Kirk Douglas as John “Doc” Holliday, hot-tempered gambler, gunslinger, and ex-dentist
Tombstone, AZ, October 1881
Film: Gunfight at the O.K. Corral
Release Date: May 30, 1957
Director: John Sturges
Costume Designer: Edith Head
Friday’s post focused on Raylan Givens, the dark-suited U.S. Marshal who would’ve been more at home in the Old West rather than the era of cell phones, electric cars, and Bieber. In fact, Raylan would have fit in perfectly 134 years ago today as Doc Holliday joined the Earps for their long walk toward the O.K. Corral and a showdown that would engrain them in western lore.
The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, as it became known, became a pop culture phenomenon almost instantly. Dime books, paintings, and sketches romanticized the showdown for half a century until 1934’s Frontier Marshal incorporated the events into it largely fictional showdown between fearless lawman Michael Wyatt (George O’Brien) and local crime boss Doc Warren. Half a dozen films and more than two decades later, filmmakers finally came close to getting the names and events straight with the 1957 film Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, directed by John Sturges and starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas as Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, respectively.
Like most films from the Golden Age of Westerns, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral remains uncomplicated. The good guys are good, and the bad guys are bad. Thanks to Leon Uris’ script and Kirk Douglas’ performance, we get a little more depth with the characterization of the bitter, tubercular Doc Holliday, but the film is far more comfortable sticking to loose legend rather than the facts. The name itself misled many to believe that the gunfight happened at the O.K. Corral; in fact, the Earps faced off against the cowboy faction in a narrow lot on Fremont Street outside the corral’s rear entrance. The gunfight itself was transformed into a long, tactical shootout with rifles and shotguns aplenty; in fact, the 30-second long gun battle featured only revolvers, save for Doc’s borrowed double-barreled shotgun.
Although the movie’s inaccuracy is now well-known, Kirk Douglas’ interesting portrayal humanized the erudite and colorful gunslinger beyond the Western stock character that he had been for the previous twenty years. In fact, some have argued that Douglas more correctly interpreted Holliday’s irascibility more than Val Kilmer’s 1993 performance in Tombstone, often considered to be the definitive cinematic Doc Holliday.
What’d He Wear?
Kirk Douglas’ Doc Holliday wears three main outfits in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Looking closely at each outfit’s details, Douglas was clearly (and not unreasonably) attired in 1950s costuming rather than genuine reflections of 1880s style, but it is still a stylish and accessible look if you want a snazzy Halloween costume or if you’re some sort of weird riverboat gambler.
Doc wears this charcoal wool dress suit during both his knife-flinging introduction and the final scene, the titular gunfight. Given the significance of these two scenes, Sturges evidently saw the suit’s representative value for the Doc Holliday character.
Doc’s suit jacket is a single-breasted lounge coat with peak lapels. The dark satin semi-facings on each lapel contribute to the suit’s luxury and make it slightly fancier than the gray pick suit he wears alternately.
The jacket has no breast pocket and two hip pockets that sit straight on his natural waistline with large flaps.
All of the jacket’s dark gray horn buttons come in pairs; the suit jacket has a two-button front, two non-functioning buttons on each cuff, and two decorative back buttons above the rear vents. Although the lounge coat marked an evolution toward modern suits, Doc’s jacket still maintains many traditional styling points including the back layout.
Doc’s matching flat front trousers rise to Kirk Douglas’ natural waist with a straight-cut down to the plain-hemmed bottoms. They have belt loops, although these did not become popular on mens’ trousers until the rise began falling in the 1920s. Doc’s belt is black leather with a squared steel single-claw buckle. He may wear it to secure the shoulder holster he conceals under his left arm, although the securing method isn’t readily apparent. The trousers have frogmouth front pockets just below the waistline and no back pockets.
Old West gambling often evokes an image of a well-mustached man sporting a brightly-colored silk brocade vest. Douglas’ Doc is no exception, always pairing his charcoal suit to a deep red paisley-printed satin brocade vest. Modern copycats should keep in mind that it’s not easy to sport a brocade vest these days without looking like you’re late for the high school prom.
Doc’s vest has a low, V-shaped opening above the single-breasted, 3-button front. The three buttons are all covered in the same cloth as the rest of the waistcoat, and the bottom is notched. The vest also has slim shawl lapels and two welted hip pockets on the front, with Doc keeping his gold watch in the right pocket. The back of the waistcoat is dark mauve silk with an adjustable strap.
Doc’s yellow gold full hunter pocketwatch is clearly shown in his introductory scene. “A.W. Co. Waltham” is printed in black on the white dial, indicating that this is a classic Waltham railroad watch, likely manufactured around the time that American Watch Company changed its name to American Waltham Watch Company in 1885. Interested in your own Waltham pocketwatch? Check out this bad boy, starting at only $150.
Doc wears his Waltham watch on a gold chain through the top buttonhole of his vest where the gold bar pokes through. The white dial has black Roman numerals and a 6:00 sub-dial. It’s personalized with a photo of his loving parents placed inside the dust cover, with their inscription – “TO OUR BELOVED SON DOCTOR JOHN HOLLIDAY” – on the back.
Doc’s shirt is light gray with an attached turndown collar and pleated front bib. Both the ruffled placket and the plain, squared cuffs have mother-of-pearl buttons.
Doc wears a black satin string tie, which is just as simple as it sounds and is most familiar these days as the preferred neckwear of KFC’s Colonel Sanders (my second post in a row referencing the good colonel!) Cattle Kate offers these ties for sale for only $14 with the accurate description of “one long piece of silk to tie into a floppy bow… a favorite of gamblers and gentlemen callers everywhere.
Doc appropriately wears an all-black “gambler hat”, a more urban evolution of the low-crowned telescope hat worn by Mexican cowboys in the southwest. The low, round crown prevented hot air from accumulating inside the hat. The telescope hat also featured a wide brim to protect its wearers from the piercing sun; since gamblers spent most of their time inside, the gambler hat featured a smaller, upturned brim like Doc’s.
Doc wears a pair of black leather plain-toe boots with tall riding heels. A brief shot of Doc slumped in a chair, presumably uncrossing his legs after taking off his boots, shows a pair of high black socks worn underneath.
On the third finger of his left hand, Doc wears a gold ring with a large oval red coral setting. As both this movie and Tombstone show Doc Holliday as wearing a ring (although 1994’s Wyatt Earp does not), I don’t know if the real Doc was reputed to have worn a ring or if it’s just an affectation that both filmmakers believed he would have appreciated.
Although the veracity of Doc’s ring hasn’t been confirmed, I’ve read some accounts supporting the claim that the real-life Holliday favored a shoulder holster for his everyday carry. Gunfight at the O.K. Corral presents a low-slung brown leather holster rig, concealed below his left arm near the waist for a right-handed cross draw. Though we never see Doc wearing it with his jacket off, it appears to be secured with a thin strap that enters his left vest pocket, possibly fastening to his trouser belt.
When the sun rises on October 26, 1881 (another of the film’s errors, as the real gunfight was around 3:00 PM), Doc straps on an extra gun belt to face the Clantons and McLaurys.
The gun belt is brown leather, like his shoulder rig. It buckles in the front through a ranger-style strap, with the holster for his Single Action Army hanging low on his right thigh.
Go Big or Go Home
Doc Holliday has retained his popularity because his real-life exploits were the stuff of legends.The story of a tubercular dentist who took down his shingle and took up the life of a professional card sharp is interesting enough. Add in the fact that he was a dangerously accurate shot and became involved in one of the most infamous conflicts in Western history… well, you’ve got yourself a legend.
Cultured, educated, and violent, Doc Holliday was almost as quick with his wit as he was with his trigger finger. He was stubborn and full of Southern pride, and he refused to quit smoking, drinking, and whoring – even after he was diagnosed with consumption. Aware of the chronic cough accompanying TB, Kirk Douglas wrote in his 1988 autobiography The Ragman’s Son that he would plan exactly how many and what kind of coughs he would have in each scene. This consideration is a fine example of the professionalism, energy, and diligence that have characterized his six-decade long career.
Despite the vigor that he brought to the role, Kirk Douglas wasn’t always the first choice for the role. Producer Hal B. Wallis was reported in early 1955 as saying that he wanted Humphrey Bogart. It’s an interesting choice, as Bogart was hiding his own fatal disease at the time. Once Bogart esophageal cancer became public knowledge, he had already finished production on his last film – The Harder They Fall – and it was likely known that he wouldn’t be working anymore. Thus, Kirk Douglas was cast for the second of seven total films that he would make with Burt Lancaster.
Doc: Want a gun hand?
Wyatt: You? No, thanks.
Doc: I do handle them pretty well. The only trouble is, those best able to testify to my aim aren’t around for comment.
As one would expect, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral also flubs when arming Doc Holliday. The irascible dentist preferred Colt firearms all his life; his first piece was the venerable Model 1851 Navy revolver gifted to him by an uncle in 1872, and he carried the double-action Model 1878 Lightning and Thunderer models through many gun battles in his life. Instead, Gunfight at O.K. Corral arms Holliday with a nickel Remington Model 1875 with a 5.75″ barrel and pearl grips.
The Model 1875 Single Action Army (also known as the “Improved Army” or “Frontier Army”) was Remington’s first major development for the revolver market since its Model 1858 variants during the Civil War. Remington’s new model took on Colt’s Single Action Army and Smith & Wesson’s Model 3 and quickly gained a reputation on both sides of the law as a sturdy, reliable sidearm capable of firing the powerful .45 Long Colt and .44-40 Winchester Centerfire cartridges as well as Remington’s own proprietary .44 centerfire cartridge, which was quietly phased out after 20 years of production.
Unlike the Single Action Army, which was offered in a variety of barrel lengths in addition to the standard 7.5″ “Cavalry” barrel, the Remington Model 1875 was primarily available with a 7.5″ barrel. A limited run with 5.75″ barrels were created very late in the Model 1875’s production span and likely inspired the Uberti “Frontier Model” with its 5.5″ barrel. For more information about the Remington Model 1875, Don Ware wrote a fascinating in-depth article for the Remington Society of America journal in 2004, available online.
Doc’s Remington provides a welcome break from the ubiquitous Single Action Army seen in all classic Westerns, but some irony is derived from the fact that Doc actually did use a nickel Colt SAA at the time of his adventures in Tombstone. Sturges’ film provides a Single Action Army as Doc’s “action weapon”… but in blued steel.
For an additional dose of irony, the film actually arms Wyatt and Virgil with double-barreled shotguns during the gun battle; in reality, Doc was the only person in the whole fight to handle a shotgun… a weapon which he eschewed.
How to Get the Look
Kirk Douglas’ Doc Holliday offers a primer on looking cool, urbane, and dangerous in the rugged atmosphere of the 1880s Southwest.
- Charcoal wool lounge suit, consisting of:
- Single-breasted 2-button jacket with satin semi-faced peak lapels, straight flapped hip pockets, 2-button cuffs, and decorative 2-button back with double vents
- Flat front high-rise trousers with belt loops, frogmouth front pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Red paisley brocade vest with low V-shaped opening, single-breasted 3-button front, welted hip pockets, and adjustable rear strap
- Light gray dress shirt with turndown collar, ruffled front placket, pleated bib, and squared button cuffs
- Black satin string bow tie
- Black calf leather plain-toe boots with tall riding heels
- Black socks
- Black gambler hat with round crown and black ribbon
- Black leather belt with square steel single-claw buckle
- Brown leather custom shoulder holster, worn under left arm
- Yellow gold Waltham full hunter pocket watch with dust cover, white dial (with Roman numerals and 6:00 sub-dial), and gold chain
- Gold ring with large oval red coral setting
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie. Accuracy issues aside, it’s an entertaining gem from the Golden Age of Westerns and one of the genre’s most celebrated directors.
A decade later, Sturges directed Hour of the Gun, which starred James Garner as Wyatt and Jason Robards taking over as Doc. The movie begins with the O.K. Corral and follows the Earp vendetta ride through Doc’s death in a Colorado sanitarium in 1887, serving as a spiritual sequel to Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
Much like Val Kilmer in Tombstone, the film gives Doc Holliday plenty of opportunities for colorful insults:
Come to think of it, he’s no gentleman at all. He’s a son of a yellow-bellied sow.
Although he also doesn’t shy away from the simpler slurs when needed.