William Powell as Jim Wade, crusading assistant district attorney
New York City, Spring 1934
Film: Manhattan Melodrama
Release Date: May 4, 1934
Director: W.S. Van Dyke
Costume Designer: Dolly Tree
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Happy birthday, William Powell! The suave actor was born July 29, 1892, in my hometown of Pittsburgh, though he moved to Kansas City as a teenager. He only stayed there three years before moving to New York at the age of 18 to pursue a career as an actor, eventually becoming one of the best known actors of Hollywood’s “golden era” with three Academy Award nominations for Best Actor recognizing his performances in The Thin Man (1934), My Man Godfrey (1936), and Life with Father (1947).
Powell’s chemistry with Myrna Loy, most famously showcased as detective couple Nick and Nora Charles in the “Thin Man” series, made them one of the most iconic on-screen duos, though their first of 14 cinematic collaborations was Manhattan Melodrama in 1934. This pre-Code crime drama co-starred Clark Gable as “Blackie” Gallagher, a smooth gangster and childhood friend of Powell’s Jim Wade, an honest lawyer who is forced to choose between his duty and his friendship as he rises the ranks from assistant district attorney to governor of New York.
Manhattan Melodrama was still in theaters on July 22, 1934, when infamous bank robber John Dillinger strolled into Chicago’s Biograph Theater with his new girlfriend, Polly Hamilton, and local brothel madam Anna Sage. Little did Dillinger know that Sage had tipped off federal agent Melvin Purvis to the outlaw’s whereabouts that evening. After Dillinger took in an hour and a half of watching the charismatic Gable pay the ultimate toll for his character’s crimes, he left the theater with Hamilton and Sage. Signaled by Sage’s conspicuous orange skirt, Purvis and his agents moved in with guns drawn, cornering Public Enemy Number One, as Special Agent Charles Winstead fired the fatal shots into Dillinger with his .45. More than 85 years later, the killing remains shrouded in controversy and mystery: Was Dillinger actually reaching for a pistol in his trouser pocket, or was he unarmed when he was killed? Was it even the real John Dillinger or a stand-in who was shot that evening?
Much as Dillinger’s ultimate fate was brought about by someone he believed to be his friend, so too was Blackie Gallagher’s execution sealed by his former friend Jim’s decision to prosecute him. Wracked by guilt, Jim sent a note to his erstwhile pal, apologizing but explaining that “I had to do it.” Blackie’s response? “Okay kid, I can take it. P.S. and can you dish it out.”
What’d He Wear?
After my weeklong beach vacation, it’s another Monday back at work for me and a return to the world of three-piece suits and ties. One of the most elegant actors of his time, William Powell was characteristically dressed in a sharp suit fashionable for the early 1930s as Jim Wade. One of my particular favorites was the briefly seen chalk-striped flannel three-piece suit he wears during the climactic courtroom scene for his successful prosecution of his former friend Blackie Gallagher. Given the staid setting of a courtroom, we can expect that Wade’s suiting is a conservative business color like blue or gray, most likely a medium-dark shade of the latter.
Peak lapels are typically associated with double-breasted jackets—to the extent that they’re also known as “double-breasted lapels”—but the cyclical nature of men’s fashion sees a return of single-breasted, peak-lapel suit jackets every 40 years or so, beginning with the late 1920s and early 1930s.
Additional character to Powell’s suit jacket comes from the shape of his peak lapels with slanted gorges and a full, rounded belly. The lapel shape emphasizes the shoulders, with their roped sleeveheads, and they roll to a single-button closure that fastens at the natural waist, suppressed for a more athletic silhouette.
The ventless suit jacket has a welted breast pocket (where Wade wears a white linen pocket square), straight flapped hip pockets and a jetted ticket pocket with no flap, and four-button cuffs at the end of each sleeve.
Jim Wade opts for a classic white cotton shirt, a simple and elegant choice that lends the appropriate gravitas to his suit. The shirt is appointed with the textbook definition of a point collar, though it could be argued that a collar with greater spread could be more complementary to William Powell’s lean frame and head shape. Wade’s white shirt also has squared double (French) cuffs, dressed with unobtrusive cuff links.
Wade wears a woven silk tie in a neat micro grid check, similar to a Macclesfield, tied in a tight four-in-hand.
The suit’s matching waistcoat (vest) has five buttons down the single-breasted front to the notched bottom. Powell wears all five fastened though standard practice for waistcoats is to leave the lowest button undone like a suit jacket. The waistcoat has two welted pockets, in line with the center of the five buttons, and Powell wears his character’s pocket watch in one of them.
Little is seen of the trousers, but they have an appropriately high rise that conceals the top under the waistcoat and are detailed consistent with ’30s trends with pleats and turn-ups (cuffs) on the bottoms. His shoes are dark oxfords, the most appropriate footwear for the suit and occasion.
Particularly in the cooler months, hats and coats were still a de facto requirement for gents in the early ’30s. Jim Wade wears a light felt fedora with a black ribbed grosgrain silk band.
His long, heavy tweed overcoat is made from a light-colored birdseye wool cloth with a 6×3-buttoning double-breasted front for an extra layer of warmth against the chill of a Manhattan spring, reinforced by a self-belt. The coat also has peak lapels and large patch pockets on the hips with rectangular flaps and rounded bottoms.
Wade completes his outerwear with a light-colored scarf with dark stripes spaced just under an inch apart.
How to Get the Look
While Jim Wade’s three-piece suit may sacrifice formality for its unique and fashionable detailing such as a single-button jacket with full-bellied peak lapels and flapped ticket pocket, the debonair William Powell wears it with his characteristically smooth panache that never fails to command the courtroom.
- Dark chalk-stripe flannel suit:
- Single-breasted 1-button jacket with full-bellied peak lapels (with slanted gorges), welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, flapped ticket pocket, 4-button cuffs, and ventless back
- Single-breasted 5-button waistcoat with welted pockets and notched bottom
- Pleated trousers with turn-ups/cuffs
- White cotton shirt with point collar and double/French cuffs
- Mini grid-check silk tie
- Dark oxford shoes
- Pocket watch
- Light-colored birdseye woolen tweed double-breasted overcoat with peak lapels, 6×3-button front, self-belt, and rounded-bottom patch pockets (with rectangular flaps)
- Light-colored felt fedora with black ribbed grosgrain silk band
- Light-colored scarf with dark stripes
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie, just be more careful than John Dillinger was after you’re finished watching it.