project] until his fortunes improved in the early sixties beginning with the box office success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962).
Aldrich later remarked on that difficult experience on The Garment Jungle saying, "I had a great fondness for Cohn. Naturally I think he was wrong in firing me but that's beside the point. I think he ran a marvellous studio...He wasn't in the money business, he was in the movie business. I had a chance to have a reconciliation with him later - a reconciliation in terms of doing other work - and I didn't go. I've always regretted it."
Producer: Harry Kleiner
Director: Vincent Sherman; Robert Aldrich (uncredited)
Screenplay: Harry Kleiner; Lester Velie (articles "Gangsters in the Dress Business")
Cinematography: Joseph F. Biroc
Art Direction: Robert A. Peterson
Music: Leith Stevens
Film Editing: William A. Lyon
Cast: Lee J. Cobb (Walter Mitchell), Kerwin Mathews (Alan Mitchell), Gia Scala (Theresa Renata), Richard Boone (Artie Ravidge), Valerie French (Lee Hackett), Robert Loggia (Tulio Renata), Joseph Wiseman (George Kovan), Harold J. Stone (Tony), Adam Williams (Ox), Wesley Addy (Mr. Paul), Willis Bouchey (Dave Bronson), Robert Ellenstein (Fred Kenner), Celia Lovsky (Tulio's mother).
by Jeff Stafford
The Films and Career of Robert Aldrich by Edwin T. Arnold and Eugene L. Miller (University of Tennessee Press)
My Life as a Film Director by Vincent Sherman (University Press of Kentucky)
Robert Aldrich: A Guide to References and Resources by Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward (G.K. Hall)
Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir by Karen Burroughs Hannsberry (McFarland & Co.)