Jack Lemmon as Wendell Armbruster, Jr., bitter Baltimore businessman
Ischia, Bay of Naples, Summer 1972
Release Date: December 17, 1972
Director: Billy Wilder
Wardrobe Supervisor: Annalisa Nasalli-Rocca
“I guess there is something to what it says in the tourist guide… it says Italy is not a country, it’s an emotion,” says Pamela Piggott (Juliet Mills), laying naked on a rock surrounded by sun and sea next to an equally bare but considerably more nervous Wendell Armbruster, Jr., who exclaims in response, “Well, it’s certainly been an experience!”
Despite the context, the two aren’t yet lovers, instead brought to the romantic bay of Naples after the death of Wendell’s father and Pamela’s mother who, as they learn, had been enjoying a decade-long extramarital affair. While not among the more celebrated of Jack Lemmon and Billy Wilder’s seven cinematic collaborations, Avanti! is a fitting and still entertaining work as both actor and director were maturing in their age and career. “Billy Wilder’s last great comic romance is an Italian vacation soaked in music, food, scenery and sunshine,” wrote Glenn Erickson in his excellent review for Trailers from Hell. “It’s the best movie ever about Love and Funerals.”
The curmudgeonly Wendell Jr. is understandably displeased by the discovery behind his father’s annual summer trip to Ischia, but he and Pamela agree to a “salute” to their parents’ illicit relationship with a dinner for two on the Grand Hotel Excelsior balcony, though the date is merely a ruse for the straitlaced Wendell to determine if the free-spirited Pamela is responsible for his not being able to recover his father’s corpse to return home for services in Baltimore. Their dinner interrupted by the opportunistic young Armando Trotta (Franco Angrisano) who brings Wendell back to his unfortunate-looking family’s homestead, where they’ve been holding for ransom the bodies of Mr. Armbruster and Mrs. Piggott, who died in a car crash that ruined their vineyard, thus revealing to Wendell that he has no need to further suspect Pamela.
Resolving his business with the Trottas, Wendell is going on 40 hours without sleep when he returns to the hotel and realizes that not only has Pamela not gone to bed, but she’s in a champagne-fueled haze and singing for the band. It’s hardly out of character for Pamela, whom the impatient Wendell recently had to apologize to after referring to her as “fat ass”. (Indeed, Juliet Mills reportedly gained 25 pounds in six weeks to look the part of Miss Piggott, a job requirement she was all too happy to fulfill with the help of rich Italian cuisine and nightly ice cream as she explained to Sean Mulvihill of Fanboy Nation in advance of the film’s 45th anniversary.)
Little did Wendell know when he made his tactless remark that he would soon have firsthand exposure to Pamela’s derriere when she impulsively convinces him to join her as they skinny-dip in the bay as their parents used to do. His protestations (“Miss Piggott, please keep in mind that it’s Sunday and this is a Catholic country, and they may think it’s in very poor taste!”) fall on deaf ears, and he soon finds himself swimming out of his shorts as he joins her out on their respective parents’ favorite rock, “basking like two baby seals” in their natural state.
What’d He Wear?
“Mr. Armbruster Junior! Of course, you must be… same face, same suit!” greets a waiter at the hotel restaurant. Wendell’s “suit” is his father’s double-breasted blazer with neutral-toned turtleneck and trousers, an appropriate choice for the evening as Pamela selects one of her mother’s dresses for their dinner.
Despite being a 67-year-old grandfather “with a bad back yet!”, Armbruster Sr. maintained a fashionably contemporary wardrobe of “plaids, bell-bottoms, two-tone shoes,” as his son notes when poring over the wardrobe kept maintained by the obsequious bellhop Bruno (Gianfranco Barra). “He had one conservative suit, but he’s wearing it now… he was a real sport,” responds Bruno.
From the old man’s closet, Wendell Jr. avoids the plaids and two-toned shoes in favor of a more timeless double-breasted blazer though, in true Wendell Sr. fashion, the details and cut are quite trendy for the early ’70s. The navy blue cloth appears to be wool serge, a traditional choice for blazers, suits, and military uniforms, providing a classic foundation to balance some of the blazer’s nontraditional details.
Wendell’s blazer is rigged with a double-breasted front with six gold-toned metal buttons, two to buttons; as these are sew-through buttons rather than the shank buttons of a traditional blazer, the navy thread attaching each button is visible. Apropos the double-breasted front, the blazer has peak lapels, fashionably wide and full-bellied with slanted gorges, swelled edges, and a buttonhole on each. The sleeveheads are heavily roped with three buttons on each cuff, matching those on the front, with fashionably long double vents. The large patch pockets on the hips dress the blazer down to a level appropriately sporty for Wendell Sr.’s Tyrrhenian resort wear. Wendell Jr. appoints the blazer’s welted breast pocket with a splash of color, a puff of navy-and-red geometric silk that so perfectly matches the jacket’s inside lining that it suggests Wendell merely pulled up the lining to effect the appearance of a pocket square.
Wendell wears a beige turtleneck sweater in a luxurious, shiny fine-gauge knit that suggests a blend of silk and merino wool. The jumper has set-in sleeves and is worn untucked, though the lighter weight means it could have been effectively tucked in as well.
Wendell foregoes his father’s infamous two-toned shoes in favor of a pair of black patent leather split-toe loafers with gold horsebit-like detailing, though the gold hardware is more substantial than the classic Gucci horsebit with a braided effect across each vamp. The closest equivalent that I’ve encountered is the Burberry Solway “chain strap” loafer (available via Lyst, as of June 2020.)
Wendell’s tan flat front trousers are only a shade darker than the turtleneck, providing a neutral under-palette for his fashionable blazer to stand out against. Not surprisingly, the trousers are also styled consistent with the most fashionable trends of the early ’70s, from the frogmouth front pockets to the flared bottoms, finished with substantial turn-ups (cuffs). Unseen until he disrobes for his leap into the bay is Wendell’s dark brown leather belt with its round gold-toned single-prong buckle. The brown belt is suitable for the outfit itself though incongruous with his choice of black leather shoes.
Wendell strips down to only his white cotton boxer shorts and his black socks when he dives into the bay after Pamela, though—to his own embarrassment—he accidentally swims out of his shorts, which are swiftly recovered and laundered by the deviously opportunistic Bruno, who uses the incident (and his Polaroids of it) in an attempt to blackmail Wendell.
“There is just one thing that puzzled me,” asks hotel manager Carlo Carlucci (Clive Revill) upon seeing Bruno’s photos. “The black socks… is it because you are in mourning?” Indeed, Wendell’s knee-high black dress socks are all he has left by the time he reaches Pamela at the rock, and he even sacrifices those for the sake of Pamela’s modesty (NSFW!) when their “basking like baby seals” attracts the attention of some local fishermen.
Wendell wears a gold tank watch with a white square dial on a black leather strap, a considerably more tasteful timepiece than the Spiro Agnew watch that his father had gifted Bruno the previous year… wait, what?
In the early 1970s, Orange County physician Hale E. Dougherty marketed a series of Swiss novelty watches via the Dirty Tine Company, featuring the likeness of then-President Richard Nixon’s famously corrupt vice president in reference to the contemporary joke: “Did you know Mickey Mouse wears a Spiro Agnew watch?” While Agnew was initially receptive to the watches, he quickly grew frustrated and resentful of the watches that he felt were lampooning him (as well as their enthusiastic reception among political rivals) and tried to sue Dr. Dougherty. You can read more about these watches in this Just Collecting feature and in Dr. Dougherty’s Los Angeles Times obit.
Luckily for Wendell, he had evidently thought to remove his watch—which appears to be devoid of any executive branch likeness—by the time he’s diving after Pamela into the water, perhaps having pocketed it to keep it hidden from the unscrupulous Trotta clan during his nocturnal negotiations at their vineyard.
On his left pinky, Wendell wears a gold signet etched with a crest that may be the proud Armbruster family’s coat of arms, though I had initially considered that it was his own initials of an interlocking “W” and “A”.
What to Imbibe
“Of course, you will wait at the bar… everything has been anticipated!” greets the waiter, sounding more like a character from The Shining than from a Billy Wilder comedy, turning over the floor to the restaurant’s lackadaisical bartender: “Mr. Armbruster, here you are… a whiskey sour—on the sour side—and, for the lady, a Bacardi on the sweet side.”
“That’s what they used to have?” asks Wendell. “Always,” assures the bartender. With that affirmation, Wendell removes the orange slice from his whiskey sour, served in a champagne flute, and takes a reluctant sip. Though Pamela doesn’t usually drink, she agrees to enjoy the Bacardi to avoid “lousing up” the evening in honor of her mother Kate and the senior Wendell Armbruster… and even the bartender joins in their toast with a drink.
Sitting down for dinner, the pair hopes to recreate the meals that fueled their parents’ affair, described by the waiter as “a few gnocchi, a few ravioli, some green noodles for color,” followed by the entree of duck l’orange for two… though Pamela foregoes all in favor of a single apple in the hopes of reaching her goal to lose at least two stone. “Well, you came to the right place… Michelangelo lost three stones here,” Wendell quips back in reference to the trio of kidney stones supposedly passed by the artist while at the island.
The meal is appropriately accompanied by wine: “a Biancolella 1961 with the pasta and the Corvo di Salaparuta with the entree.” Interestingly enough, the latter was the same red wine we saw Wendell enjoying on the train from Rome to Naples at the beginning of the film.
How to Get the Look
Wendell Armbruster Jr. spends little of Avanti! wearing his own clothing, first trading his loud red cardigan, pink terry polo, and plaid golf trousers with a bespectacled plane passenger in exchange for a gray worsted suit, white button-down shirt, and navy knitted tie, then rigging himself in his late father’s hip and stylish sportswear of a fashionable dark navy double-breasted blazer with neutral-toned turtleneck and trousers. (Following that, he alternates between a plush hotel robe and silk pajamas for the remainder of the film’s action!)
- Navy wool serge double-breasted blazer with full-bellied peak lapels, 6×2 gold-toned sew-through buttons, welted breast pocket, patch hip pockets, 3-button cuffs, and long double vents
- Beige fine-gauge silk-and-merino wool turtleneck
- Tan flat front trousers with tall belt loops, frogmouth front pockets, button-through back pockets, and flared bottoms with turn-ups/cuffs
- Brown leather belt with round gold-toned single-prong buckle
- Black patent leather split-toe loafers with gold braided-chain vamp hardware
- Black dress socks
- White cotton boxer shorts
- Gold signet pinky ring
- Gold tank watch with white square dial on black leather strap
Wendell may just puff up his breast pocket lining in lieu of a classic pocket hank; while the jaunty dash of color is admirable, it’s preferable to wear an actual pocket square.
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Check out the movie.
I don’t want you to think I’m stuffy or uptight… I’m considered a pretty groovy cat, you know, tuned in.