Emile Hirsch as Clyde Barrow, bank robber with “second sight”
Rural Louisiana, May 1934
Series Title: Bonnie and Clyde
Air Date: December 8, 2013
Director: Bruce Beresford
Costume Designer: Marilyn Vance
Eighty years ago today, six Southern lawmen pulled off a feat that the federal government had been failing to do for months with the first real victory in the United States’ “War on Crime”.
With the advent of the Great Depression following the stock market crash of 1929, criminals abandoned gangsterdom and bootlegging (both “Machine Gun” Kelly and “Pretty Boy” Floyd were known to be bootleggers early in their career) in favor of motorized banditry. In the spirit of the Old West, bank robbers took to cars all across the country – with a special concentration in the poorest areas of the Midwest and the South.
This crime wave did not go unnoticed by the government. Soon, names like John Dillinger, “Baby Face” Nelson, and Alvin Karpis were dominating the headlines, and they were surprisingly welcome by the people who were sick and tired of the perceived “fat cats” in the government. Some of the criminals, Dillinger and Floyd especially, even had the begrudging respect of some small-town lawmen. But the greatest disparity between public opinion and actual temperament is with the case of Bonnie and Clyde.
I’ve discussed Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker ad nauseam on this blog (and I’m sure I still will), but they will always be worth discussing for the unique part in this era of American criminal history. While all of the gangsters had girlfriends or wives, Bonnie was the only one who actively participating in most of her partner’s major crimes. Paired with her cigar-smoking photos (which she regretted) and her violent poetry (which she loved), Clyde and Bonnie became big-time outlaws in the eyes of the people, despite failing most of their attempted bank robberies and leaving a trail of at least 14 corpses in their wake.
The couple has never necessarily received an honest portrayal in subsequent media, either. The first major adaptation, the excellent Bonnie and Clyde in 1967, showed Clyde as a charming but impotent car thief who was more of a con man than killer, easily manipulated into a life of crime by the seductive Bonnie. While the 2013 mini-series featured here used more facts as a basis (though not necessarily as a plot line), Clyde became more of a pragmatic hood with “second sight” to anticipate each new turn for the gang. In real life, Clyde was a manipulative thug who became a natural product for the criminal life his strict-but-loving upbringing in the West Dallas slums. Bonnie was a vulnerable waitress who clearly had a knack for the wrong men (her husband, whom she married at the age of 15, was currently in prison) and whose desperate love blinded her to the effects of Clyde’s crimes. For an extreme example of the couple’s dynamic, Mickey and Mallory in Natural Born Killers is about as close as it gets, although Bonnie was certainly not as trigger-happy as Mallory Knox.
The gang bloodied up most of the South and the Midwest, ending up at a rural tourist camp in Platte City, Missouri in July 1933. They were hungry and dirty from spending more than a few nights in their bevy of stolen Ford V-8s, and Clyde was desperate to sleep in a bed. Blanche Barrow, his sister-in-law and fellow gang member, recalls Clyde telling the rest of the gang:
This is where we stay the rest of the night, even if we all get killed before morning.
According to Blanche, no one said anything in response.
While Clyde’s prophecy wasn’t exactly right, the gang didn’t lay low enough – mostly due to Clyde’s paranoia and his hunger – and local Sheriff Holt Coffey led a team of deputies and an armored car to the two tourist cabins the next night. At this time, the gang consisted of Clyde, Bonnie, Clyde’s recently-paroled brother Buck, Buck’s wife Blanche, and Dallas teenager W.D. Jones. Bonnie was still recovering from a horrible car accident the month prior, where her legs were grievously burned by battery acid. Still in recovery, Bonnie’s burns were considered to be the gang’s major impairment. Within 24 hours, the burns would be demoted to third-worst.
Shortly after 1:00 in the morning on July 20th, Coffey knocked on the door of Buck and Blanche’s cabin. Immediately sensing trouble, Blanche distracted them by calling out that she needed to get dressed and that the men were in the other cabin. Clyde, hearing the warning, sprang into action. In seconds, the lawmen were running for cover as Clyde and Buck were spitting heavy fire from their Browning Automatic Rifles. The lawmen fired back, and Buck was hit in the head with a .45-caliber round from highway patrolman William Baxter’s Thompson. His head gushing blood, Buck was helped into the back seat of the gang’s Ford by Blanche. Under heavy fire, Clyde sped the car out of the tourist camp past the shocked eyes of the policemen. Once again, Clyde had escaped.
Not without additional injury, however. While speeding out of the parking lot, a well-placed deputy, Tom Hullet, fired a shotgun at the escaping car. The pellet shattered the rear window, sending shards of glass into Blanche’s eye. As Blanche cried and shrieked about being blind, Clyde determinedly sped the hell out of
Dodge Platte City.
Clyde settled the gang about 180 miles north in Dexfield Park, an amusement park outside Dexter, Iowa that had been abandoned due to the Depression. The gang once again failed to lay low due to Clyde’s frequent trips into town for food and medicine for Bonnie, Blanche, and Buck. Buck’s head injury was so bad, in fact, that the gang members could see directly into his skull. (The doctors who tended to Buck after his arrest were amazed that the gang had kept him alive for so long; Clyde had been pouring mercurochrome directly into his head wound.) Clyde, the fashion plate even in times of stress, even purchased new shirts and shoes from town marshal John Love, who also doubled as a shopkeeper.
The bloody gang hiding in the woods eventually came to the attention of Marshal Love, Sheriff C.A. Knee, and other lawmen, who gathered in Dexfield Park on the evening of July 23rd. The next morning, the gang was waking up for a breakfast of campfire hot dogs when they spotted movement in the brush. Gunfire erupted from both sides as the gang took to one of its two stolen Fords. Clyde crashed one into a tree stump, and the gang split up to make its escape. Clyde, Bonnie, and W.D. headed across the South Raccoon River, while Buck and Blanche – the most wounded of the group – hid behind a tree stump. Buck was hit by a few more gunshots, likely fired by Thompson-toting dentist and National Guardsman Herschel Keller, and the married couple was taken into custody.
Clyde, Bonnie, and W.D. – all at least slightly wounded in the subsequent gun battle – managed to escape yet again by stealing an old Plymouth from a farm family across the river. Clyde held his wet and empty 1911 pistol on the family, forcing them to fill the empty Plymouth’s tank with kerosene as it was out of gas.
Eventually, W.D. drifted away from the gang and found himself in police custody. Anxious to cover his ass, W.D. told the authorities a long and winding tale about how Clyde had kidnapped him and tied him up to keep him from escaping most nights. Rather than admit to his role in each of the gang’s gunfights, W.D. conveniently claimed to have passed out. The gang continued on without him, with Clyde eventually carrying out his desired mission of breaking prisoners out of the hated Eastham Prison Farm where he had suffered much abuse at the hands of the Texas Prison System and fellow inmates. One of the escapees, Henry Methvin, stuck with the gang for a few months, even offering his family home in Louisiana as a hideout for Bonnie and Clyde.
Unfortunately for the outlaw couple, the Methvin home wasn’t the safe haven it could have been. The family, Henry included, conspired with local Sheriff Henderson Jordan and his deputy, Prentiss Oakley, to get a reduced sentence for Henry. Jordan and Oakley teamed up with Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, who had been leading his own hunt for Barrow since the Eastham prison break. Joining them was ex-Texas Ranger Manny Gault and Dallas County deputies Ted Hinton and Bob Alcorn. The posse made a plan and laid in wait for the gang in Bienville Parish, off of a road that Clyde was known to frequent.
On the morning of Wednesday, May 23, 1934, Clyde and Bonnie were driving up the very road where they were expected. The posse, tired and on the verge of heading home, prepped their guns as Hinton spotted the car and called to the others: “It’s him!” Six high-powered rifles were aiming directly at him as Clyde slowed the car down at the sight of Mr. Methvin’s broken-down truck, planted to lure Clyde into the police trap. Without giving him a chance to shoot back or speed away, the posse’s rifles fired. The possemen took no chances; Hamer had a specially ordered Remington Model 8 rifle with a custom 20-round magazine of .35-caliber ammunition; Sheriff Jordan fired a Winchester Model 1894 lever rifle in .30-30; his deputy, Oakley, had borrowed a .35-caliber Remington Model 8A from a local dentist (what’s with all these well-armed dentists?) for the occasion. Hinton went through three guns, a Colt Monitor, a shotgun, and a handgun. By the end of the barrage, there were 167 bullet holes in the car – 25 of which were in Clyde, 23 in Bonnie. They weren’t getting away this time.
The 1967 film’s death scene was a major turning point in cinema. Although it played with the facts, it was strikingly violent and no audience who has ever seen it has easily forgotten it. The 2013 death scene was played very close to fact, and it is just as striking as the earlier film. As in real life, the miniseries’ Bonnie and Clyde stay in the car when pulling up to the eventual ambush site. They have guns on hand but not nearly enough time to reach for them. The powerful rifle rounds tear into the car, and the two occupants are shot to pieces, jiggling around like marionettes.
As the first major breakthrough in the War on Crime since the death of Wilbur Underhill five months earlier, Bonnie and Clyde’s death set the fledgling FBI into action. Special Agent Melvin Purvis led the ambush of both Dillinger and “Pretty Boy” Floyd over the next few months. “Baby Face” Nelson was killed in a running gun battle with agents in Illinois. J. Edgar Hoover himself arranged to be present for the arrest of Alvin Karpis in 1936, although he didn’t necessarily cuff the outlaw himself.
(For more information about Bonnie and Clyde’s death or their death car, check out my post from December 2013 about the 1967 film’s portrayal.)
What’d He Wear?
The miniseries’ costume designer, Marilyn Vance, has a long and impressive resume dating back to the early 1980s, having also worked on The Untouchables, Predator, Die Hard, and other BAMF-friendly films. She presumably designed the suit being discussed here, which is interestingly sported by Clyde in two of the series’ most pivotal scenes, the Platte City gunfight and the final death scene.
The suit is a light brown herringbone three-piece suit with wide gray stripes.
The suit jacket is single-breasted with wide notch lapels, ventless rear, and a 2-button front, although Clyde almost always wears it open. It has a large fit, which appears to be characteristic of some of the real Clyde’s suits. The real Clyde was a small man at around 5’6″ and 130 lbs., so he would likely buy a bigger suit to feel better about himself. Also, after many days on the run without eating well, each member of the gang reported rapidly losing weight. Even if the suit had fit well initially, Clyde would be swimming in it later.
The jacket also has a welted breast pocket and flapped hip pockets. The 2-button cuffs match the two buttons on the jacket’s front. There is stitching close to the edges on the lapels and the pocket flaps. The shoulders are also padded, enhancing the appearance of the jacket’s large fit.
Interestingly, Clyde is shown wearing the jacket in Dexter when he makes his purchases from the country store. The next day, when making his getaway, he abandons the jacket and wears only his vest and trousers. By the time he is back in Louisiana for the final scene, he once again wears the jacket. Either we’re to believe that the kind Iowa police sent the jacket back to Clyde, or Clyde ordered two jackets (or two suits) with his initial purchase of the suit. The real Clyde was a fashion plate, so the latter could make sense… either way, it’s not worth too much of a mental effort.
The suit’s matching vest is single-breasted with 7 buttons down the front, ending with a notched bottom. Clyde always wears this vest unbuttoned, since he is typically wearing the suit casually or hurriedly. There are four welted pockets – 2 on each side – and a light brown rear silk lining. The vest is fitted, so there is no adjustable rear strap.
Clyde’s trousers are where the fit is most notably large, especially through the baggy legs. They have a low rise and flat fronts, which were becoming common during the Depression when materials for suits were more limited. The turn-ups at the bottom of each leg are widely cuffed, another characteristic of Clyde’s suits (from available photos) and also necessary for a small man that buys large suits.
The trousers have side pockets and belt loops, through which Clyde wears a thick black leather belt with a rectangular silver-toned clasp. There is a jetted rear pocket on the left side that closes with a button.
The trousers break high over his black leather boots, which are laced in the front and worn with dark socks.
When the guns start blazing in Platte City, Clyde hastily buttons up a shirt for the getaway. The shirt is pale gray with faint hairline blue stripes. The stripes are barely seen, but from a distance or in motion, they give a blueish overall appearance to the shirt. It fastens with six white buttons down a front placket. Unlike Beatty’s Clyde, Hirsch typically keeps the collar unfastened when not wearing a tie. This appears to be characteristic of the real Clyde, who also preferred wearing his shirts open-neck when going tie-less. The cuffs close with a single button.
Although Hirsch’s Clyde typically wears undershirts, he doesn’t have time to don one here and his only underwear is a pair of light blue cotton undershorts. He wears the same type of shorts throughout the film – other than a white pair in the pre-criminal beginning scenes – with a two-button closure on the waistband.
Hirsch primarily wears this suit in the two scenes mentioned above – the Platte City/Dexter escape and the final death scene – but he also wears it for a quick vignette of Clyde at the movies. In this scene, the suit is paired with a plain white shirt, dark red paisley necktie, and light brown sunglasses with amber-tinted lenses.
Again interestingly, the real Clyde was wearing a pair of sunglasses when he was killed, although they were metal-framed with octagonal lenses. Hirsch’s Clyde doesn’t have sunglasses on for the final scene, although Beatty’s Clyde is given a pair.
The 2013 miniseries comes a little bit closer to the real Clyde’s death attire than the 1967 film. Both in real life and the miniseries, he wore a suit and a button-down shirt. Both suits had single-breasted jackets with flapped side pockets and flat front trousers with cuffed bottoms and a belt.
However, the real life suit was dark blue wool with peak lapels and four-button cuffs. The trousers were worn with a thick Western-style belt. Clyde’s shirt was a light blue cotton Western-style button-down shirt with a front placket, a button-flapped chest pocket on the left side, and buttoned cuffs. A small white pattern was present throughout the shirt, which I previously compared to James Bond’s “enjoying death” shirt from Zara Youth in Skyfall. The shirt was made by Wasson’s Towneshirt Indianapolis and was a size 14-32. The shirt is currently stored in a museum with Clyde’s sister Marie’s signature on the inside of the hem to guarantee its authenticity. Marie is the same sister who was offering authentic 1″ swatches of the real Clyde’s death trousers.
Go Big or Go Home
The series does a nice job of spreading a little more light on the infamous outlaw couple, with both Emile Hirsch and Holliday Grainger deserving praise for their performances as Clyde and Bonnie, respectively. The show’s script still places Bonnie in the dominant role, to the extent of her threatening a female reporter at gunpoint if she doesn’t write more stories about her, but they provide more of a realistic depiction of ’30s criminals than the more will-o’-the-wisp gang in 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde. While the earlier film was a terrific movie (one of my top 5!), it was more theme-driven; the miniseries doesn’t try to tell us anything about the world, it just wants to entertain with a story about two legendary criminals.
Hirsch’s Clyde is somewhere between Beatty’s swaggeringly charming portrayal and the real Clyde. He is convincing enough as someone who could lead the small-time gang of misfits that the real Clyde attracted without having the actual talent to lead a professional gang of yeggs a la Dillinger. Hirsch also nails down the insecurity and bitterness that plagued the real Clyde, but the material lacks the manipulative nature that brought people like Bonnie and older brother Buck under Clyde’s dominance.
Hirsch’s Clyde is also likely nicer than the real guy. In the miniseries, Clyde tends to reserve gunplay until it is really necessary; in real life, it was as instinctive to Clyde as scratching an itch. The real Bonnie, on the other hand, was not as excited by firearms as her partner. Several murders attributed to Bonnie in the series were actually committed by others; the Christmas victim Doyle Johnson died in actuality by Clyde’s gun, and the first of the two Grapevine cops shot down on the road was killed by Henry Methvin (with Clyde killing the other only to “clean up” Methvin’s mess.)
If we can learn anything from Hirsch’s Clyde, just always tell your girlfriend that you love her. You never know when a few hundred bullets will come tearing into your car, turning both you and it into Swiss cheese.
And speaking of the car… the beautiful 1934 Ford Model 40B Fordor Deluxe in “cordoba gray” is another sign of the series’ propmasters doing their homework. I previously wrote about the car used in the 1967 film and the real car for my December 2013 post, but you can also read about it at all of the following links from Frank Ballinger’s Bonnie & Clyde’s Hideout site: here, here, and here.
1934 was the third year for Ford’s popular and venerable flathead V8 engine, which was first developed in 1932 and took off like wildfire. It gained special popularity with criminals, who found the smooth and fast V8 an excellent tool for escaping the slower six-cylinder Chevrolets or Plymouths favored by lawmen. Clyde Barrow himself was known to drive a Ford V8 almost exclusively, writing a letter of praise to Henry Ford a month before the Louisiana ambush that took his life (Clyde’s life, not Henry Ford’s.)
Wearing expensive suits and hats and sitting inside a beautiful ’34 Ford, Bonnie and Clyde prove that if you have to die, you may as well die in style.
I recently created the Bonnie and Clyde miniseries page at IMFDB, and the series really does use a nice variety of firearms, although several are slightly anachronistic for the period. Hirsch alone handles nine (9!) different guns as Clyde, and the series accurately portrays his favorites as the Browning Automatic Rifle and the M1911 pistol (although the Colt Mk IV Series 70 they give him wasn’t developed until many years after Clyde’s death.)
The real Clyde first discovered the Browning Automatic Rifle, known for simplicity’s sake as the “BAR”, sometime in the summer of 1932 when he first robbed a Texas National Guard armory. Developed in the later months of World War I for the U.S. military, the BAR was a powerful automatic rifle – as its name suggests – firing off a 20 round magazine of .30-06 Springfield rifle ammunition at a rate of 650 rounds per minute.
At a rate of 650 rounds per minute, Clyde could ostensibly empty a 20-round magazine is just under two seconds (although 20 rounds in one steady burst of fire would be unwise for accuracy’s sake.) To combat this issue and give himself more leverage in gunfights, Clyde fused together three magazines for one “super magazine”, firing nearly 60 rounds at one time without reloading. Clyde further modified his BARs by cutting down the barrel to a more manageable length. With such a deadly tool as his custom BAR, it’s no wonder that a relatively untalented robber like Clyde managed to survive as long as he did.
From the summer of 1932 on, Clyde was never without a BAR in his collection, or several. During the gang’s height in June and July 1933, Blanche recalls that the gang had so many BARs in its collection, the bathtubs in their tourist cabins would be overflowing with guns and ammunition. Clyde carried his BAR for bank robberies and gunfights, notably fighting off possible capture at Platte City due to his overwhelming firepower.
Though the Browning Automatic Rifle had been well-established as the Barrow Gang’s armament of choice, it wasn’t until the 2013 miniseries that they were really portrayed. The 1967 film, likely for simplicity’s sake, outfitted the gang solely with Thompson submachine guns and revolvers.
The Thompson, though a favorite with urban gangsters like Dillinger and Floyd, never really caught on with Clyde and his rural comrades. Even after Clyde’s death, his former associates Raymond Hamilton and Ralph Fults continued to use BARs. Even “Baby Face” Nelson, who considered himself as urban a gangster as they come, used a BAR during his final battle with agents.
However, the classic Thompson configuration with the Cutts compensator and drum magazine has become synonymous with gangsters and Depression-era crime. There are a few reports of the Barrow gang keeping them in their collection, although it’s uncertain if these were genuine Tommies or the misjudgment of awed kidnappees that were given a view of the gang’s arsenal.
The miniseries, though favoring the BAR, does indeed place some Thompsons in the hands of the Barrow Gang. The most notable misuse of the weapon is when Clyde, desperately running away from the Dexfield Park ambush, turns and fires off a few blasts with his M1928.
While the more portable Thompson might have actually been a better choice in real life, the real Clyde was armed with his favorite BAR in Dexfield Park until abandoning it for the .45 pistol in his waistband.
As I mentioned earlier, the miniseries does accurately give Clyde an M1911 pistol, even if it is the inaccurately anachronistic Colt Mk IV Series 70. All of the Depression-era criminals favored the M1911, which is unequaled in terms of reliability and stopping power. It’s no wonder the U.S. military carried them for seventy years.
While documentation is scarce, all evidence seems to say that Clyde carried one of his usual M1911s during the Dexfield Park escape, especially since it was reported as being “useless” after trudging through the South Raccoon River; semi-automatic pistols are more prone to water malfunction than revolvers. However, the miniseries sticks a Colt Official Police in Clyde’s belt for this sequence.
The Official Police was developed in 1927 for police, in case its moniker didn’t make this completely clear. It was Colt’s first attempt to battle the near supremacy that Smith & Wesson had achieved with its .38 Special “Military & Police” model, now known as the Model 10.
According to Wikipedia:
By 1933 the Colt sales catalog listed many law enforcement agencies as having adopted the [Official Police] as a sidearm, including the New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Kansas City police departments. In addition many state police organizations and even the Federal Bureau of Investigation chose the [Official Police] as their issue revolver. The U.S. Army also bought some of the revolvers, issuing them to military police and to federal agencies in need of a revolver for their armed agents, such as the Treasury Department, Coast Guard, and the Postal Inspection Service. Many Official Police revolvers were also bought by the police forces and militaries of various South American countries.
While it never knocked the Smith & Wesson out of the top spot, the Official Police became one of the best-selling police firearms of all time, even seeing some military action in World War II.
How to Get the Look
Though he wasn’t the best-dressed of the era’s outlaws – that honor would likely go to John Dillinger – Clyde Barrow always took measures to make himself look presentable, even in a dire situation like a police ambush.
- Light brown and gray striped herringbone wool three-piece suit, including:
- Single-breasted 2-button jacket with wide notch lapels, padded shoulders, welted breast pocket, jetted hip pockets, 2-button cuffs, and ventless rear
- Single-breasted 7-button vest with notched bottom, 4 welted pockets, and light brown silk rear lining with no adjustable strap
- Flat front baggy-fit trousers with low rise, belt loops, side pockets, jetted button-through left rear pocket, and wide turn-ups/cuffs
- Light gray dress shirt with a blue hairline stripe, white buttons down front placket, and rounded button cuffs
- Black leather belt with a squared steel single-prong buckle
- Black leather front-laced boots
- Dark socks
- Light blue cotton undershorts with a 2-button waistband closure
- Brown plastic-rimmed sunglasses with round dark lenses
If that’s too informal for you, Clyde added a red paisley silk necktie for his visit to the movies.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Sometimes I like to think that fever of unexplained origin, that I never came out of the other side, and the rest of my life… none of it ever happened. Especially that part where I got shot thirty seven times… giving my Bonnie Parker her big ending.