Fabian Forte as Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, Depression-era bank robber
Kansas City, Spring 1930 and 1931
Film: A Bullet for Pretty Boy
Release Date: June 1970
Director: Larry Buchanan (and Maury Dexter, uncredited)
Wardrobe Credit: Ron Scott
After Warner Brothers’ success with Bonnie and Clyde in 1967, American International Pictures (AIP) leapt at the chance to capitalize on the emerging trend of Depression-era crime movies using their own brand of inexpensive, exploitative filmmaking. This wasn’t AIP’s first rodeo in the realm of ’30s public enemies, having earlier produced The Bonnie Parker Story and Machine Gun Kelly, both released in May 1958. Their B-movie output in the decade that followed Bonnie and Clyde ranged from fictional stories like Boxcar Bertha (1972) directed by Martin Scorsese to those loosely based on actual criminals like Bloody Mama (1970) starring Shelley Winters as a caricature of “Ma” Barker (alongside a young Robert De Niro as one of her sons) to Dillinger (1973).
Even before that arguably most famous ’30s bank robber would be played by a grizzled Warren Oates, former teen idol Fabian got a shot to rebrand his image by playing Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, the outlaw whose moniker alone lent itself to suit the fresh-faced Mr. Forte.
The real Charles Arthur Floyd was born 117 years ago on February 3, 1904, in Adairsville, Georgia, though his family moved to Oklahoma when Floyd was seven, and it was the Cookson Hills that he would consider home for the 30 years of his life.
A fellow Aquarius, Forte was born only three days (and 39 years) later on February 6, 1943, making him 26—the same age as Floyd was for his first bank robbery—when A Bullet for Pretty Boy was filmed from June to October 1969. A Bullet for Pretty Boy loosely follows the facts of Floyd’s life, albeit exaggerated and certainly simplified for the sake of AIP’s low-budget, short-runtime formula for success that would thrill teens at the drive-ins just before these audiences found the real thrills in their own back seats later that night.
An effective B-movie on its own, A Bullet for Pretty Boy does little to mask the influence of Bonnie and Clyde, having filmed in many of the same small Texas towns that Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway tore through three years earlier and capitalizing on Floyd’s frequent female companionship, in this case his wife Ruby and his girlfriend Juanita “Beulah” Baird, renamed Betty for the movie. Dunaway’s stand-in from Bonnie and Clyde, Morgan Fairchild, even made her wordless on-screen debut as a bank robber’s moll seated behind the wheel of a getaway car. (More trivia: the Texas-born Fairchild turns 71 today, sharing her February 3 birthday with the real “Pretty Boy” Floyd.)
At this point, I may have lost some of you who would be asking “okay… but who’s asking to read about this of all movies?” Well… me. I’m interested in the subject and this is my personal blog, so consider this post just another labor of love! I’d always been fascinated by “Pretty Boy” Floyd’s story the most of all Depression-era desperadoes, but I still feel it remains under-represented on screen.
As enforcement of the Hays Code lightened up on its policy of “glorifying” criminals, we began to see more of the Depression-era outlaws returning to the screen by the late 1950s. Following the aforementioned AIP quickies about George “Machine Gun” Kelly and Bonnie Parker (with her companion renamed “Guy Darrow” in The Bonnie Parker Story), J. Edgar Hoover’s signed, sealed, and delivered propaganda The FBI Story (1959) presented a sanitized version of the downfall of each public enemy, including “Pretty Boy” Floyd’s first prominent big screen appearance as one of only three credited performances by an actor named Bob Peterson.
The following year, “Pretty Boy” finally got his own big screen treatment in the low-budget black-and-white movie Pretty Boy Floyd (1960) that starred a pompadoured John Ericson as Floyd with a young Peter Falk and Barry Newman among his criminal cohorts. His life and crimes would be dusted off again for A Bullet for Pretty Boy in 1970, which remains your best bet for a closest-to-the-facts retelling of the Floyd saga. The wave of post-Bonnie and Clyde Depression-set crime productions meant at least three more actors would show up as Floyd through mid-decade, beginning with a charismatic Steve Kanaly in the Dillinger supporting cast, then a fresh-outta-Badlands Martin Sheen in a 1974 made-for-TV movie The Story of Pretty Boy Floyd, and finally a not-so-pretty Bo Hopkins in a TV movie chronicling The Kansas City Massacre (1975).
Yours truly even stepped in to play the part of “Pretty Boy” Floyd in a very amateur, very low-budget biopic that my friends very graciously worked with me to create in my late high school and early college years, though this 2008 production would be soon eclipsed by Channing Tatum‘s brief appearance as the outlaw in Michael Mann’s 2009 period action drama Public Enemies. Unfortunately, I couldn’t quite compete with Mr. Tatum.
What’d He Wear?
As low-budget studios AIP and New World Pictures rolled out more Depression-era exploitation films throughout the decade, costume design across many of these productions suffered when it became obvious the leads were merely sporting contemporary three-piece suits and disco-collared shirts rather than anything intended to resemble the nuance of a suit tailored in the ’20s or ’30s. (For example, Tarantino favorite The Lady in Red features Robert Conrad as John Dillinger, though his suit—not to mention haircut—looks more like he’s getting ready for a Merv Griffin appearance than a movie at the Biograph.)
A Bullet for Pretty Boy may have benefited from being part of AIP’s earlier output, filmed in late 1969 before the following decade’s fashion of excess took over and before many of the period-correct suits at their disposal would be bloodied and bullet-holed through dozens of movies to follow. Thus, Fabian Forte is able to echo the real “Pretty Boy” Floyd’s knack for wearing natty suits, all showcasing authentic details from the era.
A standout of Forte’s on-screen wardrobe is a navy worsted three-piece suit that he wears around the start of his new criminal career, considerably more stylish and better-fitting than the taupe striped suit he had worn a few years earlier for his wedding.
It’s now the late spring of 1930, and Floyd has broken out of the Oklahoma state prison (in fact, he had been lawfully released from the Missouri State Prison the previous spring) and has been taking refuge at a Kansas City brothel run by Beryl (Annabelle Weenick), a Mae West-type inspired by the real-life Sadie “Ma” Ash. Beryl’s two younger brothers Wallace (Jeff Alexander) and William (Gene Ross) resent the new man and the attention he’s been getting from Wallace’s sultry wife Betty (Jocelyn Lane). When they see Floyd striding down the stairs in his new navy three-piece suit, William snidely quips: “Thought he was supposed to be a farmer.”
The single-breasted suit jacket has notch lapels rolling to a two-button front, with a welted breast pocket, straight jetted hip pockets, single vent, and three-button cuffs. The shoulders have some padding with roping on the sleeveheads that contributes to a ’30s-correct silhouette. Another significant period detail is the double-breasted waistcoat (vest) with its shawl collar that sweeps across the torso to a six-button closure consisting of two columns of three buttons each: one functional, one vestigial. The straight-cut waistcoat bottom appropriately covers the waist line of the suit’s matching flat front trousers which may have belt loops but are worn sans belt.
Once her brothers have departed, Beryl informs Floyd that she’s hooked him up with a gang of bank robbers who will help him raise the money he needs to see his family, so he motors into the country to wait for them.
Floyd strips off his jacket and unbuttons the waistcoat, showing more of the shirt and tie he wears with the suit. His shirt is an icy pale blue cotton, styled with a semi-spread collar, plain “French placket” front, breast pocket, and button cuffs. His blue tie is patterned with what looks like fuchsia roses with green stems and yellow springs.
A bank robbery and prison break later, “Pretty Boy” is back in Kansas City by the spring of 1931, having joined with professional outlaw Ned Short (Michael Haynes) and “Preacher” (Adam Roarke) when a fight with Wallace results in both of Beryl’s sleazy brothers planning a trap to collect the $10,000 reward on the fugitive Floyd. Wallace and William believe they’ve got Floyd trapped when they corner him naked in bed with Betty until their prey surprises them by pulling his Thompson out from under the sheets and mowing down the two devious brothers. (The actual events of March 23, 1931, found Floyd narrowly evading a police trap by drawing two .45 pistols and shooting his way out. Upon learning that the Ash brothers had indeed tipped off the police, Floyd and his pal “Billy the Killer” Miller chased down Wallace and William Ash and executed them in a ditch a mile south of Kansas City, Kansas, two days later.)
With the two conniving brothers out of his way for good, Floyd embarks on a Bonnie & Clyde-style bank robbery spree with Ned, Preacher, Betty, and Betty’s sister Helen (Camilla Carr) that even goes so far as to film at the same Farmers & Merchants Bank in Pilot Point, Texas, that Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway had “held up” two years earlier.
Throughout these adventures, Floyd wears a pair of black-and-white semi-brogue wingtip oxfords. Two-color “spectator shoes” like these were also known as “correspondent shoes” for their association with the disreputable cuckolding parties in divorce cases, known as the “correspondent”. Floyd wears several pairs of spectator shoes in A Bullet for Pretty Boy, including a brown-and-tan pair with his earthier suits and this black-and-white pair with his navy suits, worn with black socks. The uppers of Floyd’s shoes have white leather vamps with black leather wingtip toe boxes, black oxford-style lacing panels that curve down to each outsole, and black extended heel counters.
Just as Floyd coordinates the palette of his shoes with his suits, he also alternates between his hats based on his suits. With more businesslike suits in navy and gray, Floyd wears a dove gray felt fedora with a tonal gray grosgrain ribbon and coordinating grosgrain edge piping.
Unique for the genre, “Pretty Boy” Floyd wields a Thompson submachine gun with far more frequency than any sort of handgun, depicted using it even when pistols would be more practical (or even when it was historically documented that Floyd used a handgun instead.)
We see Floyd introduced to the weapon before his first bank robbery when he’s handed a Thompson M1921AC, the model made famous with monikers like the “Chicago typewriter” and described as “the gun that made the ’20s roar” in a book of the same name by crime historian William J. Helmer. In fact, the first gang that the real “Pretty Boy” Floyd worked with wasn’t quite as well-armed, with Floyd himself reportedly carrying a more modest .32-caliber Smith & Wesson six-shot, swing-out revolver for his inaugural bank robbery in Sylvania, Ohio on February 5, 1930.
That’s not to say that the real Floyd was averse to Thompsons—naturally, a man in his profession welcomed the additional firepower when he could carry it—but he certainly did not carry them exclusively. Instead, he typically relied on the firepower of a twin set of Colt Government 1911A1 pistols, carried on several occasions throughout this four-year crime spree and documented as the two pieces on him when he was killed in October 1934.
The Thompson began life when General John J. Thompson envisioned a “trench broom”, a handheld “one-man machine gun” that could replace bolt-action rifles in use during World War I. Though the war ended two days before prototypes of his “Annihilator” could be shipped to Europe, Thompson and his team of designers from Cleveland’s Auto-Ordnance Company continued development of what would enter production as the Thompson M1921. Chambered for the same .45 ACP cartridge used in the M1911 service pistol, this blowback-action submachine gun initially sold for $200 (close to $3,000 in today’s dollars), an amount that included a 20-round box magazine.
Early customers included the United States Marine Corps, U.S. postal inspectors, and the IRA, until Chicago gangsters got their hands on this fast-firing weapon that would compound the blood spilled in the Prohibition-era Beer Wars. Five years after Auto-Ordnance couldn’t figure out how to market its revolutionary submachine gun, business started booming on both sides of the law as law enforcement agencies tried to keep up with the well-armed criminals terrorizing the cities and countryside.
In 1926, Auto-Ordnance added the option of a Cutts compensator, a muzzle brake that would prevent the weapon from rising too dramatically during sustained fire. Thompsons configured with a Cutts were designated M1921AC while the older models were renamed the M1921A.
As the United States geared up for war toward the end of the 1930s, the Thompson was finally authorized for military service, albeit simplified with modifications that included the removal of the distinctive vertical fore-grip in favor of a plainer horizontal hand-guard that first appeared on the M1928A1 and would continue on the M1 and M1A1 eventually designed for wartime use. The high-capacity drum magazines, prone to jamming, were also increasingly discarded in favor of lower-capacity but more reliable box magazines. More than 1.5 million Thompson were produced during World War II, though the weapon would be generally phased out phased out by the Korean War.
What to Imbibe
Floyd and Ned seem to be sharing a bottle of Canadian Club during a confrontation with the Ash brothers. though a country boy like Floyd reportedly enjoyed moonshine and “Choctaw” beer that lent him his nickname, Choc, it’s not unreasonable to assume that, when in the Big City, they drink as the Big City Gangsters do… in this case, the Canadian Club illegally imported from the Great White North during Prohibition.
How to Get the Look
It was reported that the real “Pretty Boy” Floyd was wearing a dark blue suit and white shirt when he was killed in 1934, so it may be intentional or merely coincidence that this navy worsted is Fabian Forte’s primary suit as the Oklahoma-born outlaw in A Bullet for Pretty Boy, though the period-inspired touches take this three-piece suit beyond the usual costume design expected of AIP’s low-budget fare.
- Navy worsted three-piece suit:
- Single-breasted 2-button jacket with notch lapels, welted breast pocket, straight jetted hip pockets, 3-button cuffs, and single vent
- Double-breasted 6×3-button waistcoat with shawl collar, welted pockets, and straight-cut bottom
- Flat front trousers with straight/on-seam side pockets and turn-ups/cuffs
- Icy pale blue cotton shirt with semi-spread collar, plain “French placket” front, breast pocket, and button cuffs
- Blue tie with fuchsia floral print
- Black-and-white leather wingtip oxford-laced spectator shoes
- Black socks
- Dove-gray felt fedora with gray grosgrain band and edges
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie, streaming free for Amazon Prime subscribers.
As long as you’re not expecting a masterpiece, the movie isn’t too bad and the charismatic Forte plays the bandit effectively, certainly looking the part of a pretty boy if not the “Pretty Boy”… and he certainly does a better job than I did when I made a much, much lower-budget biopic about Floyd with my friends in high school.
All I know is, banks still got money.