Paul Kemp’s Corvette in The Rum Diary

Johnny Depp as Paul Kemp in The Rum Diary (2011).

Johnny Depp as Paul Kemp in The Rum Diary (2011).

Vitals

Johnny Depp as Paul Kemp, expatriate American journalist and borderline alcoholic

Puerto Rico, Summer 1960

Film: The Rum Diary
Release Date: October 28, 2011
Director: Bruce Robinson
Costume Designer: Colleen Atwood

Background

Car week continues with a story by an American icon involving an iconic American car.

More than a decade before becoming the face and beautifully twisted mind of Gonzo journalism, Hunter S. Thompson was a struggling writer who had recently been discharged (honorably, but with prejudice) from the U.S. Air Force and had a few legal issues to his credit, not the least of all being the sinking of nearly every boat in a Kentucky harbor by shooting holes into the boats’ hulls just below the waterline.

He began his professional writing career while in the Air Force, writing anonymous sports columns for The Command Courier and The Playground News.

Thompson was discharged after two years, and his CO reported “…this airman, although talented, will not be guided by policy… Sometimes his rebel and superior attitude seems to rub off on other airmen staff members.” After a few disappointing stints across New York and Pennsylvania, he ended up in San Juan. Not even 23 years old, he had a criminal record, a dismal military record, and a string of failed writing jobs; he had even been fired by Time magazine for insubordination.

Thompson’s poor luck (if you want to blame it on luck) followed him to Puerto Rico when his employer – the sporting magazine El Sportivo – folded soon after he arrived. He applied for a job with William J. Kennedy’s San Juan Star, but Kennedy turned him down. However, after losing his first gig, Thompson worked as a freelancer for a few American papers with his new friend Kennedy editing. He continued writing for himself, submitting a few unpublished short stories and completing his second novel, The Rum Diary, fictionalizing his experiences in Puerto Rico.

Flash forward nearly forty years to 1998. Thompson is now a legend and is working on the film version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with Johnny Depp. Depp befriends Thompson and becomes a firm friend in the years leading up to Thompson’s suicide in 2005. While going through Thompson’s papers to research his role as Raoul Duke, Depp finds an unpublished manuscript for The Rum Diary, and the “lost” book was published. The Rum Diary is the oldest of Thompson’s books to actually be published as his earliest effort, Prince Jellyfish, remains unpublished.

The Rum Diary, which Depp also campaigned to be turned into a film, finds Thompson guised as “Paul Kemp”, an aspiring writer with a penchant for drinking plenty and not being published. The jaded Kemp travels to Puerto Rico to take a job with an ill-fated newspaper, and his life soon spirals out of control thanks to a shady real estate consultant, his femme fatale girlfriend, and a team of maniacs at the newspaper – all fueled by high-proof rum.

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After the novel was finally published in 1998, Thompson told Charlie Rose that he had grown cynical about the novel’s chances and gave up after it was rejected seven times, but that he finally couldn’t resist revisiting it:

It’s got a romantic notion…that and money…and I was faced with the fact of having to dig out my 40-year old story…I can’t change it, like, “Ye gods, this is me. This is the world I lived in”…so I approached it as a writer…it’s a good story.

Depp finally managed to produce the film in 2011, six years after Thompson’s death, playing a slightly less frantic Thompson than he had played in Fear and Loathing thirteen years earlier. One of the most memorable scenes in the film finds Kemp entertaining the girlfriend of his new employer, the shady consultant Hal Sanderson, by taking her for a spin in a beautiful red ’59 Corvette loaned to him by Sanderson. The car alone doesn’t impress her, so she ups the stakes, all to the driving beat of Dick Dale’s classic surf rock sound.

What’d He Wear?

The Rum Diary‘s costume designer Colleen Atwood was reportedly excited about working with Johnny Depp in the context of the early 1960s:

For menswear, it’s a really great period. The suits fit all kinds of body types and, without being too fitted at the waist, still have a shape. A narrow lapel has always been a favorite of mine. In Johnny’s case, we kept it very simple. His character has a slightly Midwestern meets southern style that is very American and not at all European. His clothes are fairly stiff, but they kind of wilt in the heat, so it feels more relaxed. His stuff was all made out of this ’60s cotton. I found enough of it to make all of his trousers and suits. I was able to find some authentic fabrics for his clothes which helped him get into the feeling of the period.

We get a good look at Paul Kemp's suiting while he gets a good look at Chenault.

We get a good look at Paul Kemp’s suiting while he gets a good look at Chenault.

Paul Kemp’s suit in the film is a rich dark blue lightweight suit that evidently uses some of the “’60s cotton” referenced by Atwood, and the climate and the look implies that the suiting is likely a cotton gabardine.

For more relaxed evenings – at least evenings that begin relaxed – Kemp ditches the suit trousers and pairs the suit coat with a polo and a pair of cream-colored chinos. The look is very refreshed and clean, very practical for an American guest at a Caribbean seaside house party.

Although that coolness will soon flutter away once he begins spying on his host and hostess mid-coitus.

Although that coolness will soon flutter away once he begins spying on his host and hostess mid-coitus.

The single-breasted suit coat has narrow lapels with a low, short-gorged notches. The shoulders are slightly padded with roped sleeveheads. The double rear vents keep Kemp cool in the warm summer climate, although the blue silk lining of the suit coat is visible when the vents flap in the wind.

The jacket buttons in the front with 2 dark blue buttons, and the 2-button cuffs – a very early ’60s fad – match. The breast pocket has a slimmer welt than usual, and the hip pockets are jetted for an extra period detail.

Kemp’s trousers are a pair of cream gabardine chinos. The hairline striped texture of the cotton gabardine is best seen when Chenault “encourages” him to drive the Corvette to its full potential.

Kemp is given incentive to push the car toward its top speed of 114 mph.

Kemp is given incentive to push the car toward its top speed of 114 mph.

The flat front chinos have an extended waistband tab, a straight fly, slanted side pockets, and jetted rear pockets with no buttons.

Kemp interestingly wears his slim light brown leather belt with the squared brass single-prong buckle on his left hip. Nothing about the trousers, which appear to have standard belt loops, indicates that the belt needs to be worn in this fashion, so it is likely a personal choice of his.

Why is his belt always worn with the clasp on his left hip?

Why is his belt always worn with the clasp on his left hip?

The trousers look instantly baggier once the belt is taken away following a horrible night battling the Puerto Rican court system.

Despite how they look, Kemp's jacket, polo, and slacks will all be cleaned and in pristine condition for a business meeting with Hal Sanderson the next day!

Despite how they look, Kemp’s jacket, polo, and slacks will all be cleaned and in pristine condition for a business meeting with Hal Sanderson the next day!

The chinos have short cuffs (turn-ups) on the bottoms and a medium break over his shoes, a pair of tan suede chukka boots worn with cream socks. Despite differing shades of brown, the boots coordinate with his belt, and the socks nicely continue the leg line from the trousers into the shoes. While desert boots would be a comfortable alternative, the lack of crepe soles mean that Kemp is indeed wearing classic chukkas rather than desert boots.

Brown suede chukka boots were also Steve McQueen's preferred footwear, while we're on the subject of classic cars.

Brown suede chukka boots were also Steve McQueen’s preferred footwear, while we’re on the subject of classic cars.

Kemp typically pairs the coat and trousers with one of two lightweight polos. The most often seen polo shirt is white cotton with short but wide sleeves down to his elbows. The entire fit of the shirt is rather voluminous, swaying loosely without darts to direct the fit. While the shirt is likely quite comfortable, the outfit looks much better with the jacket.

Adding a jacket keeps Kemp from looking like an awkward out-of-place dad, although his facial expression in that photo probably isn't helping much either.

Adding a jacket keeps Kemp from looking like an awkward out-of-place dad, although his facial expression in that photo probably isn’t helping much either.

Kemp’s white polo also has a 3-button placket, but he only fastens the bottom button. The patch breast pocket has a pointed bottom.

Kemp wisely gets acquainted with Hal's girlfriend Chenault.

Kemp wisely gets acquainted with Hal’s girlfriend Chenault.

A few days later, Kemp again wears his suit jacket and chinos, this time paired with a light blue polo in a similar style to the white shirt with a large fit, 3-button placket, and breast pocket.

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One of the most distinctive parts of Kemp’s costuming is his pair of vintage Sol Amor wraparound sunglasses with their gold frame across the front and brown bubble lenses. According to Atwood:

He really feels clothes more than he looks at them. You know, we had these great sunglasses for him and his hair was kind of squished back and the guy came to life! It usually happens pretty quickly with Johnny. He has this feeling for who his character is.

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The “futuristic” look of the sunglasses nicely ties into the space age craze of the late 1950s and early 1960s which was all over pop culture at the time from songs like The Tornadoes’ “Telstar” (which is used earlier in the film) to TV shows like The Jetsons.

Kemp’s wristwatch is a plain military-style watch with a round steel case, black dial, and light brown strap. It is possibly a Hamilton, which supplied plenty of military watches to the U.S. during this era. This would also make sense as Hunter S. Thompson had served in the Air Force for two years very shortly before he traveled to Puerto Rico.

Kemp's watch stays with him in good times and bad.

Kemp’s watch stays with him in good times and bad.

His other accessory is a classic straw fedora with a high crown, short brim, and light brown triple-pleated puggaree ribbon (like Gatsby’s!) with a dark brown paisley pattern. It is not the same straw hat as he wore earlier in the film and in some promotional artwork.

The only place to really get away with wearing a hat like this is in the Caribbean.

The only place to really get away with wearing a hat like this is in the Caribbean.

Go Big or Go Home

This point in the film marks Kemp’s major involvement with Sanderson’s real estate scam. He shows up at Sanderson’s in the blue suit coat, slacks, and polo, where he spies Sanderson and Chenault in the midst of a coital embrace on the stern of Sanderson’s yacht.

Kemp, unable to keep cool at the sight of naked people.

Kemp, unable to keep cool at the sight of naked people.

Once everyone is clothed and back at the house for a party, Kemp is introduced to two of Sanderson’s crooked partners and given the rundown of the scam. He is picked up by his friend, Sala, who takes him to a restaurant and demands food even though the kitchen is closed. Kemp spies a native who has reason to dislike him, and Kemp and Sala are forced on the run in Sala’s diminutive Fiat. Unfortunately, in his drunken effort to scare off the aggressive pursuers, Kemp accidentally blows a fiery breath of rum into the face of some local policemen, and they’re tossed into the clink.

Sanderson bails Kemp and Sala out, and the next day – wearing the exact same clothes that are now spotless and clean – Kemp shows up at Sanderson’s office to discuss the deal. After signing himself away, Kemp is given a “Chevy” to avoid another embarrassingly bumpy ride in Sala’s dilapidated Fiat. Little does Kemp know what the “Chevy” actually is.

More offices should conduct business like this.

More offices should conduct business like this.

After giving him the “Chevy”, Sanderson asks Kemp to pick up Chenault from her house, evidently not realizing that Kemp has already seen Chenault naked – twice. Needless to say, Kemp jumps at the opportunity.

And it absolutely makes sense why Johnny Depp would have started dating Amber Heard immediately after this film wrapped.

And it absolutely makes sense why Johnny Depp would have started dating Amber Heard immediately after this film wrapped.

As a Hunter S. Thompson surrogate, Paul Kemp is naturally a heavy drinker. He shows restraint (compared to Raoul Duke), but he manages to consume a hell of a lot of straight rum over the course of the film. Even Bruce Robinson, the film’s director and screenwriter who had spent nearly seven years sober, found himself drinking a bottle of wine every day to overcome his writer’s block and finish the script. After another sober year filming, Robinson recalls that he again indulged one night when the crew was filming in Fajardo:

It was 100 degrees at two in the morning and very humid. Everyone’s drenched in sweat. One of the prop guys goes by with a barrow-load of ice and Coronas. I said, “Johnny, this doesn’t mean anything,” and reached for a Corona… Some savage drinking took place. When I was no longer in Johnny’s environment I went back to sobriety.

Kemp’s cruise in the Corvette with Chenault is already an aesthetic delight with the striking red sports car against the vivid blue Caribbean Sea, but it is enhanced even more by Robinson’s choice of music. The song is “Surfing Drums” from surf rock king Dick Dale’s first album, Surfers’ Choice.

The album, which Dale recorded with his Del-Tones in 1962, was recorded live at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa Beach. It is the epitome of the early surf rock sound, and it is the perfect choice for a coastal drive with a gorgeous broad lighting up a smoke in the passenger seat of your Corvette.

How to Get the Look

Kemp mixes elements of his daily suit and his casual attire to develop a cool and clean summer outfit. Remember to only include a straw fedora if you’ll be somewhere tropical. Go somewhere tropical anyway.

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  • Dark blue cotton gabardine single-breasted 2-button suit jacket with narrow notch lapels, welted breast pocket, jetted hip pockets, 2-button cuffs, and double vents
  • White lightweight cotton short-sleeve polo shirt with 3-button placket and breast pocket
  • Cream cotton gabardine flat front chino trousers with belt loops, extended waistband tab, slanted side pockets, jetted rear pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
  • Light brown leather belt with a squared brass clasp
  • Tan suede two-eyelet chukka boots
  • Cream socks
  • Gold-framed Sol Amor wraparound sunglasses with brown bubble lenses
  • Hamilton Automatic wristwatch with round silver case, black face, and light brown strap
  • Straw fedora with light brown patterned triple-pleated “puggaree” ribbon

A vivid dark blue jacket with a short-sleeved polo and casual trousers must have been all the rage in 1960, as Jon Hamm wore a similar outfit – albeit a darker combination with a black polo and gray trousers – as Don Draper in the third episode of Mad Men, set in the same year.

The Car

After signing his unholy alliance with Hal Sanderson, Kemp is given a car from Sanderson’s fleet. It is referred to throughout the film simply as a “Chevy”, when it is, in fact, a striking 1959 Chevrolet Corvette C1 convertible in “Roman Red”.

The Corvette is one of the most famous cars in the world, having been made continuously by General Motors for more than sixty years. It has always been the apex of American sports cars, associated simultaneously with class, power, and mid-life crises. Although it is clearly now aesthetically influenced by American muscle, its origins began when GM’s long-time designer Harley Earl was inspired by the Nash-Healey. The Nash-Healey was an expensive two-seat American sports car manufactured in partnership with Italian designer Pinin Farina and British engineer Donald Healey. Earl used the Nash example to convince GM that they needed a two-seat sports car to offer to the public, and – on January 17, 1953 – the first Corvette prototype, hand-built under the code name “Project Opel”, was revealed at the 1953 GM Motorama at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City. Although the car was designed by Earl, the name Corvette came from Myron Scott, based on the small and easily maneuverable warship known as a corvette; the word is now synonymous with the sports car before the warship.

Kemp and Chenault speed towards the ocean in Hal's Corvette.

Kemp and Chenault speed towards the sea in Hal’s Corvette.

The first year of the Corvette’s commercial production saw 300 hand-built models, all in “polo white”, with a short 102 inch wheelbase, a 235 cubic inch six-cylinder engine rated at 150 horsepower, and the two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission since no Chevy manual was yet available to handle the intensity of the car’s horsepower. The six-cylinder engine remained the only option for 1954, but three additional colors (Pennant Blue, Sportsman Red, and Black) were added. Sales crawled along at 3,640.

After the slow 1954 sales year of only 3,640 models, GM limited 1955 Corvette production to only 700, but it also offered a 265 cubic inch V8 engine that improved the 0-60 mph time from 11.5 to 8.5 seconds. 1955 was the last year of the “bubble”-shaped Corvettes as a sleeker body was designed for ’56. The six-cylinder engine was removed, with only Chevy’s small-block V8 available as an engine; an RPO 449 special camshaft was offered to increase the car’s power to 240 horsepower. The 3-speed manual transmission introduced the year earlier became standard, and the Corvette was transformed from looking like a sports car to actually being a sports car.

By 1959, the Corvette was well-established as a chrome-embossed badass in a small package. The wheelbase remained at the short 102 inches from the original prototype, but under the hood sat a powerful 283 cubic inch (4.6 L) small-block Chevrolet V8 engine that could offer 230, 245, or 270 horsepower (depending on the carburetor), as well as a fuel-injected option that pushed out a beastly 290 horsepower.

The top speed of a base ’59 Corvette was 114 mph, now hitting 0-60 mph in 8.4 seconds and reaching 100 mph in 25.3 seconds. The Corvette’s half-mile time was 84 mph in 16.9 seconds. The base price of a 1959 Corvette was $3,875, nearly a $300 increase from the previous year and more than $1,000 higher than the slow 1954 model year. Total production in 1959 was 9,670, and it was the last year ever for less than five-digit production (except for the anomaly production year 1997, when only 9,752 were produced.)

The popular 283 V8 was produced through 1961, until it was replaced by the 327 cubic inch V8 for 1962. This engine could make up to 340 horsepower, or 360 with fuel injection, and continued to be offered on Corvettes through 1965.

1962 marked the last year of the classic first generation of convertible-only C1 Corvettes, which are now as much a part of 1950s nostalgia as a juke box full of doo wop and Leave It to Beaver (which actually featured a Corvette in a fifth season episode). After the last C1 rolled out of production in 1962, the Sting Ray took over as the new Corvette style. The Corvette Sting Ray was a fast, powerful, and impressive successor to the first generation of Corvettes, but it is hard to beat the classic C1 Corvette with its European-influenced styling right down to the wrap-around windshield, exposed headlamps, and open body.

1959 Chevrolet Corvette C1

For people who say there was no such thing as the

Do people who say there was no such thing as the “good old days” forget about these ones?

Body Style: 2-door convertible

Layout: front-engine, rear-wheel-drive (RWD)

Engine: 283 cu. in. (4.6 L) small-block V8 with a Carter 4-barrel carburetor

Power: 230 hp (170 kW; 233 PS) @ 4800 RPM

Torque: 300 lb·ft (407 N·m) @ 3000 RPM

Transmission: 3-speed manual

Wheelbase: 102 inches (2591 mm)

Length: 177.2 in. (4501 mm)

Width: 72.8 in. (1849 mm)

Height: 52.4 in. (1331 mm)

The particular Corvette driven in The Rum Diary was fitted with vintage Puerto Rican license plates #864-093. The only engine option was the 283 cubic inch V8, although there were five variants of the engine:

  • a single Carter 4-barrel carburetor, making 230 hp
  • two models with twin Carter 4-barrel carburetors, making 245 hp or 270 hp
  • two fuel injected models, making 250 hp or 290 hp

Since there is no “fuel injection” crest on the side of the car, it’s reasonable to assume that this is a carbureted model. Further more, a shot of the gear shift reveals a white ball shifter. For the 1959 models, all 4-speed manual transmissions were fitted with a positive reverse lockout shifter with a “T” handle; thus, this likely has a 3-speed rather than the 4-speed.

In an interesting coincidence, the Corvette has been named the official sports car of Kentucky… Johnny Depp’s birth state. Graham King, a fellow producer of The Rum Diary, gave the ’59 Corvette used in the film to Depp after he grew attached to it during filming.

Depp behind-the-scenes in the '59 Corvette that would eventually become his in real life.

Depp behind-the-scenes in the ’59 Corvette that would eventually become his in real life.

Do Yourself a Favor and…

Buy the movie. Reading the book first will help, as well as put you in that necessary Hunter S. Thompson frame of mind.

The Quote

Do you smell it? It’s the smell of bastards. It’s also the smell of truth.

6 comments

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