William Holden as Joe Gillis, struggling screenwriter
Los Angeles, Fall 1949
Film: Sunset Boulevard
Release Date: August 10, 1950
Director: Billy Wilder
Costume Designer: Edith Head
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Noirvember continues with Sunset Boulevard, one of the great films noir that shines a light—or, more appropriately, casts a shadow—on the darker side of Hollywood, a theme popular with contemporary dramas like In a Lonely Place (1950) and The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), with an added verisimilitude through mentions of real studios like 20th Century Fox and Paramount Pictures—who, of course, produced Sunset Boulevard—and cameos from Cecil B. DeMille, Hedda Hopper, and Buster Keaton.
William Holden stars as Joe Gillis, who describes himself in the opening narration as “a movie writer with a couple of B pictures to his credit.” On “the day when it all started,” Joe recounts living in a seedy one-room Hollywood apartment where he owes three months back rent, grinding out two original screenplays a week and fretting that he’s lost his touch. Three payments behind on his Plymouth, his screenplays aren’t selling, and his agent isn’t willing to help, instead insisting that “the finest things on the world have been written on an empty stomach,” though that may be just to get out of having to lend his client the $290 he needs to keep his car.
On the Paramount lot, Joe meets with his pal Sheldrake (Fred Clark), “a smart producer… with a set of ulcers to prove it,” whom he tries to talk into producing his baseball screenplay Bases Loaded. Unfortunately, the project has already been disregarded by Sheldrake’s go-to reader
Miss Kramer Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), who isn’t aware of Joe’s presence when she eviscerates the “flat and trite” script in front of the writer… not that it stops her from apologetically reinforcing her opinion once Sheldrake introduces them.
“Oh, one of the message kids! Just a story won’t do!” Joe scoffs at Betty’s criticism, a position still relevant more than 70 years later as critics and fans continue debating whether a movie have artistic merit without making a greater point.
Betty: Perhaps the reason I hated Bases Loaded is that I knew your name. I’d always heard that you had some talent.
Joe: That was last year. This year, I’m trying to earn a living.
Down bad, Joe’s luck turns from bad to worse while he’s cruising along the famous Sunset Boulevard and gets spotted by the two finance company collectors whom he had previously stalled by claiming that his car—the one they now see him driving—was borrowed by a friend for a trip to Palm Springs. The repo men take chase, until Joe ducks his Plymouth into a driveway. A flat tire keeps him from getting back on the road, so Joe drives his “limping car with a hot license number” farther onto the baroque grounds of the Desmond estate… and into the dramatic and domineering clutches of the aging screen diva Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson).
Joe: You’re Norma Desmond! You used to be in silent pictures, you used to be big!
Norma: I am big… it’s the pictures that got small.
What’d He Wear?
“You’re not properly dressed for the occasion,” Joe is informed when greeted by Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim), Norma’s devoted bulldog of a valet—and, as we later learn, her first husband and former star director.
Despite Max and Norma’s clear distate for his patterned sport jacket, jersey-knit polo shirt, and slacks, Joe would continue to wear this through the entire first act until Norma finally protests during one of their regular rides in her beloved Isotta Fraschini.
Norma: That’s a dreadful shirt you’re wearing.
Joe: What’s wrong with it?
Norma: Nothing, if you work in the filling station. And I’m getting rather bored with that sport jacket and the same baggy pants.
And with that, Norma calls Max through the car phone to request their next stop be “the very best” men’s clothing shop in the city, where Joe gets outfitted with everything from white tie and tails to a lush vicuña overcoat.
Joe’s single-breasted sports coat is patterned with wide stripes in alternating two-color weaves that present a busy stripe-like effect. The smaller weave is a standard two-and-two check, alternating against a three-by-one basket-weave in the same two colors. The black-and-white cinematography and dearth of color photography from the production prevents from identifying the two colors used to construct Joe’s jacket, though they’re likely in the brown or gray spectrums.
Consistent with Joe’s current position in life, the jacket shows some signs of considerable wear, including subtle fraying. The fit and tailoring are consistent with men’s fashions of the late 1940s into the early ’50s, with wide, padded shoulders, ventless back, and front darts to add shape through the generously cut jacket. The 3/2-roll button formation means the notch lapels roll over the top button to fastened at the center button, proportionally positioned at William Holden’s natural waist to meet the top of his trousers.
The sleeves are sportily detailed with light suede elbow patches and finished with three-button cuffs. Four patch pockets—one on each side of the chest and one on each hip—further dress down the jacket to a standard acceptable to the late ’40s Hollywood scene… but not to Norma Desmond.
The “dreadful shirt” decried by Norma is actually a tasteful short-sleeved polo shirt made from a light-colored, heathered jersey-knit fabric, the kind of sporty casual-wear that was increasingly popular during the post-World War II era but wouldn’t have been as widely accepted 10,000 midnights earlier during Norma’s roaring ’20s heyday. The shirt has a long two-button placket, with the top button closed through a threaded loop extending from the left side of the shirt.
There’s a costume-related continuity error during the brief but significant scene on Norma’s terrace, between Joe parking his Plymouth in her garage and meeting Max at the entrance. Here, the light heather jersey-knit short-sleeved polo shirt is generally similar to the shirt he wears for the rest of the first act, but with a shorter and more traditional two-button setup rather than the top-button loop on his shirt for the rest of the first act.
It’s possible that this sequence had been reshot later and the original shirt had been replaced or merely not regarded important enough to match exactly to what he wears in the surrounding scenes.
The “baggy pants” that Norma disdains are woolen flannel single reverse-pleated trousers with a long rise to Holden’s waist, where he holds them up with a narrow brown leather belt that closes through a leather-covered single-prong buckle. Again, the color is lost to cinematic history but I suspect they would be a shade of mid-brown or gray to coordinate with the likely color of his jacket.
These trousers are styled with gently slanted side pockets, a button-through back-left pocket, and turn-ups (cuffs).
Joe wears dark leather penny loafers, a shoe style that had been established in men’s fashion for more than a decade by this point following G.H. Bass launching their “Weejun” loafers in the mid-1930s. These slip-on shoes are characterized by a strap across the instep with a slit that 1950s prep students would reportedly slide a penny into, resulting in the footwear’s moniker. Joe wears his apron-toe penny loafers with very dark socks.
As Joe’s position at Norma’s residence transitions him from struggling screenwriter to glorified gigolo, he dresses up his sports jacket with a white shirt and dark tie for special occasions like frequent screenings of Norma’s old movies or bridge night with her “waxworks” friends Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and H.B. Warner. The pitch-dark silk tie flares out to a wide blade that meets the long rise of his trouser waistband.
The silky white long-sleeved sport shirt is the same one we had seen him wearing earlier while working on her Salome screenplay, styled consistently with the era’s casual-wear with its long-pointed loop collar, plain button-up front, two flapped chest pockets, and squared single-button cuffs that he wears undone and rolled up his forearms while stationed at his typewriter.
Joe’s desire to keep his “1946 Plymouth convertible, California license 40-R-116” from being repossessed sets the events of Sunset Boulevard in motion. “If I lose my car, it’s like having my legs cut off!” Joe complains to his agent, commenting on Los Angeles’ reliance on automotive transportation and its yet unaddressed need for stronger public transportation infrastructure… but let’s talk about that Plymouth!
The repo men described it accurately, as the light-colored convertible is indeed a 1946 Plymouth Special De Luxe, a continuation of the entry-level Plymouth models that had been produced prior to World War II. When American civilian automobile manufacturing was revived in time for the 1946 model year, Plymouth continued the De Luxe series, now powered by a 3.6-liter straight-six engine that produced 95 horsepower.
Though General Motors had begun offering automobiles with automatic transmissions in 1939, followed by Ford a decade later, Chrysler was late to the game as it wouldn’t introduce its PowerFlite transmission until 1953. Thus, Joe’s Plymouth would have been mated to the standard three-speed manual transmission.
Norma dismisses Joe’s Plymouth as “one of those cheap new things made of chromium and spit,” much preferring her baroque and dramatic 1929 Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8A Transformable, complete with her initials “N.D.” elegantly stenciled on the back doors above the lattice panels.
“Have you ever heard of Isotta Fraschinis? All hand-made, cost me $28,000,” Norma boasts, leading one to wonder if the leopardskin upholstery or the gold-plated car phone cost more.
For those who may not have heard of Isotta Fraschini, the company was founded in Milan in 1900, originally specializing in imports before they began producing their own models within four years. The luxurious Tipo 8A was introduced in 1924, with approximately 950 produced in various body styles over the following seven years. Mated to a three-speed manual transmission, 7.3-liter straight-eight cylinder engine replaced the prior model’s 5.9-liter engine and reigned as the most powerful mass-produced straight-eight engine of its time, which also necessitated its elegantly long hood.
Norma’s landaulet limousine (chassis #1587) features coachwork by the Milanese firm Castegna. The screen-used automobile had originally been gifted by Walter Chrysler to his lover, 1920s socialite Peggy Hopkins Joyce, before it made its way onto the screen in Sunset Boulevard. Two decades later, it was restored and placed on display at the National Automobile Museum in Turin, Italy.
What to Imbibe
Upon Norma’s demand for Max to bring her and Joe something to drink while he pores over her multi-volume script around the story of Salome, Max wheels in some champagne and caviar.
“There’s always champagne on ice. Plenty of caviar!” Joe later describes to Betty of life at the Desmond estate.
The Astro Zone
As Joe concocts his plan for Norma to hire him as a script doctor for her Salome screenplay, she considers that it has to be someone she could trust—and abruptly asks him:
Norma: When were you born? I mean, what sign of the Zodiac?
Joe: I don’t know.
Norma: What month?
Joe: December. 21st.
Norma: Sagittarius… I like Sagittarians, you can trust them!
In my experience, Norma is correct… though some may find Sagittarians to be almost too bluntly truthful. It’s also curious that the writers chose December 21st as Joe’s birthday since this cusp date occasionally falls into being a Capricorn. For instance, if Joe shared William Holden’s 1918 birth year, his December 21st birthday would indeed make him a Sagittarius. However, if he were born two years earlier in 1916—or two years later in 1920—those born on December 21st were Capricorns. And if Caps like Al Capone, J. Edgar Hoover, and Richard Nixon give any indication, this sign doesn’t always share the Sag’s reputation for honesty… though they’re typically known for ambition and hard work!
Either way, regardless of how desperate Joe was for work and money, he should have followed the advice shared in this meme:
How to Get the Look
Not yet accustomed to the life of luxury that Norma seeks to bestow on him, Joe Gillis’ four-pocket sport jacket, comfortable short-sleeved polo shirt, and pleated flannel slacks feel appropriately lived in for a screenwriter stomping the Hollywood pavement during the twilight of the golden age of Hollywood and the golden age of menswear.
- Alternating-weave striped single-breasted 3/2-roll sport jacket with notch lapels, two patch chest pockets, two patch hip pockets, suede elbow patches, 3-button cuffs, and ventless back
- Heathered jersey-knit short-sleeved polo shirt with two-button top (with looped top button)
- Mid-flannel single reverse-pleated trousers with belt loops, slanted side pockets, button-through back-right pocket, and turn-ups/cuffs
- Brown leather belt with brown leather-covered single-prong buckle
- Dark brown leather apron-toe penny loafers
- Dark socks
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
Sometimes it’s interesting to see just how bad bad writing can be… this promised to go the limit.