The spectacular rise of a woman in a man’s world!
The late 1940s and early 1950s were a time of great social stress (even if most of it is forgotten now in the greater challenges which were overcome later). Women had gotten their first widespread taste of mainstream employment in support of America’s massive need during the Second World War. After the war, many of these same women realized that they liked being out of the home and their new roles and didn’t want to return to the kitchens and nurseries of 1940. Pandora didn’t want to go back into the box, so to speak.
Into this conundrum we insert 1951’s I Can Get It for You Wholesale, a drama verging on dramedy starring Susan Hayward, Dan Dailey, and Sam Jaffe as players in the garment district who venture out on their own to start their own company. Hayward as Harriet Boyd serves as the design muscle and visible but unconfirmed leader of the company. Dan Dailey is Teddy Sherman, the best sales guy in the business. Sam Jaffe completes the partner list as Sam Cooper, the operational leader behind the operation keeping the sewing machines humming.
So these three- who play so well against each other- launch their own company making $10.95 dresses. Now before you get your perceptions skewed, realize that this isn’t in 2015 dollars, because in 2015 dollars they’d be about $115 dresses. So probably not something you’d find on the clearance rack.
We get the first real hints of trouble when Harriet goes out with a buyer after hours to get the sale, displacing Terry who would normally arrange an evening of ‘entertainment’ for his clients. In fact, he’s left two blondes at the bar when he confronts Harriet mid-drink.
On the surface, he’s jealous of the time Harriet is spending with the buyer because he’d rather she spend it with him. In a bit of a huff, he proposes marriage to her on the street, but she demurs, saying, “What do you expect me to do, throw my arms around you?” Now angered, he threatens to leave the firm only to learn that their partnership contract is ironclad and he’s stuck with her- at least professionally.
On a deeper level it is clear that Teddy is fighting for what he sees as his turf- and subconsciously it is the fact that he has to share it with, of all people, a woman- that makes him temporarily lose his marbles. And she clearly doing pretty well doing exactly what Teddy was supposedly the best at isn’t lost on him- doing whatever it took to get what she wanted.
Though today when corruption, scandal, sexual misconduct and mayhem of all kinds is widely seen (and often quietly tolerated) by all sexes, in 1951 it was uncommon to see a powerful female business executive exhibiting the same cutthroat tactics a man would use.
Things are going along smashingly until along comes along George Sanders in the form of J. Noble, a leading boutique owner. After meeting Harriet at an awards dinner, he becomes smitten. Harriet might just return the interest, but she is more interested in what else he has to offer her, a high visibility and prestigious job designing for his house. But they come up with the same problem Terry had earlier in that ironclad contract.
So what to do?
They come up with a plan B, which is for Harriet to design a separate line entirely exclusively for Noble. This line, termed ‘Harriet Boyd Originals,’ won’t be those pedestrian $10.95 gowns but rather higher end ball gowns and the like. Though it is never clearly explained how this would get her out of the contract, presumably the other partners would be so irate about the repercussion that they would voluntarily tear it up to get her to leave.
So while Teddy is off tearing through the South- unaware of the new line and selling those $10.95 dress like hotcakes- Sam and Harriet shut down normal production and dedicate all of their resources to the higher end gowns. There is a great line about Sherman marching through Georgia, comparing our salesman Sherman with the Union general.
Of course, it isn’t long until Teddy starts to get complaints about orders not showing up and he heads back to the Garment District to get the bad news. They decide to combine their efforts and force Harriet’s hand- they won’t honor the order for the gowns, forcing their company into bankruptcy.
Harriet confronts Noble, admitting she loves Teddy and won’t abandon her company to be Mr. Noble’s love interest and design queen. She’ll go back to her man Teddy and her company.
While some would see her rather quick return to Teddy as an affirmation of a sexist Hollywood sending a sublime message that a woman can’t succeed without a man, it is actually exactly the opposite.
You see, she gets a man either way and if anything, the Noble offer is seemingly the more lucrative one financially. But to go with Noble means to work under a man and never be his equal- her name will never be on the letterhead, so to speak. Going back to Sam and Teddy – both of whom she demonstrably dominates one on one- she works for no one and is her own boss.
I Can Get It for You Wholesale is an exceptional film with especially crisp dialogue, written and directed by Abraham Polonsky and Michael Gordon, respectively. Both ended up blacklisted during the early 1950s and lost good portions of their careers as a result, but returned to the industry in new visages. Polonsky taking the reigns more more often as a director on his return, and Gordon returning to make predominantly schmaltzy films like Pillow Talk.
Though there are some exceptional setup shots of the garment district, strangely we never get a true feel for the industry, and Gordon’s fine shots become a mere frame inside which there is little picture. We could just as easily be looking at publishing or advertising or any other industry.
But the true star of I Can Get It for You Wholesale is Susan Hayward. Never blessed with a plethora of top leading men to play against, she usually doesn’t come up a first mention during a classic film discussion. Perhaps her early death prior to the era of the talk show hurts her here- who hasn’t seen Bette Davis or Joan Crawford tour Dick Cavett and the like?
Here Hayward is snarky, nasty, and downright single-minded in her drive to succeed. She manipulates her initial seed money out of her mother, tramples Teddy’s marriage proposal heartlessly into the ground, sells out her partners for her own gain, plays Teddy and Sam separately against each other, and nearly heads off to a relationship with a man she doesn’t love just to get ahead. Damn, she’s despicable and awful. Awfully good.