Clark Gable in It Happened One Night
Clark Gable as Peter Warne, recently fired newspaper reporter
Miami to New York, Spring 1933
Film: It Happened One Night
Release Date: February 22, 1934
Director: Frank Capra
Costume Designer: Robert Kalloch
Tailor: Eddie Schmidt
Today marks the birthday of Clark Gable, born 118 years ago on February 1, 1901, as William Clark Gable, though he would shave off his first name to assume the stage name of Clark Gable by 1924. Within a decade, the young actor from Cadiz, Ohio, had turned Clark Gable into a household name.
Released 85 years ago this month, It Happened One Night earned Clark Gable his only Academy Award while also racking up wins in the category of Best Picture, Best Director (for Frank Capra), Best Actress (for Claudette Colbert), and Best Adapted Screenplay (for Robert Riskin). In the decades since, only two other movies have won this “big five” quinfecta of Oscar categories: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Silence of the Lambs. Esteemed company, indeed.
With Gable’s birthday today and the 91st Academy Awards just four weeks from now, let’s take a look at the dapper actor’s style in this trailblazing pre-Code comedy that’s still charming, witty, and ageless the better part of a century later. Based on Samuel Hopkins Adams’ short story “Night Bus”, published in August 1933, It Happened One Night broke ground across genres, setting an early standard for romantic comedies, screwball comedies, and the decidedly American subgenre of road movies.
Per the name of Adams’ original short story, a Greyhound bus drives the movie’s plot—as well as its two romantic leads, cheeky pipe-smoking tabloid journalist Peter Warne and runaway heiress Ellie Andrews—as they travel up the Eastern seaboard from Miami to New York. The sheltered socialite finds herself relying on the streetwise reporter for help during her incognito getaway and, within a few days, he’s teaching her everything from how to live on less than $4 a day to the proper way to dunk one’s donut in coffee:
Dunking is an art. Don’t let it soak so long. A dip and sock, into your mouth. You leave it in too long, it gets soft and falls off. It’s all a matter of timing. I’ll write a book about it.
Of course, Ellie has a thing or two to teach Peter as well. One of the film’s most famous scenes finds the two by the side of a country road, trying to hitchhike. Despite his three tried-and-true methods, Peter’s thumb isn’t getting them much luck, so Ellie strolls out to the side of the road, lifts her skirt, and a passing jalopy immediately squeals to a stop to pick them up, prompting Ellie to remark:
Well, I proved once and for all that the limb is mightier than the thumb.
What’d He Wear?
Peter Warne’s sporty tweed suit and its supplements afford us with a concrete example of ideal layering for traveling in style—whether by bus, by train, or by plane—with layers that can be removed, reinforced, or reused depending on the situation… either by you or by your lovely seat mate. Of course, there’s one layer he eschews that was almost unthinkable to abandon in the early 1930s: an undershirt!
You don’t want to join the Israelites? All right. Perhaps you’re interested in how a man undresses. There’s a funny thing about that—quite a study in psychology—no two men do it alike. I once knew a man who kept his hat on until he was completely undressed. Now he made a picture. Years later, his secret came out. He wore a toupee. I have a method all my own. If you’ll notice, the coat came first. Then the tie. Then the shirt. Now, according to Hoyle, after that the pants should be next. There’s where I’m different. I go for the shoes next. First the right. Then the left. After that, it’s every man for himself.
Though Ellie Andrews quickly follows her own instincts for self-preservation and flees onto the other side of the room, the audience was reportedly left stunned… and inspired. According to urban legend, sales of men’s undershirts plunged after Gable’s demonstration… though it has been argued that perhaps Gable was just following a Depression-era trend rather than starting one.
In an ironic twist, almost 20 years later, Gable’s insecurity regarding his bare chest that he once so proudly and famously exposed in It Happened One Night caused him to demand that any male cast and crew members appearing shirtless during the production of Mogambo have their chest shaved so as not to appear more hirsute than he.
The Tweed Suit
When I first endeavored to write this piece, my research led me to Andrew Yamato’s “A Suit Well-Traveled: Clark Gabble’s Clobber in It Happened One Night“ and I count it among the finer pieces of men’s style writing I’ve encountered. Please enjoy this excerpt from Mr. Yamato’s sublime analysis:
The silent star of this early talkie is Gable’s traveling suit: a sporty single-breasted number cut from a supple medium-toned tweed and featuring just about every bell and whistle in the tailor’s manual… While clearly cut for ease, the suit is not inelegant. Its broad-shouldered and heavily draped silhouette is bulky, but far from shapeless. Indeed, with its bulging pockets, rolling lapels, shirred sleeveheads (perfectly echoing the yoke), and luffing trousers, it fairly ripples with an expressive energy that the waist button sometimes seems barely able to contain. It’s not as famous as that other great transcontinental sartorial icon – Cary Grant’s North By Northwest suit – but it deserves to be. Easy wearing for hard living, Gable’s rumpled tweed is more in line with the realities of travel than the polished perfection of Grant’s granite worsted. It’s perhaps not ideal for martinis in the first class lounge, but it’s perfect for catching a few winks in coach, and isn’t that where most of us tend to find ourselves?
I can hardly match Mr. Yamato’s talent for the written word when describing both context and texture of this iconic outfit, but I feel that I owe it to Mr. Gable and myself (and the hours I spent watching, taking screenshots, and researching) to approach the same outfit and offer my own unique commentary where warranted.
The color of Gable’s sporty tweed suit is likely lost to history, as contemporary promotional artwork has colored it blue, gray, brown, and likely an assortment of other shades. Given that, all we can do is take a closer look at the suiting itself, a broken twill tweed so broken in by its wearer that it’s no surprise he was able to drift to slumber so easily when crammed into the back seat of a Greyhound bus.
A gentleman named Marc Chevalier has identified Eddie Schmidt as the craftsman of this particular suit as well as Gable’s other tailored wear across the early years of his career.
Schmidt no doubt enjoyed his work dressing Peter Warne, furnishing the single-breasted jacket with three flapped bellows pockets: one on each hip, large enough for a seemingly endless supply of carrots, and an imperfect rhomboid over his left breast that leans with Gable whether he’s kicking back against a street light or thumbing back to hitchhike a ride. One could be forgiven for not noticing the flap over the breast pocket as he keeps it well-concealed with a parade of pocket squares: first a dark silk foulard handkerchief before switching to plain white linen.
The jacket has broad notch lapels that roll neatly to the top of two semi-spherical shank buttons, likely nut or a material more exotic than the traditional horn or plastic. The four smaller cuff buttons that adorn each sleeve match the two on the front of the suit coat.
A 1930s tailoring trend that has sadly failed to resurrect itself in the years since is the “action back”, an informal nomenclature for the details incorporated by early 20th century tailors onto the jackets of gents’ sportier suits and sport jackets to allow for greater mobility during life’s more action-oriented pursuits, be they hunting, shooting, or—in Peter Warne’s case—hitchhiking. An “action back” can consist of one or more of the following: “bi-swing” pleats on the shoulders, an inverted box pleat down the center, shirring at the shoulder yoke, or a half-belt that pulls in the waist.
Warne’s ventless jacket boasts the latter three of the four above; a horizontal shoulder yoke hits straight across his upper back, with shirring and a single center inverted box pleat detailing the back down to a half-belt at his waist.
Dress shirts with attached collars had only been a relatively recent phenomenon by the time Gable hit the silver screen as Peter Warne in the early 1930s, and yet it’s difficult to imagine the outfit expressing its same insouciant panache without the insolently soft leafs of his Barrymore collar refusing to restrain themselves to the confines of his waistcoat. In Dressing the Man, Alan Flusser defines the Barrymore collar as “a low-set, attached dress-shirt collar with long points, first worn by John Barrymore in the late 1920s and then adopted by Hollywood stars and others in California; it later became known as the California collar.” In addition to this large collar, Warne’s white shirts have the simple details of a front placket and single-button barrel cuffs.
Warne later cites the value of his three shirts lost along the journey at $4.50 apiece, which the math experts among us would calculate out to $1.50 per shirt, a fair price by 1930s standards and an absolute steal in the marketplace of 2019.
Tri-color striped repp ties are the theme of Peter Warne’s neckwear game, particularly those of British military origins, though the Tommys would be rather concerned with seeing the traditional British stripe inverted in the “downhill” American direction in Warne’s collection. All of his ties are fastened in place with a tie tack and chain just above the first button of his suit.
Warne begins his journey in a repp tie striped in three colors—light, medium, and dark—following a pattern of light, dark, medium, dark, etc. My theory that this tie was striped in the tradition of the Royal Army Medical Corps regimental design was validated upon finding the same service specifically suggested in Mr. Yamato’s 2015 article. Should Gable have truly been sporting a tie patterned after the RAMC colors, the predominant dark stripe would be navy, alternating with the lighter-toned yellow and medium-toned scarlet red stripes.
Under his suit jacket, Warne first wears a light-colored knit long-sleeve sweater with a V-shaped neckline just deep enough to show the top few inches of his tie below the knot, though the color and material of the sweater are so light that the outline of the tie can be clearly seen through it.
While a bare-chested Clark Gable (sans undershirt!) may have had a major impact on viewers in 1934, audiences of today may be more surprised to see Gable’s trousers rising so high as to conceal his belly button. Until rather recently, men’s trouser waistlines referred to exactly that: the natural human waistline. As Flusser so succinctly outlines in Dressing the Man, “suit trousers should be worn on the waist, not on the hip.”
Thus, Gable’s suit trousers with their elegant long rise, further accented by a pair of reverse pleats on each side of the fly. The waistband is clean, devoid of belt loops and fastened with a hidden hook-and-eye extended tab. Brace buttons along the inside of the waistband connect to a pair of dark suspenders with tan leather double hooks. The full-fitting trousers have straight pockets along each side seam, no back pockets, and turn-ups (cuffs) on the bottoms.
The morning after Peter first erects the “walls of Jericho”, he swaps out his repp tie for yet another regimental tie, this one bearing what appears to be the bright scarlet and navy stripes of the Staffordshire Yeomanry, each set of stripes divided by a slim white shadow stripe below the navy. He wears it with the same tie pin, affixed mid-torso just beneath the waistcoat.
What’s that? A waistcoat? Indeed, Peter showcases the versatility of his hard-wearing travel attire by packing away the light sweater he had been wearing in exchange for the suit’s matching waistcoat (vest), a single-breasted number with four welt pockets, five semi-spherical buttons, and a long notched bottom. The back is cinched with an adjustable strap just an inch or two from the bottom, as close to the waist as possible to match the profile of the jacket with its suppressed waist.
The waistcoat is cut in accordance with the decade’s high-waisted trends by buttoning high on his chest and ending just at the natural waist. His trousers rise high enough that the waistband is well-concealed under the waistcoat.
While lace-ups may be the scourge of the modern travel landscape with its TSA security checkpoints, a sensible pair of durable derbies would have been the ideal accompaniment for a tweed-suited traveler in the early 1930s, particularly one with a natty pair of two-toned argyle socks to show off when possible.
Warne’s dark calf leather longwing derby brogues have five lace eyelets and a unique squared toe box with an extended apron-toe rather than the traditional wingtip associated with brogues.
Clark Gable embraced the post-World War I popularity of men’s wristwatches, amassing a collection of impressive timepieces that he wore both on- and off-screen throughout his life, including a classic Cartier Tank and a yellow-gold Rolex Oyster Perpetual that shined from the screen in Mogambo.
As Peter Warne, Gable wore a shining rectangular-cased watch and a brown leather strap on his left wrist. Gleaming from elsewhere on the same hand—the little finger, to be precise—is a gold shiner with a large dark stone, one in a series of pinky rings that Gable would wear throughout his lifetime.
As he was a newspaperman, you can almost see the press card sticking out of Warne’s well-traveled dark fedora with its wide ribbed grosgrain silk band and perennially downturned brim, likely the result of countless hours in the rain either in search of a story or an open bar.
Warne finally parts with the hat when he trades it to a gas station attendant outside Philadelphia in exchange for some extra fuel to gas up his “commandeered” Ford Model T, invoicing the headgear’s total at $4 in his invoice to Ellen’s father. At a time when Stetson was marketing its zippy new “Playboy” model for $5, Warne’s stated figure is likely right on the proverbial money.
Before it became the outerwear of choice for spies, detectives, and cynical gin joint proprietors, Peter Warne stepped forth from a Miami phone booth in a khaki water-resistant gabardine trench coat with massive lapels and the traditional ten-button double-breasted front. In accordance with the coat’s military origins—commissioned for British officers serving in the trenches of World War I—metal hooks and D-rings hang from the belt, which Warne rakishly wears tied sash-like despite the presence of a buckle for proper fastening.
The coat is further detailed with the usual epaulettes (shoulder straps), storm flaps, and slanted hand pockets with button-down flaps. A single-prong belted strap at each cuff tightens the sleeves around the wrists. Warne values the coat at $15 when tallying up his duties for Ellie’s father.
For a man who doesn’t know what he’ll be expecting on the road, a classic trench coat is ideal for nearly any weather situation he can expect to face.
The final—and first discarded—element of Peter Warne’s attire is a houndstooth scarf with fringed ends. He wears it around his neck only when boarding the bus in Miami, later keeping it tucked away in a pocket of his trench coat before handing it to Ellie to keep her dry after a rainy day wandering through Jacksonville.
If you had any doubts that Peter Warne was a man who appreciated comfort, keep in mind that he packed at least two (2) sets of silk pajamas for his coastal road trip despite seemingly only hauling along one suit. He bestows his “best” pajamas to Ellie as a sign of his good faith, then uses the privacy of the walls of Jericho to slip into his alternate pajamas, a suit of dark silk covered in white mini polka-dots with the collar, cuffs, and breast pocket all trimmed in the same dark solid color as the ground with white piping that extends down the three-button front of the pajama top. Around his waist, he wears a dark belt with white triple fringe.
The Final Suit
The final ten minutes of It Happened One Night, set in New York after the road trip, find Peter Warne “mourning” his chance at a happy relationship with Ellie in a funereal three-piece suit made from a dark gabardine suiting on the black-to-midnight blue spectrum, more appropriate for the businesslike settings of the city than his baggy tweed traveling suit.
Unlike his charmingly sporty tweeds, this suit is all elegance from the graceful cut of the single-breasted suit jacket to the sophisticated broad peak lapel that rolls to a perfectly proportioned single-button closure at the waist. No foulard pocket squares for this broken-hearted Romeo either; Warne is all business with a simple white linen handkerchief in his breast pocket.
With this more formal suit, Warne sports another crisp white shirt, again with one of the grand “Barrymore collars” with substantial points that fill the entire space between his striped school tie and the suit’s high-fastening waistcoat.
Unlike the Americanized stripe direction of his regimental stripe ties, Warne wears an Old Harrovian tie with the school’s traditional “uphill” stripe direction intact. The tie is the signature neckwear of the storied Harrow School in London, consisting of twin white bar stripes on a dark navy ground. Given what we know about the character, it’s highly unlikely that Peter Warne was a pupil of the centuries-old “Old Boys” school that produced Winston Churchill, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Lord Byron.
I leave you with a passage from Alec Waugh’s 1948 novel, Unclouded Summer, as the American protagonist Francis attempts to dress for golf under the scrutinization of the English valet Parker:
“And which tie, sir, will you wear?”
“That blue one with the two thin white stripes.”
“The old Harrovian tie, sir?”
“You can call it what you like. To me, it’s a dark blue tie with two thin white stripes.”
“I know, sir, but…” The valet hesitated. He looked at the ties thoughtfully. There were a number of striped ties among them.
“You see, sir, if I may be allowed to say so, sir — you have also among your ties an old Etonian tie; you have a Guard’s tie, too, a Leander tie and, I think, one or two others might be held to indicate membership of clubs of which, possibly, sir, you are not a member. I hope you will not think it an impertinence, sir, but if you were to wear those ties, I am afraid it might cause some confusion, sir.”
Francis flushed. It was the kind of high-hatting he had been warned against. Hell’s bells, he thought, I’m an American. They’re American ties. What the hell do their old boys’ clubs mean to me?
A garrulous “road thief” who fell prey to Ellie’s now-famous hitchhike-hailing leg lift tried to break away from the two at a country convenience store, escaping with Peter’s suitcase in the back of his flivver. Unluckily for the motorist, Peter Warne was played by the athletic Clark Gable (rather than, say, Wallace Beery or Sydney Greenstreet), and Peter is actually able to run and catch up with the fleeing car with yet enough energy to engage in fisticuffs.
Ellie: How’d you get the car?
Peter: Oh, I gave him a black eye for it. I even had to tie him up to a tree!
Victorious after the off-screen altercation, Peter returns to pick up Ellie in the car, a black (of course) Ford Model T four-door convertible.
I’m no expert; the pros at IMCDB have seemingly determined that the car featured was the decade-old 1924 Model T tourer after some debate between the 1926 wooden-spoked model and the wire-wheeled Model T of 1927, the car’s final production year.
1924 was the second highest production year with 1,922,048 rolling off of Henry Ford’s famous production line, nearly 90,000 less than the record-holding 1923 production year.
1924 Ford Model T
Body Style: 4-door touring car
Layout: front-engine, rear-wheel-drive (RWD)
Engine: 177 cid (2.9 L) Ford Model T I4
Power: 20 hp (15 kW; 20 PS) @ 1600 rpm
Torque: 83 lb·ft (113 N·m) @ 900 rpm
Transmission: 2-speed planetary
Wheelbase: 100 inches (2540 mm)
Length: 134 inches (3404 mm)
Width: 66 inches (1676.4 mm)
Despite the questionable means under which Warne obtained the car, he seemingly owns it for the duration of the film as it is seen parked in the motel lot during the final scene. You’d think at least $300 of that famous Andrews family fortune could have gone to purchase Warne a car that was at least legally his!
What to Imbibe
We first meet Peter Warne while he’s drunkenly telling off his “gashouse palooka” of a boss from a Miami bus station phone booth, emboldened by the contents of a flask-bottle of Old Log Cabin and goaded by a group of admirers who are just the sort of fellas you’d expect to be hanging around a bus station.
Though the brand name has been revived by Seattle distillery Batch 206, the Old Log Cabin brand dates back to the pre-Civil War era when the enterprising and aptly named Philadelphia distiller Edmund G. Booz introduced his “Old Cabin” whiskey to American imbibers, selling his craft in log cabin-shaped bottles made next door to his Walnut Street distillery.
As one story tells, Old Cabin was first distributed at campaign events to support Old Tippecanoe himself, presidential candidate William Henry Harrison, who would die after serving less than a month as ninth President of the United States… unfortunately, Booz would have only been 16 during the presidential contests of 1840, and it’s hardly likely that he was managing a distillery.
However, nearly a century later, the brand was actually associated with a fatal turn of events in American history when George “Bugs” Moran, a bootlegger who ran Chicago’s infamous North Side Gang in the waning years of the roaring ’20s, ordered a shipment to be delivered to his garage on St. Valentine’s Day… and I’m sure you see where the story goes from here. Four men sent by Al Capone showed up with shotguns and tommy guns, blasting seven of Moran’s men into oblivion.
Old Log Cabin bottles from the Prohibition era feature Montreal, Canada, as the point of origin, pre-dating the 1964 congressional resolution determining bourbon whiskey to be a “distinctive product of the United States” and thus allowing these Canadian-produced bottles from the ’20s and ’30s to be marketed as bourbon to thirsty Americans. After Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the Old Log Cabin brand continued to eke along through the next dozen or so years, never regaining its pre-Prohibition popularity and dying a quiet death sometime in mid-century. Let’s see if Batch 206 can revive it!
How to Get the Look
Clark Gable’s Peter Warne travels in layered style for an authentic look that blends English tradition with American insouciance, adding a casual, sporty twist to classic tweeds, repp ties, and argyle socks. You may not have known that you wanted to travel in a three-piece tweed suit until Gable made it look so fun.
- Medium-colored broken twill tweed suit:
- Single-breasted 2-button jacket with wide notch lapels, flapped parallelogram-shaped bellows breast pocket, flapped bellows hip pockets, 4-button cuffs, and ventless, half-belted “action back”
- Single-breasted 5-button waistcoat with four welt pockets, notched bottom, and cinch backstrap
- Double reverse-pleated high-rise trousers with straight/on-seam side pockets and turn-ups (cuffs)
- Light-colored knit V-neck long-sleeve sweater
- White cotton dress shirt with long pointed “Barrymore collar”, front placket, and 1-button cuffs
- Tri-color “downhill”-striped regimental repp tie
- Tie tack and chain
- Dark calf leather squared apron-toe 5-eyelet derby brogues
- Argyle socks
- Dark felt fedora with dark ribbed grosgrain band
- Khaki water-resistant gabardine trench coat with broad lapels, 10-button double-breasted front, epaulettes, storm flaps, belted waist, slanted hand pockets (with button-down flaps), and belted cuffs
- Houndstooth scarf with fringed ends
- Rectangular-cased tank watch on brown leather strap
- Pinky ring with large oval stone
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
In a pig’s eye, you will! Hey listen, monkey face—when you fired me, you fired the best newshound your filthy scandal sheet ever had… that was free verse, you gashouse palooka!
Been absolutely ages since I saw this film! Once. Back in the mid-Eighties. On VHS!!! Definitely due for another viewing, at least. I’ll have to hunt it up on DVD.
And yeah, I once read that undershirt sales plummeted after audiences saw Gable without one in this movie. I still tend to wear them in Winter under a shirt, but they fell out of vogue once they became the uniform of Cletus Spuckler types. Sadly, I look more like him than I do John McClane, dammit. Thin build, you see.
Here in Australia, we call them ‘singlets’.
This was my grandfather’s favourite movie and I can tell why. I saw it a few years ago for the second time as an in-flight film: not only did it stand up well still, it was significantly more entertaining than the selection of then current movies they had on offer.
A great film and a great suit, then. The sort of tweed suit we might dream about. A few years later, Robert Donation wore a similar, if slightly more conventional and British, pleated belt back tweed suit in The 39 Steps (another film featuring travel across country and difficult sleeping arrangements for the male and female lead) – together they must be two of the best tweed suits on film (with Ronald Coleman’s from Bulldog Drummond and Raffles making a triumvirate of classic 20/30s tweeds, perhaps.)
Incredibly informative! 👍