Jimmy Stewart’s “Charleston” Suit

Donna Reed and James Stewart dance the Charleston as Mary Hatch and George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life (1946).

Donna Reed and James Stewart dance the Charleston as Mary Hatch and George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).

Vitals

James Stewart as George Bailey, bank officer and “nice guy”

Bedford Falls, NY, May 1928

Film: It’s a Wonderful Life
Release Date: December 20, 1946
Director: Frank Capra
Costume Designer: Edward Stevenson

Background

Today would’ve been the 108th birthday of James Stewart, and BAMF Style is honoring this screen legend by looking at Stewart’s own favorite character from his filmography: George Bailey.

Rated #9 on AFI’s 100 Heroes list and #8 on Premiere Magazine’s 100 Greatest Performances of All Time, Stewart’s portrayal of the Capra-esque “every man” still resonates with audiences 70 years later, especially around Christmas time (due to an NTA clerical error in 1974). In fact, the local Regent Square Theater near my house in Pittsburgh hosts a free screening of It’s a Wonderful Life every Christmastime, which I’ve been sure to never miss in the last four years.

One of my favorite scenes – not only in It’s a Wonderful Life but from movie history – is the Charleston contest where George and Mary reconnect and then find themselves drenched when a jealous rival for her affections (played by The Little Rascals‘ Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer) opens the dance floor to send the two flap-happy dancers into the school swimming pool. In fact, this scene was filmed at the Beverly Hills High School in Los Angeles which indeed had a gym floor that could be converted into a pool with the press of a button.

The scene sums up the message of It’s a Wonderful Life and much of Capra’s work in total: love and decency can and will triumph over any obstacles.

IAWL28-CL1-PosterWhat’d He Wear?

Being that it was filmed in black & white, there’s no definitive way to know the colors of George Bailey’s clothing unless it’s been documented anywhere. The film has been colorized several times, controversially in 1986 before an authorized colorization was released on DVD in 2007, but that tends to be more of an artistic interpretation.

However, an original poster from the film’s release in 1946 shows George in a navy blue double-breasted suit, holding Mary in the air. This scene never appeared in the film, but it has a dance-like quality that recalls this scene; given that this is the only double-breasted suit that George wears in the film, it’s likely meant to be this one.

If the cyanic tones of the 2007 DVD are correct, then George is wearing a navy blue gabardine three-piece suit, very stylish to the 1920s with its double-breasted jacket worn fastened to cover most of the waistcoat beneath it.

George and Mary really put their backs into the contest.

George and Mary really put their backs into the contest.

The double-breasted suit jacket has a 6-on-2 button front although George only keeps the top button done, which lends him greater flexibility criss-crosses his arms and legs to create the “illusion knees” effect when Charleston dancing.

George’s suit jacket has wide peak lapels – with a stitched buttonhole through each – that sweep out toward the padded shoulders. The jacket also has a welted breast pocket, jetted hip pockets, 3-button cuffs, and a ventless back.

IAWL28-CL2-Jkt-R

The matching single-breasted vest remains covered throughout the scene, but – assuming it is styled like the rest of George’s waistcoats from his suits – it likely has six buttons down the front to the notched bottom and four pockets.

The top of George's suit vest can be spotted just above the lapels of his jacket.

The top of George’s suit vest can be spotted just above the lapels of his jacket.

The closed jacket also covers the top of George’s suit trousers, but they’re likely pleated due to both the style of the era and the double forward pleats on the rest of his pants in It’s a Wonderful Life. The trousers are fully cut down to the bottoms, finished with turn-ups.

George executes the dance's illusion knees.

George executes the dance’s illusion knees.

George wears a plain white cotton dress shirt with a moderate spread collar and front placket. The shirt’s distinctive two-button cuffs were evidently a favorite of Jimmy Stewart’s, who also wore them in films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The shirt cuff has one button near to the edge and then another placed about 1.5″ further up by the wrist.

George’s silk tie is woven in two colors, colorized to be black and brown, in a Macclesfield-style pattern.

Luckily, George has his tie tucked back in by the time of his "romantic" first dance with Mary.

Luckily, George has his tie tucked back in by the time of his “romantic” first dance with Mary.

Both the formality of the suit and the intensity of a heel-kicking Charleston call for a laced shoe, and George appropriately sports a pair of black leather cap-toe oxfords with dark dress socks, likely in dark blue to match the leg line of his trousers.

Wouldn't they have smelled the chlorine?

Wouldn’t they have smelled the chlorine?

Go Big or Go Home

George: I’m not very good at this.
Mary: Neither am I.
George: Okay, what can we lose?

Both George and Mary end up proving themselves wrong; not only do they display relatively good form when dancing but they do end up winning the contest and that coveted “genuine loving cup” that Harry was touting. (The definitive proof is here.)

Donna and Jimmy master their steps while rehearsing in early '46.

Donna and Jimmy master their steps while rehearsing in early ’46.

So what does one have to do to win a Charleston contest? There are plenty of online tutorials and videos, but the general consensus seems to be that – like the Black Bottom and the Lindy Hop – there is plenty of heel-kicking, arm-swinging, and knee-crossing whether solo or with a partner. Improvisation is encouraged, but there are basic steps that make a Charleston a Charleston and not just some flailing fool. The Guardian laid out this step-by-step guide:

  • Put your arms out to the side, palms facing the floor. Bring your left heel up to touch your left palm.
  • Repeat on the other side. Put a bounce into it so your flapper dress waggles. [This would obviously not be applicable for George Bailey.]
  • Kick your left leg out with your right arm stretched out in front and your left arm at 90° to the side.
  • Swing your arms to the right as you bring your leg down, then back to the left as you swing your right leg behind you.
  • Squat forward with your hands on your knees. Waggle your knees in and out, crossing your hands in the middle.

On Wikipedia, the very specific “’20s Partner Charleston” style that George and Mary would have needed to heed is carefully laid out:

This looks like the easy part...

In the 20s, Partner Charleston couples stand facing each other in a traditional European partner dancing pose, often referred to as closed position which aids leading and following. The leader’s right hand is placed on the follower’s back between their shoulder blades. The follower’s left hand rests on the leader’s shoulder or biceps. The leader’s left hand and the follower’s right hand are clasped palm to palm, held either at shoulder height or higher. Partners may maintain space between their bodies or dance with their torsos touching.

The basic step is for the leader to touch their left foot behind them, but not to shift their weight, on counts 1 and 2, while the follower mirrors the motion by touching their right foot in front of them without shifting weight. On counts 3 and 4, both partners bring their feet back to a standing position, but shift their weight onto the foot they have just moved. On counts 5 and 6, the leader touches their right foot in front of themselves while the follower touches their left foot back. On 7 and 8, both feet are brought back to the standing position where the necessary weight shift occurs to allow the basic step to repeat.

Of course, the best way to learn is through visual aid. In 1927, dance instructors Santos Casani and Josie Lennard performed The Flat Charleston Made Easy for Pathé News. Given that risky stunts were a major fad of the decade, one sequence finds Casani and Lennard executing the dance steps on top of a moving London taxi.

The accompanying song by James P. Johnson is one of the catchiest standards of the ’20s and one of my favorite rhythms, with at least 70 recordings from different artists and eras on my iTunes. (Cecil Mack added lyrics which pay tribute to city in South Carolina, but I personally hate the lyrics. Sorry, Cecil.) Johnson, a pioneer of stride piano, composed his version for the Broadway show Runnin’ Wild in 1923, and a fad was immediately born as the dance reached its greatest heights through the middle of the decade. Contests were common as were dance-to-exhaustion marathons that could last up to five months… sometimes with fatal consequences.

My personal favorite original ’20s recording of Johnson’s “Charleston” is from Debroy Somers & his Savoy Orpheans, although the versions from Paul Whiteman and Ben Selvin’s dance orchestras are also pretty great.

In the late 1950s, Enoch Light put together his Charleston City All Stars band and issued several albums covering hits of the ’20s to cash in on the brief Roaring Twenties revival at the end of that decade. The leading track on the group’s 1957 album, The Roaring ’20s, is an incredible arrangement of “Charleston” that maintains the 1920s spirit without the overly contemporary update that Light would later add for “Charleston Cha Cha” or Ernie Fields would interpret with his surf-style saxophones in 1961. Woody Allen would later use the Charleston City All Stars’ recording for a brief dance scene in his fun 2011 flick Midnight in Paris.

Other more modern versions of “Charleston” that I tend to enjoy are Fausto Papatti’s trumpet-driven recording on Baby Blue, Vol. 2, the triumphant piano and brass cover from Frank Pourcel’s Flash Back to 1930, and the bouncy sax version that Ian Whitcomb & his Bungalow Boys cut for The Cat’s Meow in 2002. The director of It’s a Wonderful Life‘s musical score was Dimitri Tiomkin, the Ukranian-born composer who is best-known for his terrific Western scores in works like High Noon. I’m not sure if Tiomkin directed the version of “Charleston” used in It’s a Wonderful Life, but it’s a great arrangement of Johnson’s music and I’d love to find an isolated instrumental of it. (Attempts to make my own have not gone so well.)

West One Music, the production music agency, created its own similarly catchy number for the Quirky Vintage series which has found use in productions ranging from Mad Men to the “Oh Hello” sketches of Kroll Show.

Boys and girls and music. Why do they need gin?

You said it, Annie.

IAWL28-crop2How to Get the Look

George shows up to the party as an afterthought, not expecting himself to have fun and dance with “the kids” so his conservative suit differentiates him from the many dinner jackets in the room.

  • Navy blue gabardine three-piece suit, consisting of:
    • Double-breasted 6-on-2 button jacket with wide peak lapels, welted breast pocket, jetted hip pockets, 3-button cuffs, and ventless back
    • Single-breasted 6-button vest with notched bottom
    • Pleated trousers with cuffed bottoms
  • White cotton dress shirt with moderate spread collar, front placket, and 2-button cuffs
  • Black & brown Macclesfield-patterned woven silk tie
  • Black leather cap-toe oxfords
  • Dark blue dress socks

Do Yourself a Favor and…

Buy the movie.

The Quote

What is it you want, Mary? What do you want? You want the moon? Just say the word and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down. Hey. That’s a pretty good idea. I’ll give you the moon, Mary… Well, then you can swallow it, and it’ll all dissolve, see… and the moonbeams would shoot out of your fingers and your toes and the ends of your hair… am I talking too much?

One comment

  1. Pingback: Ernest Hemingway in Midnight in Paris | BAMF Style

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