Today we turn to the villains of two different films starring Joel McCrea, whom I keep confusing with Joel McHale of Community: Herbert Marshall as Stephen Fisher in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film Foreign Correspondent, and Leslie Banks as Count Zaroff in 1932’s The Most Dangerous Game. To my mind, the suits these two different characters wear illustrate the difference between the 1930s English drape cut as interpreted and exaggerated by Hollywood and the more restrained and fluid London drape.
Coincidentally and tragically, both actors were seriously wounded in World War I: Marshall lost a leg, while Banks was partially disfigured. As with other roles Banks took, his scarring lent itself to his performance as the mad Russian big game hunter Zaroff, who appears at the top of his castle stairs in a tailcoat as imposing and intimidating as his demeanor.
Broad-shouldered to the point of being almost droopy and exceptionally full at the chest, the Count appeared to be using a 1930s American tailor despite dwelling on a jungle island in the middle of nowhere. The 1920s short story on which The Most Dangerous Game is based alludes to Zaroff using, and his guest recognizing the handiwork of, “a London tailor who ordinarily cut and sewed for none below the rank of duke.” The film presents a Hollywood conception of that, grandly overblown like the Chinese and Egyptian Theatres on Hollywood Boulevard. Stylized, extravagant and so far from authenticity as to be uniquely Golden Age tinsel.
In contrast, Marshall’s suits in Foreign Correspondent perfectly befit the suave leader of an English pacifist organization who turns out to be working for the enemy (whose nationality is not mentioned, in order to avoid trouble with an as-yet neutral U.S. State Department). In particular, he sports a gently draped dark double-breasted pinstripe with that trapezoidal “keystone” button placement which one reads about but almost never sees done correctly. Buttoned on the bottom button, Marshall’s suit fits just about every feature of the London Lounge cut described in Apparel Arts’ seminal Winter 1935-36 article on the difference between the English cut as interpreted by American tailors and the more restrained, less bulbous London cut actually favored by the tailors of Savile Row. All of this, of course, reflected an American perspective on what was more English, but the same, of course, was likely true for these two movies, each of which was made in Hollywood, featuring Hollywood versions of various types: the exotic and wealthy foreign villain, the unctuous English double-crosser, and so on..
While filmed in the US, Marshall’s suits don’t display the same sort of exaggerated drape as Banks’ – whether because wardrobe designers felt Marshall’s character would have a more restrained British look or because Marshall simply used different tailors. Nor do they display more dramatic shaping and padding of later 1940s double-breasted suits, which means that, in the best traditions of the 1930s cuts venerated by this blog, you could wear this suit today and not look out of place - at least among men who know what a suit that fits looks like. I note that Marshall’s trousers appear to be quite full-cut, which was in keeping with the London Lounge cut but not very current. I note that in searching for stills of Marshall from the film I found that the best pictures were screen captures taken by a poster on the Fedora Lounge in order to inquire about the suit styles in the movie. I thank him for them and hope this brief writeup could be helpful.
Thinking about it, I suppose we run into a confusion of terms around what drape is. The very vocal partisans of drapey suits on the internet (who do battle with 1902 Sears-catalog-clutching opponents) sometimes lead the inexperienced to think that drape is a synonym for quality suitmaking or cutting. Nothing of the sort. However, the more one attempts to describe drape, the more one risks confusion. Drape is a certain fullness and ease of cut. At its best, it looks softly, comfortably elegant, with fullness in the chest in case the wearer lacked it and some gentle shaping at the waist that means it looks as comfortable as it feels. However, from experience, a well-fitting suit of any cut, whether sharp and shaped or softly draped, should be as comfortable as pajamas. And drape is neither inherently good nor bad, but a property that can be used well or badly. The current fashion in high-end ready-to-wear, and the house style at many tailors, is for sharply cut suits with very little drape. That’s fine, provided the suit still fits the wearer. 1950s Teddy Boys, for some reason, also sometimes referred to their jackets as drapes, I forget why, even though they had nothing to do with drape as we now know it. But it’s possible to see in the Hollywood drape suits worn by Banks the roots of what led to even greater exaggeration into the zoot suit. In fact, there are clothing histories that credit Frederick Scholte, the cranky Savile Row tailor generally acknowledged as creating the drape cut, as the inventor of the zoot suit. The cantankerous Dutchman would have been confounded. But the fullness and broadness of the Hollywood drape cut, itself a revision of the original English cut, likely did lend itself to expansion and appropriation by other audiences of the silver screen, as different contexts transformed proportions.
Other reasons to watch: Unlike most of the films I choose to discuss, which are (by design) awful, both of these are excellent. Go and see them. Foreign Correspondent is a tight, Europe-on-the-boil intrigue of the type Eric Ambler was so good at. It may not be one of Hitchcock’s very best but it’s snappy and full of plot twists and Hitchcock’s little touches. And The Most Dangerous Game is splendid fun, tense and entertaining with enough old movie tropes to be charmingly quaint as well. The movie adds King Kong’s Fay Wray as the damsel in distress as Richard Connell’s original story was a bit of a sausagefest. And while most of the material is tame by today’s standards, it has at least one moment of genuine shock that will surprise even today.
A word of warning, however: it didn’t work when you told your significant other that Death Race 2000, Hard Target and The Running Man were just like The Hunger Games, only better, and it won’t work with this movie either. But it’s true.