Steve McQueen as Eric “the Kid” Stoner, hotshot poker player
New Orleans, Fall 1936
Film: The Cincinnati Kid
Release Date: October 15, 1965
Director: Norman Jewison
Costume Designer: Donfeld (Donald Lee Feld)
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
The World Series of Poker started yesterday, hosted by the Rio in Las Vegas. We already had a look at some Vegas cool with Monday’s post, so BAMF Style is gonna examine a look from one of the coolest poker movies of all time, The Cincinnati Kid.
The Cincinnati Kid was Steve McQueen’s first major starring role after kicking Nazi ass in The Great Escape two years earlier, and it also throws him back in time… to the Great Depression, in fact. McQueen plays Eric “the Kid” Stoner, a confident and talented young poker player bumming around the streets of New Orleans from one crooked card game to the next. His life is full of colorful characters including his sweet girlfriend Christian (Tuesday Weld), crooked aristocrat Mr. Slade (Rip Torn), The Kid’s ex-pro buddy “Shooter” (Karl Malden), and Shooter’s sultry wife Melba (Ann-Margret).
Lancey Howard: Lady Fingers? I haven’t seen that old bitch in- oh, it must be at least ten years. Long enough to think of her almost fondly.
The cast also includes actors from the ’30s playing veteran cardsharps in the era when they were most popular. Edward G. Robinson brings an urbane and somewhat sinister side to Lancey Howard, the undisputed poker king. Joan Blondell, the bright-eyed ingenue who first played against Robinson in 1936’s Bullets or Ballots, shows up thirty years later as “Lady Fingers”, another player who commands the game with wit and respect.
What’d He Wear?
The Kid dresses surprisingly warmly for New Orleans. The events of the film are likely set in the fall, but average high temperatures in the Big Easy typically fall between 72°F and 80°F in November and December. A gambler like the Kid is mostly active at night, however, so his attire would be more appropriate for the cooler mid-50s °F temperatures.
For both his date with Melba and the climactic poker game, the Kid wears a distinctive gray barleycorn tweed sport coat. He has a very casual wardrobe, and this coat – paired with a tie for the first few rounds of the game – is as dressy as he gets. The 1930s was part of a major transitional phase for men’s clothing. While suits, hats, and ties were the norm for daily dress in the 1920s, the lack of resources and personal funds during the Depression led to many men needing to take a more casual approach to dressing for practical reasons. An already young guy like the Kid who uses his money strictly for gambling would be part of this new wave that would continue into the World War II era as factories focused their resources on wartime production. By the late 1940s, suits were falling into the domain of business wear as modern casual attire was established in the form of camp shirts, polo shirts, and even t-shirts and jeans.
But back to the Kid. His gray barleycorn single-breasted sport coat has a 2-button front consisting of black leather clusters that match the non-functioning 3-button cuffs. The lapels have very wide, large notches. His shoulders are padded with roped sleeveheads, and the back is ventless.
All three outer pockets are patch pockets that close with a button-down squared flap. The breast pocket is naturally smaller than the large hip pockets. Eric tends to keep all of his pockets unbuttoned, allowing for easier access and continuing the casual, devil-may-care nature of his dress.
In every instance, the Kid pairs his sport coat with a pair of dark gray wool trousers with a single forward pleat on each side. The trousers have a medium-high rise and slim belt loops around McQueen’s waist, although he wears them without a belt or suspenders, revealing the extended squared waist tab that closes on a concealed hook. The Kid’s trousers have on-seam side pockets and no rear pockets.
As a Depression-era man of the streets, the Kid doesn’t have many pairs of shoes, and his one pair of black leather bluchers have seen plenty of wear and tear. He wears them with a pair of thin dark blue dress socks, best seen on his date with Melba.
The date with Melba provides the first sighting of the gray tweed sport coat and slacks. Rather than a shirt and tie, he simply wears a solid navy blue cotton pullover sweater with a large crew neck opening and a ribbed waistband. It’s an interesting forecast of McQueen’s most iconic look in Bullitt when he wears a brown shooting jacket, blue mock neck jumper, and charcoal slacks.
He also wears this blue jumper in the first scene of the film with his black leather jacket. The jumper is very similarly styled to the brick red sweater he wears with both the black leather jacket and an olive-colored corduroy sport coat when visiting Christian’s family.
The Kid shows up to his big game against Lancey Howard in his most formal outfit of the film, wearing the sport coat and slacks with a light gray chambray utility shirt and dark blue knit tie. The shirt is large and lightweight to provide a comfortable fit for a man who will be spending hours at a time at a poker table. It has a slim point collar and white plastic buttons down the front placket. The cuffs are rounded and close with a button. The shirt has two large patch pockets that close with button-down flaps with mitred corners. The left chest pocket has open stitching in the right corner to allow for a pen.
For the final game and the climactic hand, the Kid wears a similar utility shirt in black, only with no tie.
The final shot of the film was eventually supposed to be a freeze frame of the Kid’s face after the final losing hand, but Norman Jewison was forced by the producers to add an ending of him reconciling with Christian outside. For this ending, the Kid wears the gray tweed sport coat with the black shirt and gray slacks.
No accessories for the Kid; he would’ve just gambled them away, anyway.
Go Big or Go Home
Some poker players say to avoid booze to keep themselves sharp during the game, but the Kid and his cronies take full advantage of the bar in the game room. Although a bottle of Wild Turkey (yum) is clearly present, I have some difficulty nailing down the bottle that the Kid himself chooses to drink from.
Less ambiguous is the Kid’s preferred brand of cigarettes; he clearly smokes Lucky Strikes from an era-correct green pack. Although fierce advertising and – most recently – Mad Men have popularized the white Lucky packet with a black-and-red circle, green was indeed the original color of Lucky Strike’s pre-WWII packaging.
Appropriate to the themes of The Cincinnati Kid, company president George Washington Hill made a $50,000 bet for industrial designer Raymond Loewy to improve the existing green and red package to appeal to female smokers. Loewy’s decision to make the background white and place the logo on both sides of the package increased visibility and sales while cutting printing costs due to the eliminated need for green dye; Hill paid Loewy the $50,000. The company then jumped on the patriotic bandwagon – as it was 1942 – and advertised that “Lucky Strike Green has gone to war” by explaining that the new branding allowed the copper used to create the green color was needed for war resources, ignoring the fact that the green ink was actually produced by chromium. Isn’t it shocking that a tobacco company could be so sneaky?
The Cincinnati Kid also features one of the more bizarre dates in cinema history when Shooter practically begs the Kid to take his wife Melba out, evidently not realizing that Melba is played by Ann-Margret. The Kid takes Melba to a cockfight, where she eagerly watches the two roosters engage in bloodsport before taking the Kid back to her place and “slipping into something more comfortable”.
The Kid turns her down, also evidently not realizing that she’s played by Ann-Margaret, although not before slapping her ass and hopping out the door.
Melba: Ouch. You Bastard!
The Kid: Cheers baby.
Melba: I hope you lose.
Unfortunately for him, Melba’s hex seems to work. After a long game that inevitably comes down to Eric Stoner vs. Lancey Howard, The Kid is on the button and Lady Fingers is dealing. Howard gets his first up card: 8 of diamonds. The Kid gets a 10 of clubs, and he bets $500. Howard calls. Lady Fingers then deals Howard the queen of diamonds and a 10 of spades to the Kid. The Kid bets again: $1,000. Howard raises another $1,000. The Kid calls. Another deal – Howard gets a 10 of diamonds, the Kid gets an ace of clubs. The Kid, now holding a pair of 10s and an ace, bets $3,000. Lancey, with a 8-10-Q of diamonds, calls.
Lady Fingers deals the final cards. Lancey Howard gets a 9 of diamonds, giving him an 8-9-10-Q flush. All he needs is that jack of diamonds. The Kid is dealt an ace of spades, now holding two pair – aces and 10s. The Kid checks. Lancey bets $1,000. The Kid goes all in with a $3,500 bet. Seemingly out of spite, Howard pulls another $5,000 from his wallet to raise and take the Kid’s marker. Howard turns over his last card, revealing a jack of diamonds for a queen-high straight flush. The Kid reveals his own card, an ace of hearts. The Kid’s full house, aces full of tens, loses in a bad beat against Howard’s straight flush.
According to Anthony Holden’s book Big Deal: A Year as Professional Poker Player, the odds against a full house losing to a straight flush in a two-handed game are 45,102,781 to 1. Holden goes on to explain that the chances of both hands appearing in one deal are more than 332 billion to 1. “If these two played 50 hands of stud an hour, eight hours a day, five days a week,” explains Holden, “the situation would arise about once every 443 years.” No wonder the Kid went all in.
How to Get the Look
The Kid shows us how 1930s casual can still look cool even eighty years later.
- Gray barleycorn tweed single-breasted sport coat with wide-notched lapels, 2-button front (black leather clusters), button-down flapped patch breast pocket, button-down flapped patch hip pockets, 3-button cuffs (black leather clusters), and ventless rear
- Dark gray wool single forward-pleated trousers with slim belt loops, extended hook tab, on-seam side pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Light gray chambray utility shirt with slim point collar, front placket, button-down flapped patch pockets, and rounded button cuffs
- Dark blue knit necktie with flat bottom
- Black leather bluchers/derby shoes
- Dark blue dress socks
For the last night of the poker game, the Kid swaps out his shirt for a similar black one and loses the tie. If you’re really feeling casual, drop the shirt altogether and replace it with a navy cotton jumper.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Buy the movie.
Lancey Howard: Gets down to what it’s all about, doesn’t it? Making the wrong move at the right time.
The Kid: Is that what it’s all about?