|'); document.write(''); //-->|
We now think of James Garner as an actor who couldn't lose -- his unique charm made almost everything he was ever in a pleasure to watch. But quite a few of Garner's '60s movies were middling performers and some of the vehicles that seemed positioned to raise his status as a serious actor didn't do well: Mr. Buddwing, The Americanization of Emily, Hour of the Gun. 1963's The Wheeler Dealers is the first feature produced by Martin Ransohoff's Filmways company, after his big TV success with The Beverly Hillbillies. It has a showy comic role for Garner, from a book written George J.W. Goodman, an author, editor and expert in political economics. The Wheeler Dealers is more like a Doris Day "will she or won't she" comedy than a critique of American capitalism. It may be the only '60s bedroom farce written by an Oxford Rhodes scholar who later specialized in business news TV shows.
Ira Wallach's fast-paced script gives us wildcat oil speculator Henry Tyroon (Garner) whose life is an uninterrupted business deal. When another Texas well comes up dry, Henry jets to New York, hires a cab for a two-week flat rate and promotes hundreds of thousands of dollars in new investment capital, all the while dogged by his three Texas fat cat buddies Ray Jay Fox, Jay Ray Spinelby and J.R. (Phil Harris, Chill Wills & Charles Watts), jolly millionaires that beg to be let in on Tyroon's lucrative deals. Stockbroker Bullard Bear (Jim Backus) wants to trim his overhead and so plans to fire his only female stock analyst Molly Thatcher (Lee Remick), first giving her thirty days to sell stock in a Massachusetts Widget company that nobody can even get on the phone. When Tyroon breezes through in his ten-gallon hat, saying gallant things in his thick Texas drawl, Molly is intrigued.
Tyroon doesn't purchase Widget stock from Molly but he does buy a restaurant that she likes, changes it overnight to "Chez Henri" and makes the bar (the most profitable concession) twice as big. When Molly drags him to a modern art exhibit attended by her boyfriend, art critic Leonard (Elliott Reid), Henri has a heart-to-heart with the profit-oriented artist Stanislaus (Louis Nye) and goes on a two-day shopping spree for dubious modern masterpieces. Jay Ray, Ray Jay and J.R. follow like puppies, buying shares in every investment Henry comes up with. To help Molly unload all that worthless Widget stock, Henry creates the illusion that it's the hottest buy on the market, hiring a publicity firm to promote Widgets and moving one of his oil rigs to the Massachusetts site. The P.R. storm ignites a buying bonanza. Now the most successful (and still the only) female stockbroker in New York, Molly considers dropping out of Bullard Bear's firm and becoming a Wheeler Dealer assistant to Henry's consummate Wheeler Dealer -- until events conspire to make her believe that he's only trying to seduce her.
Director Arthur Hiller's job in The Wheeler Dealers seems to be keeping in motion the cinematic equivalent of a 3-ring circus. It's a fairly complex farce about a financial wild man, sort of a no-holds-barred follow-up to James Garner's more grounded Cash McCall, where he restricted himself to raiding and pillaging one company at a time. It also has Lee Remick as a spirited modern woman pursuing full emancipation, fighting the Old Boy network that considers hiring anyone of her sex to be a radical experiment. Roommate Eloise (still-active veteran TV star Pat Crowley) tells Molly to find an Uptown Job -- a 9-to-5 nothing position that will put her in the right place to find an attractive husband. The three fat cats from Texas openly tell her to go back to her kitchen and have children. Of course, all this feminist ammunition leads to a standard Major Tease showdown (a Doris Day specialty) where Molly tempts Henry with a see-through nightie, to see how he'll react when she throws herself at him. As soon as Eloise and Molly hold up the transparent garment, we remind ourselves of when the film was made -- no way in Hoboken are we going to see either of the women wearing that thing.
The picture is packed, packed I tell you, with name supporting characters in brief roles, mostly as money grubbers or folk engaged in some kind of racket: John Marley, Marcel Hillaire, Pat Harrington, Vaughn Taylor. John Astin is a manic Securities Fraud investigator and Robert Strauss the New York cabbie who sells his hack to Tyroon for two weeks, and buys it back at a profit. And there lies the unrealistic part of Henry Tyroon's machinations -- Time and Paperwork. Henry makes two and three major verbal deals a day and moves on to the next without following through -- each of his purchases and sales would require documents and lawyers and title searches and waiting periods and due diligence, giving all and sundry participants the opportunity to discover that our Wheeler Dealer is buying things he can't pay for. It's all a typical middleman scam, where one buys and sells something for a profit, without ever coming up with cash of one's own. Henry makes a call from a radiophone in a rented convertible (so easy to hire in 1963, I'm sure) to his wildcatting team in Texas, telling them to drill in a hamlet in Massachusetts. Only a day has passed before the oil rig is already set up and running. Of course Tyroon is successful -- he's faster than Superman.
Perhaps its unfair to condemn the glamorous treatment that The Wheeler Dealers give business chicanery in terms of today's attitudes, but just try and stop me. Even given the idea that it's all supposed to be silly fun, the story now plays like a nightmare of capitalism run amuck. Henry Tyroon's clever tricks fall just short of Ponzi Schemes. He immediately makes us think of the masterful smoke salesman Donald Trump. Tyroon's M.O. is to keep money flying around while he makes ever-bigger purchases and deals. In it for the thrill, he defines the money end of wheeling and dealing as just a way of keeping score. We see Tyroon instruct an associate to write a series of bad checks to shuffle money from one account to another, a gambit designed to stall creditors long enough for him to pull off a major 'something for nothing' scam (pardon, deal).
Tyroon boasts that his deals make money for everybody but the taxman. His manipulations are always designed to leave someone else with the burden and to slip out of any tax liability, which means that we all pay for his thrills. The Wheeler Dealers assumes that we hate the IRS and will love anybody who can weasel out of paying taxes. The movie must know some important secret about American, because this exact same insanity has resulted in ordinary folk happily voting to relieve rich folk of any tax burden whatsoever. As played by Garner, Tyroon can do no wrong. I vote we string him up from the next tree, and start planting more trees on Wall Street right away.
The romantic angle in The Wheeler Dealers is in good hands, as Garner and Remick are two of the most attractive stars of their day. But their love relationship is really a money relationship, a mutually agreeable, mutually profitable partnership. Molly at first sees Tyroon as a customer-pigeon. He corrupts her, she uses him. His regional identity and personal background are a total fraud, but we're to think that an enterprising self-made man has the right to embellish his past. You know, like politicians and their military service records. Henry Tyroon puts his relationship with Molly on the fast track by devoting a few hours of his venal talent to promoting the company she's stuck with, a worthless outfit in New England that stopped manufacturing its only product, 'widgets' over a hundred years ago. Molly smiles big, as Henry's input will help her career. Tyroon pounces on a trade paper article with a typo that changes the word "midgets" to Widgets. He has Remick promote what now reads as an endorsement of the moribund company. As long as Molly just states what's in the article, Tyroon says she hasn't done anything illegal. Nothing he does is illegal. "Close to it, but never illegal". Now that's ethics for ya.
One gets the idea that the original script must have been more critical of its characters and Tyroon's schemes. If so, those distinctions were dropped as the movie was developed into more of a Doris Day-type sex farce. I doubt that investors ripped off by Wall Street will now find these financial shenanigans to be very funny. Garner and Remick, in fact, should be lauded for making it all seem attractive and acceptable... he's in it for the fun and she's championing women's rights, and they're both parasites on the economy. Every wealthy person we see in the movie is gaming the system. The Wheeler Dealers may not know exactly what it's doing, but there's nothing quite like it until the greedy 1980s, and the film Wall Street.
One reason Tyroon and Co. seem acceptable is that Wallach's script makes everybody else look even crazier. The farce hits every easy '60s satirical target except Television. It reserves special attacks for snooty restaurants (they're fake -- all the French waiters are Italians) and moronic Texans: the trio of oil fat cats are seen taking a steam bath -- in their full-sized personal jet. Modern art gets the usual roughing-up too: Louis Nye's cynical artistic genius mass-produces pricey artwork by riding a paint-laden tricycle in circles on a giant canvas. He's the first to call the blather of fans and art critics (including Molly's pretentious boyfriend Leonard a bunch of idiots. The hilarious John Astin's idiotic Securities prosecution concentrates solely on the naughty night Molly and Henry spend together in a Massachusetts hotel. The New England businessman (Vaughn Taylor) is an uncooperative crank, the headwaiter (Marcel Hillaire) a fawning lackey, and Charles Lane an impatient judge eager to throw Tyroon's case out -- the last securities trial he presided over took five years.
James Garner and Lee Remick give outstanding performances in this entertaining trifle that, if I read it right, outsmarts itself. Nobody on either side of the camera seems to know that the joke is really on them, and us, and our way of life. The Wheeler Dealers celebrates an abuse of the system. If what happens in the film was fantastic in 1963, it sure isn't now -- deregulation has made Henry Tyroons a reality, with the result that we have too many victims wondering where their savings went. I'd really like to see a disc of The Wheeler Dealers with a modern economist and a social critic contributing a critical commentary. Too bad.
James Garner must have wanted to steer himself away from straight sex farces like Boy's Night Out. He tried a thinking man's spy movie (36 Hours) and a schizo ode to pacifist patriotism (Paddy Chayefsky'sThe Americanization of Emily), only to discover that his fans didn't want social comment, and preferred him in agreeable dumb comedies. Garner's later comedy Support Your Local Sheriff did much better.
Just for the record, The Wheeler Dealers tries its darndest to be silly too -- it has the first film appearance of comic Alan Sues. I wasn't sure until Sues did his patented goggle-eye trick ... which will bring a smile to the face of anybody who watched Rowan and Martin's "Laugh-In". Something for everyone!
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Wheeler Dealers is presented in a bright, colorful enhanced transfer -- the original film was in Panavision and Metrocolor. It's more than presentable in both sound and picture, and comes with an original trailer. The disc box replicates the film's advertising tagline (misquoted in the IMDB) that today would make 3 out of 5 assertive women come out fighting: next to a picture of Garner leering at Remick, as she poses in a bath towel, are the words "He really wasn't out to make $1,000,000. He'd already made that!" I can walk out behind the tool shed with you, if you need the joke explained.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Wheeler Dealers rates:
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.
Also, don't forget the 2010 Savant Wish List.
T'was Ever Thus.