Clifton Webb as Richard Ward Sturges, millionaire and estranged family man
RMS Titanic, April 1912
Release Date: April 16, 1953
Director: Jean Negulesco
Costume Designer: Dorothy Jeakins
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Before there was Kate and Leo, there was Barbara and Clifton.
To know me is to know my obsession with the Titanic and other maritime disasters of the early 20th century. SS Valencia, Empress of Ireland, Lusitania, Princess Sophia, Titanic‘s hospital sister ship Britannic… chances are that if it sank in the first few decades of last century, I know a thing or two about it.
It was today in 1912 that the RMS Titanic actually struck the iceberg that sank her. The collision happened around 11:40 p.m., North Atlantic time, on the night of Sunday, April 14. Compared to most of the other disasters in the previous paragraph, it took considerable time to sink, finally settling under the waves at 2:20 a.m. on the morning of Monday, April 15, 1912, ending more than 1,500 lives of the roughly 2,200 that had been aboard.
The story of the Titanic and her passengers and crew had actually been featured several times on screen in the forty years to follow. Saved from the Titanic was released weeks after the tragedy, starring Dorothy Gibson – a bona fide film star of the era and actual Titanic survivor – as herself. Even the Nazis got their grips on the story for a 1943 propaganda film that targeted British greed to blame for the tragedy… though the drama behind the scenes of that one is far more compelling than the fictionalized narrative presented on screen.
It wasn’t until the release of this 1953 melodrama – the day after the 41st anniversary of the sinking – that Hollywood first approached the story as the central subject for a major production. Clifton Webb starred as Richard Ward Sturges – a millionaire cut from the same snobbish cloth as his Waldo Lydecker character in Laura – who was estranged from his wife Julia (the always sublime Barbara Stanwyck) and their children, Annette (Audrey Dalton) and Norman (Harper Carter).
Julia has taken it upon herself to return with her children to her family home in Michigan for a more honest, rooted upbringing than the elitist expatriate lifestyle that Richard had been cultivating. Richard gets wind of the plan at the 11th hour and arrives at the Cherbourg docks on the day of the Titanic‘s departure. Much like Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack would do in James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster, Richard finagles a ticket for himself in steerage, eventually sneaking his way up to the ship’s famously opulent first class quarters. (For narrative purposes, this film explains that Titanic‘s cabins were totally sold out for its maiden voyage; this was far from true as the ship was only half booked. Imagine the even greater loss of life had the remaining 50% of the ship’s passenger space actually been filled… but I’ll try to hold off on my commentary of the film’s dubious representation of reality!)
What’d He Wear?
Oh, yes, I forgot. “The best dressed man of his day.” That’s what they’re going to write on your tombstone.
Julia likely meant it as an insult, but the idea of eternal recognition for his sartorial excellence was no doubt music to the haughty Richard Ward Sturges’ ears. As a man of the world, Richard puts great importance in his clothing.
The relaxed protocols of the latter Edwardian era would permit that even a suave snob like Mr. Sturges could forego full evening dress in favor of the increasingly popular dinner suit… or tuxedo, as it was known to the Titanic‘s many American passengers.
Having boarded the Titanic spontaneously, our Mr. Sturges had no time to pack his finery, and he is forced to visit the ship’s tailor for his evening wear, which he wears on the evenings of April 13 and April 14 aboard ship. (For those keeping score of the historical inaccuracies… there was no tailor shop on the Titanic. There were, however, four passengers in third class who listed their occupation as “tailor”.)
During the Edwardian era, “the most popular style of dinner jacket was still single-breasted peak lapel or shawl collar in black vicuña,” reports Black Tie Guide, and it’s no surprise that the good Mr. Sturges outfits himself in the former for his evenings at sea. Nothing but the most cosmopolitan for this fashion plate, of course.
Richard: It’s very nice material.
The tailor: Yes, sir, it’s a beautiful suit.
Richard: (correcting) I said it was “nice material.”
In this case, they’re both right, although it’s possible that a man born to wear black tie like the erstwhile Webb Parmelee Hollenbeck could make even the most pedestrian dinner suit look fashionable. The “nice material” in this case is a dark wool, potentially black but possibly midnight blue based on colorized stills and promotional material. Promotional material is hardly an authoritative source, but it would suit both Mr. Webb and his equally elegant dramatis personae Mr. Sturges to wear the more interesting and sartorially informed shade of “darker than black” midnight suiting.
Richard’s single-breasted dinner jacket is absolutely timeless with satin-faced peak lapels of moderate width, subtle roping on the sleeveheads, and a ventless back. This dinner jacket would have certainly been fashionable at the time of the film’s 1912 setting as well as its early 1950s production and even today, 65 years after the film’s release and more than a century after the sinking of the Titanic.
The jacket closes with a single button with a somewhat low stance considering the high lapel roll. There are also four buttons on each cuff, straight jetted hip pockets, and a welted breast pocket. Ever the gentleman, Richard completes his look always with a white linen kerchief rakishly folded in his breast pocket, occasionally augmenting his style with a white carnation pinned to his left lapel.
Convention dictates that “your tie should be of the same material as the silk facings to your dinner jacket,” per Hardy Amies’ ABC of Men’s Fashion in 1964. It was true in the fifty years preceding Amies’ publication and remains true more than fifty years hence, so it can be assumed that the disciple-of-convention Richard’s butterfly-shaped black bow tie is made from the same dull grosgrain silk as his lapel facings. Naturally, it’s a self-tying model.
Richard wears a white dress shirt with a stiff wing collar, front bib, and squared single cuffs. The large round cuff links match the two smaller shirt studs visible on the front of the shirt above the low V-shaped opening of Richard’s waistcoat.
Suspenders (or braces) are the only viable option if one wants to hold up his formal trousers while wearing black tie, unless the trousers have been perfectly tailored to fit without them. Richard wears a set of black suspenders with metal adjusters. His suspenders go mostly unseen until he removes his dinner jacket and they slightly poke out through the armholes of his waistcoat.
Richard wears a white piqué waistcoat with a slim shawl collar and a double-breasted six-on-three button arrangement of sew-through mother-of-pearl buttons that wraps to create a low V-shaped opening on top and a straight bottom. There is a welt pocket on each side, positioned between the top two rows of buttons.
“I guess long trousers are enough to prove you’re a man,” Richard tells his young son Norman during an emotional scene that carries greater weight than you may imagine from this quote. It’s not atypical of Richard Ward Sturges to draw upon sartorial insight for an impactful remark like this.
Richard’s “long trousers” with his black tie kit would match his dinner jacket, so he ostensibly wears a pair of midnight blue wool formal trousers with grosgrain silk side striping and plain-hemmed bottoms. He correctly wears a pair of black patent leather oxford shoes with black silk dress socks.
Richard wears a pinky ring on his right hand, likely a personal accessory of Clifton Webb’s that just happened to fit the character.
At one point, Richard returns to his statement to retrieve the flannel single-breasted Chesterfield coat that he had previously worn with his three-piece lounge suit when boarding the ship. Likely gray or camel cloth, his knee-length coat has notch lapels with a dark velvet collar, a covered-fly front, flapped hip pockets, and decorative back buttons.
He’s never actually seen wearing the coat with his dinner suit, instead preferring to turn up his dinner jacket’s peak lapels against the cold deckside winds.
After the Titanic collides with the iceberg, Richard returns to his family to insist upon their donning clothing, though he naturally stays true to his character by reminding them of decorum: “Now, put on warm things, everybody: comfortable, but as becoming as possible.”
Richard, in turn, only ties on his life vest rather than that Chesterfield coat… despite the fact that his overcoat is arguably quite becoming.
If you’ve seen Cameron’s flick, then you know that the life jackets on the Titanic didn’t look like these. The actual life jackets were white canvas with six rectangular cork cells – three rows of two across – that reportedly broke a few necks of passengers and crew who dove from the ship into the water below.
What to Imbibe
Richard Ward Sturges fuels his marathon card game with coffee and Craven A cigarettes, a typically inadvisable combination for those invested in living a long life. However, the very nature of the film’s narrative suggests that this is hardly the greatest danger that Richard will face.
In more polite company, Richard consigns himself to champagne. His particular bubbly of choice isn’t mentioned, though there is a delightful scene as he waltzes through the first class dining room, notices the aged Mr. and Mrs. Straus at their table, and inspects their champagne.
“Pommery, 1892,” Richard reads. “Mrs. Straus, be careful of this old fox. He has plans.”
Whether or not Pommery ’92 would have been actually available among the Titanic‘s wine cellar of 12,000 bottles is lost to history, though corks from bottles of Moët & Chandon and Heidsieck & Co. were found among the ship’s wreckage.
I didn’t want to say anything, but…
The film should hardly be considered an encyclopedic resource on the actual circumstances of the RMS Titanic, as it was conceptualized as a vehicle for Darryl F. Zanuck to feature Clifton Webb in a more serious role alongside younger talent, making the most of Twentieth Century Fox’s new CinemaScope lens.
The real sinking of the Titanic certainly doesn’t lack for drama, as straightforward depictions like the later A Night to Remember would prove. However, Fox screenwriters Charles Brackett, Richard L. Breen, and Walter Reisch took the drama up to eleven with their Academy Award-winning original screenplay, weaving in actual events and figures like Captain Edward J. Smith with the film’s narrative and characters.
The emphasis rarely strays beyond the drama of the Sturges family, but a few emotional interludes are permitted to mingle with the ship’s crew and some of her more famous passengers like John Jacob Astor and Maude Young, a Molly Brown surrogate played by the inimitable Thelma Ritter.
Zanuck made the most of his new CinemaScope during the latter half of the film as the Titanic begins its iceberg descent to the bottom of the Atlantic. The 882-foot-long ship was represented on screen with a 28-foot-long replica, marvelously detailed and eventually sank through special effects supervised by Ray Kellogg. (Read this excellent entry at Model Ships in the Cinema to learn more.)
Barbara Stanwyck later recalled the impact that filming this real-life disaster had on her:
…It was bitter cold. I was 47 feet up in the air in a lifeboat swinging on the davits. The water below was agitated into a heavy rolling mass and it was thick with other lifeboats full of women and children. I looked down and thought: If one of these ropes snaps now, it’s goodbye for you. Then I looked up at the faces lined along the rail… those left behind to die with the ship. I thought of the men and women who had been through this thing in our time. We were recreating an actual tragedy and I burst into tears. I shook with great racking sobs and couldn’t stop.
How to Get the Look
Clifton Webb belongs to a proud but limited group of gentlemen who look more comfortable in a tuxedo than any man could hope to look in any degree of leisure. The fact that his dinner suit would remain just as stylish more than a century after the film’s 1912 setting stands as a testament to the timelessness of men’s formalwear.
- Midnight blue wool single-button dinner jacket with grosgrain silk-faced peak lapels, welted breast pocket, straight jetted hip pockets, 4-button cuffs, and ventless back
- White linen pocket square
- White carnation boutonnière
- White cotton formal shirt with wing collar, stiff front bib, and squared single cuffs
- Round metal studs and cuff links
- Black grosgrain silk self-tying bow tie
- White piqué double-breasted formal waistcoat with shawl collar, 6×3-button front, welt pockets, and straight-cut bottom
- Midnight blue wool formal trousers with side pockets, grosgrain silk side striping, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Black suspenders with silver-toned adjusters
- Black patent leather oxford shoes
- Black dress socks
- Pinky ring
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie. It filled a need for Titanic-inspired drama in the early 1950s, and the revived interest in the story – as well as the recent release of Walter Lord’s incredibly researched tome – led to the masterful A Night to Remember released by the Rank Organisation in 1958.
Sorry, Julia. You’re asking me to do something which involves character. As you have pointed out, I am not a man of character.