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An American Custom Becomes Old Hat : Have We Seen the Last of the Fedora and the Straw Skimmer?

November 23, 1986|JACK SMITH

Maybe one reason it's hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys in movies these days is that they rarely wear hats.

Traditionally, in the old Westerns, the good guy wore a white hat, and the bad guy wore a black hat.

Thus, no matter how complicated the chase or the shoot-out, it was easy to tell our hero from the villain. It was probably Tom Mix's famous white hat that became the symbol for virtue in Westerns of that era.

Romelda Ohls, a reader, complains that "much dramatic effect was lost when men stopped wearing soft felt hats."

She points out that character can be depicted not only by the kind of hat worn but also by the angle it is worn at.

There is something in what she says. If you let your mind go back to the great movies of the '20s, '30s and '40s, very often the male star will be wearing a hat.

Charles Chaplin was almost never without his little derby, slightly too small, sitting straight on top of his head. Harold Lloyd wore many hats, but I can still see him in his flat straw skimmer. Oliver Hardy was the natty fat man in his derby.

In "The Big Parade," John Gilbert projected his devil-may-care image by wearing his World War I helmet at a rakish slant. In "Morocco," Gary Cooper was so dashing in his Legionnaire's kepi that Marlene Dietrich took off her shoes and followed him across the Sahara. In "The Grapes of Wrath," Henry Fonda accentuated his poverty by wearing a cheap woolen cap.

One can hardly think of the gangster movies without seeing those hard-faced men under their gray or black fedoras. In "Public Enemy," James Cagney started out as an ambitious kid in a wool cap but soon graduated to the standard black fedora and finally, as a big shot, to tuxedo, top coat and derby. Fit to be killed in.

In "Little Caesar" we saw Edward G. Robinson, first in the tilted gray fedora worn by every member of the mob and then in the derby that seems to have been the prerogative of "the boss."

In "Scarface," Paul Muni, as "Scarface" Al Capone, was the apotheosis of the gangster cycle's sartorial splendor in his tuxedo and his stylish black fedora with the single crease, tilted only slightly to the right and worn low on his forehead, only an inch above his left eye.

In time, of course, the good guys began wearing the same hats. In "Blonde Venus," with Marlene Dietrich, the inimitably handsome Cary Grant wore a black fedora with the brim turned down all the way around. It, too, was slanted slightly toward the front, the brim shadowing

his eyes.

In movies of the Depression, the gray fedora, mangled and soiled, was the symbol of the forgotten man. It was worn by Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, William Powell and every other leading man who was obliged to dramatize that great economic disaster for the movie-going millions.

W. C. Fields was a genius with hats, wearing variously a flat straw, a campaign hat, a top hat. He could also juggle his hats, which was a rare skill indeed.

Perhaps no actor ever wore a hat with more style than Adolphe Menjou. In "The Front Page," when he turned up in the sheriff's press room in search of Hildy Johnson, his star reporter, he wore an exquisitely creased gray fedora whose brim rose from the back, sailed around the sides, and then sank in the front, with a tilt down toward the right. No big-time newspaper editor has ever managed to look quite that dapper since.

Of course we remember Fred Astaire, dancing in his top hat, Spencer Tracy as the old man of the sea in his battered Panama, and Humphrey Bogart in dozens of roles under his slightly sinister soft fedora. We saw him in it once again in "Casablanca," in that final scene at the airport, where he walked off into the mist with Claude Rains to start their beautiful new friendship.

Have the movies given up hats because men have? Or is it vice versa?

Maybe reader Ohls exaggerates. Maybe there are as many soft felt hats in movies as ever. But somehow, I feel that she is on to something. Perhaps today's movie characters are more three-dimensional--not merely cardboard cutouts as they were in the days of "What Price Glory" (remember Edmund Lowe's raffish campaign hat?) and cannot be characterized so easily by a hat.

My hunch is that it's just because President Reagan has so much wavy hair and likes to show it off, even in Iceland.

If he would only come out in a fedora, instead of going about bareheaded, it might get us all back in hats.

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