Jack Lemmon as Stanley Ford, comic strip artist and dedicated bachelor
New York City, Summer 1964
Film: How to Murder Your Wife
Release Date: September 20, 1965
Director: Richard Quine
Wardrobe: Izzy Berne & Marie Osborne
On what would have been the birthday of one of my favorite actors—Jack Lemmon, born February 8, 1925—I want to revisit his style in the first of his filmography that I had ever seen, the swingin’ ’60s comedy How to Murder Your Wife which, as the title implies, balances black comedy with classic screwball elements.
Lemmon stars as Stanley Ford, a successful newspaper cartoonist whose spun his success writing the daily adventures of super-spy “Bash Brannigan” into an enviable bachelor lifestyle, complete with a swanky Lenox Hill townhouse and his devoted valet Charles (Terry-Thomas), whose daily duties include cleaning up after Stanley’s latest romantic conquests, providing reassurance and advice, and ensuring that a “properly chilled” vodka martini awaits Stanley at the end of each day.
Stanley remains committed to the fruits of bachelordom, so any impending marriage among his circle of male friends presents like a funeral, scored by a mournful dirge right up until the moment that the stag party’s bella donna della giornata pops out of a cake. On this particular evening, the latter is a beautiful Venetian-born stripper (Virna Lisi) who so impresses the inebriated Stanley that she wakes up beside him the next morning… as the new Mrs. Ford. As a hungover Stanley realizes what has happened, he tries to unstick the sticky situation, which is made all the worse as he learns that his new wife can’t understand any language except for her native Italian.
Charles: Good God. Doesn’t speak English? And yet, on the other hand, if one will go around marrying persons who pop out of cakes, it’s bound to be, well, rather catch as catch can, isn’t it, sir?
Stanley attempts to adjust to marital bliss, much to Charles’ dismay, as the one-time bachelor pad shows increasing evidence of Mrs. Ford’s feminine touch… and Stanley’s waistline shows increasing evidence of her Italian cooking. Amidst all this, Stanley has maintained his usual pattern of incorporating his real life into the comic strip—now renamed The Brannigans in reference to Bash following his creator’s example—but the time has come to “kill” Mrs. Brannigan. Of course, Stanley can’t write anything that he hasn’t already proven he can act out himself, so he sets out to procure the “goofballs” and the access to the “gloppita-gloppita machine” that Bash would need to drug and then dispose of his wife.
The scene is set during a wild cocktail party at the Fords’ home, where the real Mrs. Ford—we never do learn her name!—passes out after Stanley spikes her champagne with barbiturates. As his wife sleeps, Stanley assumes his Bash Brannigan persona, dresses a mannequin to resemble his wife, and indeed discards her into the concrete mixer on a construction site behind their home. Once the real Mrs. Ford wakes, she finds her sleeping husband hunched over a comic strip that disturbingly details and celebrates her demise, so she leaves that night… inspiring a wave of suspicion to fall on Stanley once friends and neighbors realize his wife has seemingly vanished while his plan for her perfect murder has been distributed in 463 newspapers across the country.
What’d He Wear?
Stanley dresses for social evenings in a fashionably appointed midnight-blue dinner suit with a subtle sheen suggesting mohair or silk woven with the wool construction. As Bash Brannigan’s contemporary-in-espionage James Bond was illustrating on the big screen, a well-tailored tuxedo was considered a must for a slick ’60s secret agent.
Stanley’s single-breasted dinner jacket has a narrow shawl collar, self-faced and detailed with ornate black neo-Edwardian embroidery along the edges.
The ventless jacket has straight flapped hip pockets but no breast pocket. The straight, padded shoulders are heavily roped at the heads, and the cuffs are finished with narrow velvet “turnback” gauntlets and two black two-hole horn buttons that match the single button on the front.
Stanley’s white cotton evening shirt has a point collar, a pleated front bib, and squared double (French) cuffs, fastening the placket and cuffs with squared gold studs and links, respectively. He enlists Charles’ help to finish dressing, including knotting his black self-tying bow tie, which presents a perfect butterfly—or “thistle”—shape.
Stanley’s preferred waist covering is a black silk cummerbund that departs from tradition by lacking pleats, instead resembling a solid sash that closes over itself on the right side. Based particularly on this later detail, I believe the cummerbund is integral to the trouser design, built into the top of the trousers rather than being a separate piece worn atop them.
The rest of the matching midnight-blue flat front formal trousers coordinate with the jacket, specifically with the black velvet trim dressing it down more than the traditional silk. The side pockets slant gently forward, with a thin black velvet braid following the line of the pocket opening down to the side seam, extending down each straight leg to the plain-hemmed bottoms.
Though he doesn’t wear them for the stag party, Stanley holds up his trousers during the cocktail party at his home with a set of charcoal tic-checked suspenders (braces) that passes through brass-toned adjuster hardware and connects to buttons inside the trouser waistband via black leather hooks.
Stanley appoints his dinner suit with black patent leather derby shoes, fastened with short lace panels that appear to be tied with black ribbon-like tassel through two sets of lace eyelets. Derbies are less formal than oxfords, but the patent leather uppers, plain-toe style, and celebratory lacing make these particular shoes’ case as the appropriate footwear with Stanley’s creative black tie. His thin black dress socks reveal that Stanley knows when to playfully experiment with black tie tradition and when to restrict himself to classic taste.
Strapped to his left wrist on a black leather strap, Stanley wears a handsome gold dress watch with a round silver dial sparsely detailed with non-numeric hour markers.
Stanley takes a break from the cocktail party to slip into his Bash Brannigan persona, donning a black felt short-brimmed trilby and black leather gloves. The hat serves the dual duty of providing a villainous characterization for his subsequent comic strip… and shielding the wearer’s face so that the audience can’t tell as easily when it is or isn’t Jack Lemmon who’s scaling the side of his building with a mannequin of his wife or dropping her off from the bucket of the gloppita-gloppita machine.
What to Listen to
The movie’s score, composed by Neal Hefti, consists of smooth bossa nova-infused instrumentals that set the scene for cocktail parties and evenings of quiet hedonism. Cy Coleman’s 1960 album Playboy’s Penthouse also seems apropos for Stanley Ford’s bachelor lifestyle. Enjoy a sampling of both albums!
How to Get the Look
Stanley Ford’s creative-informed approach to black tie suggests a man familiar enough with the “rules” of evening dress to find tasteful ways of bending them, whether through alternative trim or uniquely integrated detailing.
- Midnight-blue wool-blend single-button dinner jacket with embroidery-trimmed shawl collar, straight flapped hip pockets, 2-button cuffs with narrow velvet gauntlets, and ventless back
- White cotton evening shirt with point collar, pleated front bib, and square double/French cuffs, worn with squared gold studs/cuff links
- Black silk butterfly/thistle-shaped bow tie
- Midnight-blue wool-blend flat front formal trousers with integrated black silk cummerbund, gently slanted side pockets, black velvet side braiding, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Black patent leather tassel-laced derby shoes
- Black dress socks
- Gold dress watch with round silver dial on black leather strap
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie. Much of the comedy is dated—to say the least—but Lemmon is always watchable, in my opinion. YMMV.