Based on an series of articles in Reader’s Digest, 1957’s The Garment Jungle was conceived as a blunt, hard-edged exposé of corruption in New York’s clothing industry, in the same vein as 1954’s On the Waterfront. This B-picture, whose screenplay was centered on the teeming conflict between Union organizers and business owners, ironically suffered several conflicts of its own during production. The film’s star —the always-gruff Lee J. Cobb— was reportedly difficult on set, and the studio execs at Columbia Pictures were unhappy with the original director, Robert Aldrich, firing him nearly three-quarters into the shooting schedule.
While a lot of The Garment Jungle was shot in Hollywood, a good portion was also shot on location in NYC, featuring several spots in Manhattan’s actual Garment District, as well as parts of East Harlem and the Lower East Side. With a story about violent criminals and corrupt businessmen, filming in the dark, cavernous streets of Midtown Manhattan was certainly beneficial in creating a realistic noir atmosphere.
Once I realized that the filmmakers shot a lot of the location footage in Manhattan’s Garment District, finding most of these locations were somewhat easy. The neighborhood basically goes from from W 34th to W 41st Street between Sixth and Ninth Avenues, amounting to less than one square mile in size. So, whenever I came across a shot that didn’t have any obvious signs or landmarks, I just cruised along the limited number of streets in Google Street View looking for a match. Fortunately, the Garment District is one of the few places in Midtown Manhattan that hasn’t changed a whole lot since the 1950s.
Having worked in the Macy’s offices in Herald Square for several years, I spent a good amount of time in this lively area. I still have vivid memories of spending my lunch breaks navigating around large clothing racks being hauled up and down the sidewalks by imposing men.
I’m often amazed that the Garment District, unlike other specialized areas, is still around today, with many of its large manufacturing buildings still intact. I think the main reason it’s managed to survive is because the clothing industry as whole hasn’t changed very much, even if fashion trends and manufacturing methods have evolved over the years. And despite the fact its size has significantly shrunk since its glory days, New York’s Garment District continues to be the county’s epicenter of clothing manufacturing and fashion design.
But surprisingly, the clothing trade really hasn’t been around very long. Prior to the invention of the sewing machine in the 1840s, most people’s wardrobe was handmade at home, with the concept of professional, premade clothing generally reserved for the upper class.
As the market for ready-to-wear apparel began expanding the mid-19th century, clothing manufacturing in NYC primarily took place inside small tenements on the Lower East Side, where the laborers (mostly Jewish immigrants) worked and slept in the same cramped space. But by the early 20th century, changes in labor laws and the development of mass-production technologies prompted the clothing industry to move into larger industrial lofts, eventually centralizing in what is now known as the Garment District.
But this Manhattan neighborhood was not always associated with the garment industry, in fact, it had a much more infamous reputation. In the late-1800s, this midtown area was known as “the Devil’s Arcade” and was home to the largest concentration of prostitution in the country. And of course, with that came an influx of other illegal activities, such as bootlegging, racketeering and gambling.
What was once an affluent neighborhood for wealthy landowners trying to escape the congestion of Lower Manhattan, soon became a turbulent playground for the underworld. Hotels, nightclubs, casinos and brothels dominated the streets, and many leaders in the church and law enforcement made it their number one goal to clean things up. But in the end, none of the city’s prominent social reformers were able to change things. It was the development of the garment industry that eventually pushed the crime and prostitution out. (Ironically, it was the clothing trade that pushed out the unclothed trade.)
While the District has seen some highs and lows, major fashion labels such as Carolina Herrera, Oscar de la Renta, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Liz Claiborne, Nicole Miller, and Andrew Marc still have showrooms, production facilities, and offices there. However, the future of this neighborhood, like many others in NYC, is uncertain. To help revitalize it, new zoning laws have recently been passed that revoke a decades-long restriction on non-fashion tenants, now allowing other businesses to lease the area’s loft spaces. These new laws will undoubtedly change the face of the Garment District, but hopefully the heart will remain the same.
Unlike the opening montage of the Garment District which showcased street and business signs that could be easily traced, the fictional clothing factory in this opening scene was on a cross street that didn’t have any obvious landmarks. In a later scene at this location (see “Tulio Renata Killed” below), there’s a Florsheim Shoe store visible in the background, but that didn’t help very much at first since the company had a multitude of New York addresses in the 1950s.
Assuming it was shot in New York’s Garment District, I figured out this location by simply looking through the neighborhood streets on Google Street View, starting with W 34th Street and progressively moving north until finally getting a hit on W 37th.
And as I mentioned before, since most of the buildings in this area are still around and fairly unchanged, I was able to match things up pretty quickly.
The big clue that helped me find this location was what appeared to be river in the background and a large factory on the other side, which made me think we were looking towards Queens from the Upper East Side. Another valuable clue was the fact that the north-south street the cab drove up on was situated fairly close to the river. That was an earmark of Sutton Place, which runs only 150 feet or so from the coastline. (The distance increases north of the 59th Street Bridge, essentially blocking any open views of the East River.)
Unfortunately, we never see the front of the building that actor Kerwin Mathews goes into, but after a little poking around, I concluded they shot the scene at 50 Sutton Place South. (Not to be confused with 50 Sutton Place, which is inexplicably only a couple blocks away.)
I based my conclusion on the tiny park seen across the street which I guessed was the one at E 54th Street. I later confirmed this location by looking up a 1940s tax photo of the block across from no. 50 and discovered a matching brick wall surrounding it. I could tell it was the same wall by its unusual staggered top that got shorter from left to right.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to take a current photo of the lobby at 50 Sutton Place South to compare it to what’s in the movie. Getting an unsolicited picture of practically any New York lobby can be difficult unless you get permission from the building manager. Sometimes you can snap a quick picture on the sly, but that can end up being pretty tricky, and can occasionally invoke the ire of a doorman or security guard.
I did find a few pictures of the lobby at 50 Sutton Place South on a couple real estate websites, but only one of them came even close to the same angle used in the film (pictured above).
While I could tell the sign shown in this dance scene was likely fake, I figured the location could still possibly be at a real union building somewhere in the Garment District.
In my search, I first tried using Google Street View to see if I could find a matching building, (a method that worked in finding the location of the “Roxton Fashions” clothing factory). But after going through the whole vicinity, I didn’t come across anything that looked right. One problem was that the scene was rather dark, so I didn’t really have any distinguishing elements to keep an eye open for.
Fearful that the building in this scene was torn down or perhaps located somewhere back in Los Angeles, I became doubtful that I’d ever be able to find it on my own. So, I enlisted my research partner, Blakeslee, to take a stab at it.
The first thing he did was do a Google search for “garment jungle dance” which got him a couple snippet views from a 1957 issue of The Railway Clerk Magazine. In the magazine, an article indicated that part of the movie was filmed at the New York Dress Joint Board Headquarters. So naturally, the next thing Blakeslee did was go looking for the headquarters’ address. After a little digging around, he found a 1958 reference to 218 W 40th Street, but concluded it didn’t match the film.
He then did some amazing deciphering of some signs visible in the scene. I use the term “visible” loosely because I’m still amazed he was able to interpret anything.
First, he thought the reflection in the union hall’s window said, “Atlas Hotel,” and second, he thought the neon sign a few buildings down from the union hall said, “London Tavern.”
Now, if you reverse the image and piece together the letters in the reflection (as I did above), you can basically make out the phrase, “Atlas Hotel.” But despite my best efforts, I still can’t figure out how he was able to see “London Tavern” in that blurry neon sign (seen in the upper left corner above).
Regardless, with the names of two businesses, Blakeslee was able to find addresses for both of them, which turned out to be on W 40th Street — the same street he rejected when he was looking up the union headquarters. In retrospect, I think the reason he didn’t put things together at first is because the headquarters’ official address was 218, but the scene was filmed at the 232 entrance.
Once we determined they shot this scene on West 40th, we began studying both modern and vintage pictures of the street and found several matching elements that helped verify things.
But it wasn’t until I went to the location in person and took some modern pictures that I could see that all the bumps and specks in the building’s granite entrance matched up perfectly with the film (see the second “before/after” image above). It was kind of exciting when I overlaid the old on top of the new and saw all the dots and swirls fall into place — like lining up two matching fingerprints in a crime lab.
Tulio Renata is Killed
When I first started looking for this “Roxton Fashion” location, I focused mostly on this later night scene because it had a couple legible neon signs in the background — the most obvious one being for a Florsheim Shoe on the far corner (see second “before/after” image above). However, as I mentioned earlier, the shoe store ended up not helping, and I instead relied on Google Street View to aid in my search.
When I finally zeroed in on 218 W 37th Street, I was fairly certain I got the right place, but I wanted to find some further evidence. That’s when Florsheim Shoe came into play.
Once I had a set idea of where these scenes took place, I was able to refine my search of the store’s locations, eventually finding a listing on 37th and Seventh Avenue in a 1946 phonebook.
I know looking up the Florsheim Shoe address was a little bit of an overkill since most of the buildings that appeared in these scenes are still around today and could be matched up. But I just like tying up loose ends, and it’s always satisfying to know everything falls into place just as you hoped they would.
There wasn’t much difficulty in finding this location since the name “Manhattan Center” is clearly shown above the entrance. Plus, the venue is still around today, so there wasn’t any problem finding tons of information about it.
Built in 1906, the Manhattan Center (originally called the Manhattan Opera House) was the brainchild of theater impresario Oscar Hammerstein I as a way to offer the New York public an alternative to the established Metropolitan Opera. Thanks to its high-quality productions and more affordable ticket prices, the Manhattan Opera House became a rapid success. So much so that in 1910, the Met offered Hammerstein $1.2 million to cease producing opera there for a ten year period.
Shortly after he accepted the offer, Hammerstein sold the property to the Shubert brothers, who put out a series of vaudeville shows there for the next few years. Then in 1926, after the Manhattan Opera House had been sold again, Warner Bros rented part of its space to be used as a recording studio. It was there that they recorded music by the New York Philharmonic orchestra for the film, Don Juan, implementing their new Vitaphone sound-on-disc system.
Using this innovative new technology, Don Juan became the first feature-length film to be released with a synchronized musical score and sound effects — a phenomenon that awed and marveled audiences at the time. As described in a 1926 review in The New York Times:
The natural reproduction of voices, the tonal qualities of musical instruments and the timing of the sound to the movements of the lips of singers and the actions of musicians was almost uncanny.
By 1939, the 34th Street building had officially changed its name to the Manhattan Center and served as a multi-purpose venue featuring a variety of shows and services. By the 1990s, the Manhattan Center was primarily used as a TV and video studio whose specialty was to record live events taking advantage of its interconnected ballrooms. More recently, NBC’s America’s Got Talent, Dick Wolf’s FBI, and numerous professional wrestling programs, such WWF Monday Night Raw, as have been taped there.
In addition to television work, the Manhattan Center hosts music concerts, trade shows, award ceremonies, union meetings and a number of other social events.
When it came to taking modern pictures of the Manhattan Center for this article, I decided to go to the location early in the morning. I did that because 34th Street can be a busy thoroughfare, and I was trying to avoid having large crowds cluttering up my shots. Unfortunately, when I arrived on the scene, there was a group of police officers gathered out front, including two mounted police. They clearly weren’t there in any official capacity and seemed to be just hanging out, so I decided to politely ask them if they could step aside a few feet so I could get a clean shot of the building.
Thankfully, they kindly acquiesced without much bother. And after I took my pics, a couple of them (the ones not mounted on horses) were interested in finding out why I was photographing a rather benign building, making a point that I wasn’t doing anything wrong or illegal. Once I explained they filmed a scene there back in the 1950s and showed them stills from the movie, the two cops were genuinely impressed.
It was a moment like that that helped put a skip in my step as I ventured out to photograph more spots.
This was not a hard location to find since the Williamsburg Bridge is prominently featured throughout this scene. Although admittedly, it took me a little bit of time to get the exact bearings of this scene since a lot of the buildings at this Grand Street housing cooperative look alike.
Named Coop Village, this cluster of housing cooperatives on Manhattan’s Lower East Side has over 4,500 apartments in twelve buildings on its property with some of them dating back to the 1930s. And as implied in the movie, the cooperatives were organized and built by trade unions, including the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America and International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.
Housing projects like these were becoming quite common in NYC during this period, mostly due to a piece of legislation passed by New York State in 1926 giving municipalities the right to condemn land for large-scale construction. While this new law helped create more spacious and sanitary living conditions, it also led to the demolition of several historic buildings, as well as the dissolving of many tight-knit ethnic communities.
At the time this coop was being developed in the 1940s and 50s, the Lower East Side was mostly made up of poor and working-class families. However, this area has since become a coveted place to live in with some of the highest rents in the city, although Coop Village is still advertised as being “affordable housing.” (Of course, “affordable” is still relative to typical NYC costs, with one-bedrooms going for around $3,200 in 2020.)
To figure out this location, the stone viaduct that the cab goes underneath was the key starting point. I knew it had to be for the MetroNorth commuter rail that runs up Park Avenue. I also knew that there were only a handful of streets that had those distinct stone archways, so I just had to check out each of those streets until I could find some matching stones.
Once I found a match at E 102nd Street, I was able to confirm the apartment building was also on that street, thanks to several extant buildings, including a tower at the recently-completed Carver Houses on the other side of the viaduct.
Walter is Killed
You’d think that since Ravidge’s storefront was across the street from “Roxton Fashions,” figuring out its address would be as easy as pie. But for some reason, I didn’t immediately recognize that it was taking place across the street, and I spent some time studying the business signs in the background, hoping it would clue me into the location.
Finally, common sense prevailed and I realized all of this stuff was shot on West 37th.
Alan is Taken Away
While it’s hard to classify The Garment Jungle as a classic film noir, there’s a definite cynical attitude present throughout its runtime, emphasized in a few key scenes. Yet, it’s certainly not as dark and hard-hitting as director Aldrich originally intended it to be. Almost from the beginning, Aldrich and studio head Harry Cohn clashed over the direction of the film, from the casting to its “pro labor” screenplay. And when he was replaced by mainstream director Vincent Sherman, the movie took on a lighter tone.
But Garment Jungle does offer up some captivating performances by veteran actors Lee J. Cobb, Harold J. Stone and Richard Boone. Add it’s exciting seeing character-actor Robert Loggia develop his craft in what was his first major role in a feature film.
And while the two young leads, Gia Scala and Kerwin Mathews are competent, they are probably the weakest links in the cast. Scala is beautiful, but her character doesn’t have much to do except look exasperated, and Mathews is likewise handsome but gives a rather white bread performance.
It’s pretty obvious Garment Jungle is a lightweight version of On the Waterfront, but in some ways I actually prefer it over the more notable title. Garment Jungle may be less consequential, but like a lot of B-pictures from this era, it’s pretty easy fare to digest. Plus, setting-wise, seeing New York’s Garment District in full swing is more interesting to me than a foggy New Jersey waterfront.