Movie: The Wheeler Dealers (1963)

I think there should be a genre of movies where the leading actress is some sort of professional, yet feels she has to bury her feelings in order to succeed.  You know, the whole “why can’t I be a [insert profession here] and a woman, too?” thing.

In the case of 1963’s The Wheelers Dealers, it is Lee Remick as a financial advisor who is the only woman in her firm.  She and her roommate (played by Pat Crowley) discuss how to best land a good husband, as if that is the most they can aspire to.  The roommate chastises Remick for being too downtown, whereas she is more uptown.  Great, now I can’t get that goddamn song “Uptown Girl” out of my head.

Yet Remick’s primary goal is to be the top in her field.  There’s a great scene where she attends a luncheon of her fellow women in the financial field and she starts asking hard questions of their condescending guest speaker, played by Howard McNear.  It was odd to see her dress down Floyd the Barber on The Andy Griffith Show.

Jim Backus plays Remick’s boss.  When he is informed the firm owns a great amount of worthless shares in a New England company that makes widgets, he decides to give Remick the impossible task of offloading the stock.  After all, as he tells a subordinate, hiring her was just an experiment.  Yikes!  This is more than a glass ceiling, it also has sharp spikes under it and is slowly descending.

James Garner will be the man Remick hopes to dump that worthless stock upon, to marry or both.  We first see him on a Texas oil field as a worker opens the well.  All that comes out is a small burst of dust accompanied by a cough.  This is the third consecutive dry well of Garner’s and, as somebody tells him, “A rich man can’t afford to go broke.”

So Garner goes to New York City to look for investors.  I understand you need to spend money to make money but, almost immediately, he starts making some odd investments.  Even by the end of the picture, I wasn’t sure if he was a con man, but his aw-shucks, cowpoke demeanor definitely gives him the appearance of one.

Pretty soon he owns a taxi cab, a French restaurant and several abstract paintings.  Not sure how he intends to make money off of any these in the short term, as he allegedly came to the city to make money. 

But each of these purchases have some humorous and/or interesting aspects to them.  He offers to buy the cab after the one he initially hailed is stolen out from under him by a little old woman who is the spitting image of Tweety Bird’s owner.  The French restaurant’s sommelier had a laughably oversize wine cellar key around his neck before Garner purchases the establishment.  Afterwards, the new key around the poor guy’s neck is so ridiculously huge it would put Flavor Flav’s collection of giant clock necklaces to shame.  As for the oil paintings, Garner explains to his confused Texas brethren he is looking to invest in oil—just a different kind of oil.

Overall, I like this movie though I feel it has some problems.  Some of those elements are due to changing times.  Like I mentioned before, I was glad to see a woman with a career but, inevitably, she will wind up married to Garner and ready to git down to baby makin’ with a cookbook as the only book she’ll be readin’.  Then there’s a moment of shockingly casual racism when Garner explains what he just said to a waiter was “just some wetback Spanish”. 

Yet my biggest problem is I just couldn’t figure out how or why Garner was doing most of the investment activities he performs here.  A subplot about a federal investigation into the bogus stock is especially confusing.  The only upside with that is John Astin playing an exaggerated version of the sleazeball he normally plays except this time his lust is for prosecuting the perpetrators of securities fraud.  In a picture that is about 15 minutes too long, there still wasn’t enough of Astin’s character here.

And now for another installment of “random observation time”.  I was amused by the trio of wealthy old Texas guys who hang around waiting to see what Garner will do next.  One of them is Chill Willis, so just imagine three Chill Willis’s.  I think this trio is Ray J, J.J. and J.R.  Whatever it is, everybody says their combined names as if it is one long acronym.  I also like Garner’s description of the chicken dish he just ate, which apparently had a ton of wine and brandy on it: “That chicken is the most I’ve had to drink for some time.”  Lastly, this film takes a number of easy potshots at the contemporary art scene, but I did love Louis Nye as an artist taking everybody for a ride, and not just because he creates a giant painting made by riding a tricycle across it with different colors of paint dripping on each wheel.

As Garner as Foghorn Leghorn sums it up: “Wheelin’ and dealin’ is for fun.  Money’s just the way you keep score.”  Similarly, The Wheeler Dealers is a lightweight confection and easy to enjoy if it isn’t examined too closely. 

Dir: Arthur Hiller

Starring Lee Remick, James Garner, Jim Backus, Louis Nye, the Chill Willis trio

Watched on Warner Archive blu-ray