John Garfield as Frank Chambers, restless drifter-turned-diner worker
Laguna Beach, California, Summer 1945
Film: The Postman Always Rings Twice
Release Date: May 2, 1946
Director: Tay Garnett
Costume Supervisor: Irene
As #Noirvember continues, let’s step away from the trench coats and fedoras to see how our hardboiled anti-heroes dress for a day at the beach. An ode to deviance that originated from James M. Cain’s 1934 novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice was adapted twice by European filmmakers before Hollywood dared to tackle it during the golden age of noir in the 1940s.
The lascivious source material had presented a challenge for presenting the story in a way that would satisfy the draconian Motion Picture Production Code and, even before it was published, a synopsis of Cain’s story had been deemed “definitely unsuitable for motion picture production” by the pearl-clutching Hays Office. After the two European adaptations were released, MGM was finally ready to proceed with its own version, inspired by the success of Double Indemnity, another piece from Cain’s poison pen centered around adultery and murder. By this time, nearly a dozen years into the rigid enforcement years of the Production Code, American filmmakers had mastered the art of stylized shadows and suggestive innuendo that allowed—and often enhanced—these films noir set in lurid worlds filled with unscrupulous and unsavory elements.
“It was on a side road outside of Los Angeles,” Frank Chambers begins his story, as the down-on-his-luck hitchhiker stumbles into the Twin Oaks diner boasting a $1.25 “best in the world” chicken dinner. The simple sign, “Man wanted,” echoes both the restaurant’s staffing needs as well as the sensuous needs of Cora (Lana Turner), the ambitious young platinum blonde who runs the roadside lunch room with her proud yet oblivious husband Nick (Cecil Kellaway)… and, even if you haven’t read or seen it, you probably already see where this is going.
While I was planning #Noirvember content for this month, I was particularly inspired to focus on this original MGM version of The Postman Always Rings Twice when my new friend Carla Valderrama shared with me some fascinating and little-known details about its star, John Garfield. Those of you who follow Carla’s amazing Instagram account, @thiswashollywood, are certainly already familiar with her expertise and ability to entertain while enlightening us about the stars, stories, and scandals of early 20th century Tinseltown.
Carla’s marvelous new book This Was Hollywood hit shelves yesterday, a dazzling volume inspired by the look of classic fan magazines while including in-depth research and incredible images that outshine anything mid-century readers would have found in the pages of Confidential or Photoplay. In anticipation of the book’s arrival after I pre-ordered my copy in August, I reached out to Carla who graciously answered a few questions that I had about both John Garfield as well as the intriguing world of old Hollywood:
How did your interest and passion in classic Hollywood begin?
When I was around 6 years old and saw Gone with the Wind for the first time, I became completely hooked. I used to take blank VHS tapes and record hundreds of hours from the Turner Classic Movies channel. I loved the escapism of classic Hollywood and then became super interested in the history of the movies and the stars.
People probably look to you for film recommendations all the time! What movie (or movies) do you find yourself recommending to people the most?
Singin’ in the Rain. It has everything: stars, music, dancing, an incredible story. It’s the ultimate in escapism. It’s a perfect movie and yet, somehow, gets better and better the more I watch it.
This period from the 1930s through the ’50s has often been referred to as the “golden age” of Hollywood as well as the golden age of men’s style. Which actors would you consider some of the pinnacles of elegance and style?
Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, and Sidney Poitier. The three Kings of Style for me.
Which classic actors and actresses should we as a society be talking about more? Do you anticipate your book will get those conversations started?
Well, not necessarily actors, but there needs to be way more attention paid to all the women filmmakers and pioneers. There is this misconception that women never had any power or influence in the film industry, and that is not really true, as I explain in my book.
As for actors, non-white stars like Sessue Hayakawa and the Nicholas Brothers have been virtually erased from film history books, despite their tremendous influence and talent. I go into depth about a lot of these stars in the book.
You’ve mentioned to me that John Garfield’s little-known story is a major part of your book. What can you tell us about it without giving too much away?
Before Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Montgomery Clift there was John Garfield. He was the OG, the first method actor star from the Group Theatre who revolutionized acting on the screen. But the government and Hollywood put a target on his back during the Red Scare, and their unjust persecution of him led to tragedy. To tell his story, I pored over thousands of documents from the government and archives across the country, as well as speaking with his daughter, Julie, who is fabulous.
Garfield may be best remembered today for The Postman Always Rings Twice, but which of his movies would you recommend?
The film noirs that he produced himself are the crown jewels for me: Body and Soul, Force of Evil, He Ran All the Way.
Can we expect another book from you someday?
Yes!!!! But it’ll be completely different!
What’d He Wear?
After spending a few weeks employed by Nick and Cora Smith, Frank Chambers slips out of his everyday duds to dress for a beach outing with Cora, leading to an intimate night swim in the Pacific that brings the two closer.
Frank layers in a soft plush robe that extends past his knees, detailed with a woven two-tone rope belt that matches the piping along the shawl collar and across the top of each pocket. This “blanket robe” is almost certainly a cotton/acetate cloth manufactured by the Beacon Blanket Company of Swannanoa, North Carolina. The company had been founded in Massachusetts in 1904 but moved its operations to North Carolina a generation later to be nearer to the cotton needed for its soft blankets and comfortable robes (source: Vintage Fashion Guild).
Primarily popular from the 1920s through the 1950s, Beacon blanket robes were frequently patterned in plaids or ombre Native American-inspired designs as Frank appears to be wearing on his dark robe, detailed with the signature rope-style belt and trim.
In addition to their mid-century popularity, vintage Beacon Blanket Robes have been found on contemporary TV shows like The Big Bang Theory and Criminal Minds. In fact, many vintage examples can still be found in fine condition today, such as this red plaid (via eBay), red Deco pattern (via Etsy), blue with an ombre pattern (via Ballyhoo Vintage Clothing), mauve with an ombre pattern (via WorthPoint), and this brown ombre-diamond pattern (via Style & Salvage) that looks closest in color and pattern to John Garfield’s screen-worn robe.
An itinerant laborer, Frank hasn’t prioritized buying the appropriate footwear for a day at the beach so he’s forced to incongruously sport his lace-up work boots. These ankle-high boots appear to have dark brown “roughout” sueded leather uppers and crepe soles, derby-laced with four pairs of metal eyelets and three sets of speed hooks.
When the time comes to join Cora for a dip into the waves, Frank peels off his robe to reveal a pair of dark swimming trunks—likely black—with a short inseam and a long rise up to John Garfield’s natural waist.
As modern water-resistant fabrics had yet to be innovated for swimwear, Frank’s trunks are likely made from treated wool like these vintage woolen knit Malibu shorts from The Pacific Knitting Mills (via Everything But the House) or these navy Gantner Wikies briefs (via Etsy).
Frank’s swim shorts have a flapped pocket on the left thigh and belt loops, through which he wears a khaki cotton web belt not unlike those issued to U.S. military service members. The belt closes through a brass slider buckle.
Decades later, Tom Selleck would famously wear khaki web belts with shorts and beach-wear—including those notorious Aloha shirts—as Thomas Magnum on Magnum, P.I. These simple but reliable belts can still be purchased from military gear suppliers like Rothco (via Amazon).
How to Get the Look
Frank Chambers blends the beach-going comfort of his blanket robe with the military-inspired functionality of his belt and boots for his fateful evening crashing in the waves with sultry “she-devil” Cora Smith.
- Dark ombre-patterned cotton/acetate Beacon “blanket robe” with two-tone twisted rope belt and trim
- White towel
- Black short-inseam swim trunks with belt loops and flapped left-thigh pocket
- Khaki cotton web belt with brass slider buckle
- Dark brown suede leather derby-laced ankle boots with crepe soles
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie and James M. Cain’s original novel. If you’re interested, there was also a decent Bob Rafelson-directed remake in 1981 starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange in the central roles.
I also recommend Carla Valderrama’s magnificent This Was Hollywood, and make sure you’re following @thiswashollywood on Instagram! You can also catch Carla tonight on Turner Classic Movies starting at 8 p.m. EST.
Right then, I should’ve walked out of that place, but I couldn’t make myself do it. She had me licked, and she knew it.