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Classic Menswear on Film: THE SPANISH CAPE MYSTERY (1935)

Greggers

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Many of us who read this forum have an appreciation not only for clothing, but for classic men's clothing and the traditions behind it; traditions that often seem lost. So we search for these traditions, search over the archeology of these traditions, scouring DRESSING THE MAN, studying the images on tumblrs and blogs, hang on the words of the cognescenti. We try to amass as many data points as we can. Sometimes it can seem fruitless, or worse, ridiculous. But surprisingly often, it’s actually kinda fun.

So in that spirit, I’d like to try to add to the discourse another data point. I’d like to take a relatively obscure movie from the Golden Age of Hollywood (and arguably, the Golden Age of Men’s Tailored Clothing) and discuss what the guys are wearing in it. Maybe learn from it. Maybe get inspiration from it. At the very least, exercise critical judgment about it.

The movie I’d like to talk about is called THE SPANISH CAPE MYSTERY, an adaption of an Ellery Queen novel, released by Republic Pictures in 1935. Republic Pictures was known mostly for serials and westerns, and THE SPANISH CAPE MYSTERY is undoubtedly a low budget affair. It was directed by a B-movie journeyman named Lewis D. Collins who went on to make more B-movies into the 1950s. But for all its low pedigree and budget, the costuming of THE SPANISH CAPE MYSTERY seems thoughtful and well-done. Moreover, the costumes seem exemplary for the time, in both city and resortwear, like a little slice of Apparel Arts on screen.

But enough preamble, let’s get on to the movie. (And note: THE SPANISH CAPE MYSTERY is in public domain, so no copyrights are being violated here.)

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The story opens with a prologue where Ellery Queen’s father, a New York police inspector, is trying to get to the bottom of a jewel robbery. His chief suspect is played by character actor Jack La Rue, who had a long career in Hollywood playing swarthy gangster types all the way into the 1970s.

La Rue’s ensemble is pretty low key here: Double breasted suit, pinned collar, medallion tie. Nothing about him screams trouble -- except for his pocket handkerchief. Just look at that sucker: It’s a carefully arranged points-out job that riding very high in the pocket. Too high? Tricky to say because pocket hanky presentations ran the gamut in so many classic Hollywood movies. But after reviewing the movie and the photographs to come, I have a pet theory that the character’s pocket squares and handkerchiefs are visual indicators of the character’s state of mind. Again, everything here looks put together nicely, but the hanky is squirming uncomfortably out of the pocket, much like La Rue would like to be out of this office.

Also, notice how much the shaped waist on the jacket.


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Ellery’s father is flummoxed by the case, so he calls on his son. Inspector Queen was played by an actor named Guy Usher, whose IMDB page reads like a litany of studio B-Pictures from the era, from westerns to Charlie Chan.

Inspector Queen is looking very sober, sedate, and business-like here. He's an authority figures – one of the more respected ones in the story – and his heavy weight double breasted three-piece suit with tasteful tie, pinned collar, and controlled pocket square reflect that.

On the other hand...is his pocket square doing the whale?


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This big fella is Judge Macklin, a judge on the Supreme Court of New York, and improbably enough, he’s Ellery Queen’s sidekick. He was played by an actor with the awesome name of Berton Churchill. As you can imagine, Churchill’s career consisted mainly of playing big white guys. As a tiny bit of trivia, he was one of the founders of SAG.

Again, Macklin is supposed to be Ellery’s Doctor Watson, but Doctor Watson 1930s-style, which means that despite the fact that the sidekick is an elite professional, he is also a dummy. Well, okay, not a dummy all the time – depending on what the scene requires, Judge Macklin is either a doddering blowhard, or he’s sage and sober voice of reason. How he wears his outfit reflects what the story needs his character to play. Here he’s pretty well put together as he warns Ellery not to get too wrapped up in his father’s case, except for that pocket square, sticking out of his pocket like an exclamation point. Later, when the story needs him to be a comic foil, things get a little sloppier.


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Now we come to the hero, Ellery Queen, played by Donald Cook.

Arguably, Queen is the best turned out of the bunch. Like everyone else, he’s wearing a double-breasted, but lighter, revealing a lighter and perhaps more appealing countenance. Silk tie, solid silk pocket square, and buttoned-down collar. The effect is groomed, sharp, and dapper. Even his hair has a fresh coat of polish.


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Here Ellery gets to the bottom of the case, and you can see he’s the focal point of the shot’s composition, both in terms of position and color tone. (The guy on the right is the jewelry store owner who slept in his clothes overnight. He’s not bringing very much to the table stylewise, so let’s keep moving.)

Again, the silhouettes on the suits here seem to be very shaped.


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Once we get into the story proper, we’re introduced to the cast of characters at the “Spanish Cape” of the title, what I think could in reality be Del Mar, California. They’re all gathered for a dinner party at a shoreline mansion, but you wouldn’t know it from the disaparate way they’re dressed, as if they were all attired for a different event. The costumer is visually conveying the discord among the guests, which finally erupts in the screencap shown above.


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This Gary Cooper-looking lug is a character named Leslie Court, of the Boston Courts. (Insert Thurston Howell chortle here.) Court is the Ivy League stuffed-shirt of the picture, engaged to the gal standng next to him. Court was played by an actor named Arnold Gray, who apparently died a year after this movie was made (!).

He’s wearing an interesting light-colored suit that I frankly have never seen before (or at least have never thought about before). Single-breasted, unstructured-looking with buttoned patch pockets, it definitely says country leisure. Kind of a dick for not at least doing black tie for the dinner, but then again, the Godfreys of Spanish Cape are new money, and perhaps not worth the effort. (Insert Thurston Howell chortle again.)


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Shenanigans ensue and the next morning, Ellery and his travelling companion Judge Macklin arrive at their vacation bungalow in Spanish Cape.

Yes, that’s right, two dudes taking a leisurely California vacation together. What are you insinuating?

In any case, when we meet Ellery and Macklin, he’s lightened up his ensemble a bit, but the presentation is a little more disheveled. (Note: An open DB jacket always looks disheveled.) Tie askew, square is floppy. The Judge is in Dummy Dr. Watson mode. “Ellery, what kind of mystery-murder nonsense are you getting us involved in now?”


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Of course, Ellery is completely put together. When they arrive at their bungalow, they discover a girl tied up inside. (Long story.) The girl is Stella Godfrey, played by an actress named Helen Twelvetrees. Ms. Twelvetrees was an actress that apparently had a very promising start in the early talkies; she was actually the marquee name for this movie. But her career declined over time with smaller parts, regional theater, and bad marriages, until she reached a very sad end in the late 50s. (Wiki for more info.) In The Spanish Cape Mystery, she really is quite adorable in a perky diminutive blonde kind of way; a way in which I’m afraid my screen grabs don’t quite do her justice.

In any event, check out Ellery’s outfit: Double breasted jacket and very full cut trousers. Also: Real pimps put their hands in their jacket pockets. Check it.


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Time to take the gal home, and get a better look at the outfits. Again, Ellery is very nicely tailored. Pocket square is situated in a very Will Boehlke-approved, linen points out arrangement. The Judge, in contrast, is still sloppy


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I wanted to include a sample of something a little more in the way of casual attire from the movie. It’s tricky, because as everyone knows, at least in the popular imagination, that everyone wore a suit and tie all the time in 1935.

The man in the cap is Walter Godfrey. Fact is, the man loves groundskeeping, and here he is talking to his gardner as Ellery brings his daugher home.

This is his yardwork outfit: longsleeve woven and white chinos. In today's world, he'd be overdressed for Applebees.


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A murder or so later, the police show up. Like Queen’s father and the Judge, here’s another paternal authority figure, Sheriff Moley, played by Harry Stubbs, another stalwart B-player. Moley is the official head of the murder investigation, and as he runs counter to Ellery’s unofficial investigation, his stodgy outfit runs counter to Ellery’s polish: Dark three-piece sack, droopy bowtie, busy watch chain and lapel pin, and vest hanging over belly like an awning. Needless to say, Moley’s competence matches his presentation: Like in so many detective stories, the actual police suck.


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While Sheriff Moley sputters through his investigation, essentially taking turns accusing everybody in the room, Ellery sits on the couch, cool as a cucumber, charming Stella Godfrey.

Unfortunately, Donald Cook isn’t exactly charming the audience. Cook’s manner is heavy on the bemusement, but without the likability to back it up, it comes across as creepy. Add to the fact that he’s decided that he’s in love with Stella Godfrey and he keeps talking about in a detached, bemused kind of way, and well, yeah. Donald Cook is no William Powell. Still, he’s dressed very well.

Does anyone want to take a crack at what kind of fabric his jacket is made of? Light grey flannel?


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Here again, these shots really shows the relationship. The dark, stodgy, but anxious Moley is suplicating (inadvertantly) to the calm, cool, collected, and natty Ellery.


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Leslie is wearing what looks like another interesting country-flavored outfit. Three-piece, no vent. Feels a little 1920s-ish. How would you characterize the drape on that chest? Also of note: spectator shoes.


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So later, Ellery and the Judge decide to get in some beach time.

Now when they talk about how the classic era of men’s clothing, and they discuss how, to a greater or lesser degree, that it was a more formal time, I want you to take a moment to recollect that THIS was the Judge’s beach ensemble.

Note also that this particular dress shirt has a breast pocket. It’s a relatively informal outfit for the era, but still.


On the other hand, Ellery seemed to dress a little more appropriately for the environment:
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Which just goes to show that classic menswear isn’t always “timeless.”


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Dinner at the Godfreys later that day, and Ellery is wearing an all around light, single-breasted outfit that just might be linen (?). It’s an informal suit that reminds me of the outfits that Leslie has been wearing. Spanish Cape is a Southern Californian vacation spot, so I would imagine that these types of suits would be appropriate. Note the buttoned-down collar and the pleated patch pocket – sporty, informal touches.

And remember, real pimps put their hands in their jacket pockets -- unless they’re putting them in their trouser pockets.


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Top: Leslie looking shifty in his dark, single breasted sportcoat and striped tie. The collar is pinned very tight. Pocket square beginning to erupt. Something bad must be on the horizon. (Spoiler: Something is -- He gets killed minutes later.) Bottom: In his resortwear ensemble, the rise on his trousers looks to be about a yard long. As a slim, long-waisted fellow myself, I can dig it; but moreover, I think the high-waisted trousers put the entire outfit into a good proportion that is lacking in more modern RTW suits. On the other hand, if you take the jacket off, things might look a little weird.


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The Judge seems incredulous. Almost as incredulous as I feel when I see that his pocket square is slanting in the wrong direction. C’mon Judge: Flusser, page 213!

Another item of note is the status of collars. As I mentioned earlier, the orderliness of the pocket squares is an indicator of emotional condition, so too can be the disposition of the collar. Collars could be tough to tame in this era, losing shape and straightness throughout the day; hence the invention of collar pins and buttoned-downs. As a character loses his cool, his collar can reflect that. Above, the judge is beginning to get a little exasperated. But throughout, Ellery’s collar is buttoned-down and neat.


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And now we round third base towards home. Ellery reveals the killer’s identity to the members of the cast that haven’t been murdered yet, and he’s chosen to do it in resortwear! Note the linen pocket handkerchief with the contrast border. Not many people realize this, but this is a very early example of product placement by Kent Wang.

Also note the shape of and lack of drape in the chest, and the high armholes. Perhaps is should also be mentioned that in all these instances of white pants/dark coat combinations, none of the jackets have brass buttons, or even patch pockets. None of them are technically blazers.


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Speaking of pocket hankderchiefs, in this shot, the judge is demonstrating the problem of the 17” x 17” pocket handkerchief: You can look like you have an order of fries sticking out of your pocket. It’s a lot of fabric for such a small little pocket, and even though Will Boehlke makes it look a piece of cake, it’s actually easier to look like a puffy-pocketed Judge Macklin than a suave Ellery Queen. (And in fact, what we may be looking at is another instance of saavy cross-media marketing by Kent Wang and his 12” by 12” pocket squares in 1935.)


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Blue jacket, white ducks, spectators, a view to die for, and a beautiful girl. Let’s ruin it with a fit critique.

Just kidding. Let’s admire the style and panache that was once so easy to achieve – once so much a part of the culture – that you could find it in a slight B-picture from a minor studio in 1935.


Thanks for skimming, and I hope I at least provided something interesting to look at.

- Greg
 
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HughJ

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I was kinda hoping for another thread about capes, but thanks for compiling a selection of very classic looks. :fonz:
 

Greggers

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Thanks, Hugh. It wasn't until right before I posted last night that it dawned on me "Oh crap, capes." :facepalm:

Before this thread fades into the mists of cyberspace, I'd like to try to make a couple of comparisons.

Pants aside, what is the distance from this:
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to this:
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versus the distance to this:
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The waist on Cook's jacket in the film is very shaped, maybe not to the degree of the guy in the second picture, but definitely more than the guy in the third. I actually see the second image as following more closely in the tradition of the first image than the third image is. Personal aesthetic taste figures more into evaluating outfits than historical precedent, but to the extent that the tradition may hold sway, I think you've got to give the guy in pic two a little credit.


How about the distance from this:
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to this:
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I took great pains not to use the s-word (okay, sprezzatura) in my write up, but I think there comes a time when insouciant crosses the line into sloppy. I don't know where that line is. I think the costumers on THE SPANISH CAPE MYSTERY weren't trying to demonstrate the judge's devil-may-care elegance, and it doesn't really read that way. And maybe, when you get right down to it, it doesn't really read that way with Sr. Agnelli either.
 

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