Recently, I joined a sold-out crowd at the Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation in Waltham, Massachusetts for Waltham Film Factory’s showing of the documentary, Voices from the Basement. The museum, filled with antique typewriters, vintage lathes, and classic cars, is the perfect setting for this look at what was the hub of the bargain universe for decades, Filene’s Basement. It seemed right to watch a film about the former retail giant in a former textile factory. The film, a tribute to the retailer, tells the story of a place that became a landmark and even a way of life for throngs of Bostonians. Filled with historic footage from the Downtown Crossing shop, the film chronicles the opening of the Basement in 1908 to its closing in 2007 and is a fascinating look at retail history and Edward Filene’s radical corporate philosophy.
Filene’s original Downtown Crossing, Boston location
Edward Filene, the son of founder William Filene, opened Filene’s Automatic Bargain Basement in 1908 as a way to sell overstocked merchandise from his father’s main store in the unused basement. As the store gained popularity, buyers began purchasing high quality goods from other large department stores from all over the country and marking it way down for quick sale. That meant the stock was always fresh and consumers could buy designer goods at a fraction of the original prices.
A packed house in search of inexpensive, but not cheap suits
The automatic part came from the method of automatically marking down merchandise according to a fixed schedule. Filene had other new ideas too. He wanted to keep his employees healthy, so he opened a clinic across the street from the Downtown Crossing location. Sick workers could receive company-sponsored medical care years before any other business owners even considered it. Basement employees ran a store newsletter and the Filene’s Coop Association allowed workers to voice their opinions on store policy. Filene also started a credit union for his employees. This business-as-social-experiment also encouraged employees to stay on for fifty years or more. People started in the stockroom and worked their way up to the sales floor. Employees were fiercely loyal to the company.
A poster depicting the schedule of markdowns
The concept that hard work and ability led to promotion added to the store’s reputation as an egalitarian business. The wide range of shoppers cemented it. Everyone shopped there. The Boston Brahmin browsed next to waitresses, moms, and students.
Bargain hunters sift through the bins.
If you were a savvy shopper, you frequented Filene’s Basement. If you were a female savvy shopper, you got used to changing in the middle of the sales floor. Another of the idiosyncrasies of Filene’s Basement was the lack of dressing rooms for women. I can remember going to the store as a child. My mom would grab wraparound skirts in a larger size for us. We’d put them on over our clothes so we could try on pants and skirts under them without exposing ourselves. Brides-to-be grabbed deals during the yearly Running of the Brides event. There’s a funny edit during that part of the film that shows footage of the Running of the Brides cut with scenes from the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. Celebrities like Boston Mayor Tom Menino, actress, Estelle Parsons, reporter, Mike Wallace, Governor Mike Dukakis, and Boston broadcasters, Peter Mehegan and Carl DeSuze wax rhapsodic about the virtues of Filene’s Basement. They’re not the only ones. Voices from the Basement features longtime employees as well; many expressing their love and gratitude to managers and staff members who cared about their customers and each other.
Filene’s clock on Washington Street, Boston
After the film, director, Michael Bavaro and executive producer, Dr. Susan Edbril answered questions and listened to audience stories about their memories of the iconic hole in the ground. There were some great ones. A former marketing executive with Filene’s Basement recounted that once, when she was working, the fire alarm sounded, but no one would leave. They didn’t want to lose the bargains they’d found. Seeing this fun piece of Boston history in such a historic place was a lovely experience.
The Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation and the Waltham Film Factory will screen the film Voices from the Basement again on Wednesday, March 1. Tickets are on sale here.
“There are no other cases. This is the case.”
Frank Galvin (Paul Newman), a drunken, bottom-feeding lawyer chases hearses instead of ambulances. When he’s not trolling funerals for clients, he’s drinking his breakfast at a local Boston pub. Even his best friend, Mickey Morrissey (Jack Warden) has had enough. Morrissey arranges for Frank to take a simple malpractice case, settle it, and get back on his feet, but eighteen months after taking the case and within days of the trial, Frank has done nothing to prepare.
Frank even cons the family of the victim. During a meeting with the victim’s sister and her husband, he sits on a desk, clucking and feigning empathy while doodling dollar amounts on a legal pad. After the meeting, Frank visits the victim, Deborah Ann Kaye, who lies in a hospital in a permanent vegetative state. She lapsed into a coma during childbirth 4 years earlier. Her family believes she received the wrong anesthetic. The hospital, run by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston claims complications and inaccurate statements by the now comatose woman led to her coma and the loss of her child. While taking Polaroids to legally blackmail the hospital into settling, Frank does something unexpected. He sees Deborah Ann Kaye. After that, he can’t bring himself to settle. During a meeting with the Bishop (Ed Binns), Frank says, “If I take the money, I’m lost.” Frank decides to take the case to trial because it’s the right thing to do. The scene in which he tells Morrissey of his decision smacks of Mamet. Newman says, “They killed her. They’re trying to buy me.”
Morrissey says, “That’s the fuckin’ point.”
Morrissey reminds him who the defense attorney is and Newman admits he’s good. Morrissey says, “Good! He’s the prince of fucking darkness! He’ll have people testify she was waterskiing in Marblehead last summer.”
James Mason as Concannon is the horned one and proves it in his bloodthirsty preparations for the trial. Concannon’s team of attorneys builds a case from every angle. They use connections at newspapers and the local PBS affiliate to plant stories about the goodness and competence of the doctors. They pay off Frank’s star witness. Concannon has an even nastier trick up his sleeve that almost derails the case, but Frank soldiers on.
Once at trial, we see just how outgunned Frank is. His star witness AWOL, Frank finds another to take his place only to see him discredited on the stand. Even the judge, (Milo O’Shea), clearly favors Concannon. The deck stacked against him, Frank puts his head down and continues with the case.
The Verdict does the David and Goliath thing without hitting you over the head with it and we watch Frank lift himself up from the gutter and fight to stay up. His mantra, “There is no other case. This is the case.” serving as a pep talk he gives himself to keep from giving up or giving in.
Sidney Lumet and Paul Newman made a beautiful film about a tortured soul seeking redemption. A bunch of A-listers wanted the Frank Galvin part and Richard Zanuck and David Brown went through several screenwriters and directors before choosing the Paul Newman, Sidney Lumet, David Mamet combo platter. It works. Lumet, no stranger to courtroom dramas or dialogue-heavy films, knows how to make a conversation between people sitting in chairs dynamic. Fail-Safe and 12 Angry Men proved that. The Verdict, a smaller, less world-shattering film still has me on the edge of my seat every time I see it and I already know how it ends.
Part of that excitement stems from the talented character actors who flesh out the film. Along with Mason, O’Shea, and Binns, Roxanne Hart, James Handy, Julie Bovasso, and Charlotte Rampling in a wonderfully restrained performance, make The Verdict ring true. Only Lindsay Crouse disappointed me. I liked her before she got on the stand, but her trial demeanor seemed a bit overdone. Jack Warden had me believing he lived in the world of back room card games and Bushmill’s for breakfast. He didn’t get enough screen time.
All that talent aside, the film belongs to Newman. He goes from sleazy to earnest to desperate to inspiring and a lot of places in between. His moods turn on a dime. One second he’s buying the boys a round and the next he’s sobbing in a hotel bathroom. You can’t take your eyes off him. Dominating every scene, Paul Newman has you wondering what will happen and how he’ll react to it. He also makes you care. Even as the shyster lawyer at the beginning of the film, Newman has you wondering what made him this way. Though he would win the best actor Oscar four years later for The Color of Money, Newman deserved it more for this lower profile tale of loss and redemption. Run out and see this film.