The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; or, Movie Mustache Musings

Our current post was unexpectedly inspired by our watching of the 1940 Warner Bros. movie Virginia City. We had no plans on writing about this film. It’s a conventionally exciting Western epic, with the kinds of vigorous action scenes (stagecoach treks, bandit attacks, shoot-em-ups) that make it lots of fun, but none too memorable. At first.

But from the most mundane events can come the most profound results. Think of Archimedes stepping into his bath. Or of Newton sitting under the apple tree and getting bonked by an apple. Thus did we get the Principle of Displacement and the Theory of Gravity. Would any of this had happened if, say, Archimedes had preferred to take a shower? Or if it had been raining and Newton, perforce, stayed indoors to bask beneath a sun lamp?

So, too, did the routine watching of Virginia City raise for us a deep issue: Does the Mustache make the Man, or does the Man make the Mustache?

Blame it on Errol Flynn—the reason for our watching to begin with. He’s the star of Virginia City and he’s gorgeous. For example, just look at the photograph of him below (with Alan Hale and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams). Errol’s a little scruffy here, because he’s playing a Union officer who’s been trying to shovel his way out of a Confederate prison. Even daubed with dirt, though, Flynn looks good. He even makes the dirt look good:

But being he’s the picture’s star, he’s soon cleaned up, as you see below, and back to looking the very model of a modern matinée idol. Isn’t he adorable? Especially with that mustache. Flynn doesn’t always wear his mustache in his films (such as Captain Blood), but more often than not he does. And the mustache does do something for him. Or is it that he does something for the mustache? We’re not sure which. But still, flecked with that bit of lip hair, Flynn seems to have just that extra dash and pizzazz. Maybe it’s because mustaches are such a guy thing; its addition heightens his masculine appeal. You sense that he must be quite a fellow.

Cinematic mustaches don’t always have that dashing effect, however. Which, a few scenes into the movie, we discovered for ourselves:

Behind that mustache, believe it or not, is Humphrey Bogart. There are good mustache experiences and there are bad mustache experiences. This is not one of the good ones. It’s not so much Bogie wearing the mustache; it’s the mustache wearing Bogie. And the viewing of it doesn’t get easier as the film goes on:

We like to think that we’re a pretty tough bunch of hombres here at Grand Old Movies. You know, the Alan Ladd type: Cool, detached, hard-boiled. A fedora shading our eyes, a sneer dangling from our lips. But our armor can be pierced; and we’re not ashamed to admit that the sight of Bogie’s lip hair almost sent us running for the lifeboats. Even now, we’re still suffering a touch of PTSD. (Just the other day, the sight of a cat’s whiskers left us cowering behind the couch.)

Ouch!

But, as W. Somerset Maugham once observed, writers do have one compensation in dealing with the pains and vicissitudes of life: Whatever stress weighs on our minds, we have the ability to write it down, as a means of getting it out of our system. Hence our current post on Movie Mustaches. Consider it a form of blogging therapy, a way of diffusing our trauma via a brief survey of cinematic facial fuzz. And as a way of examining the conundrum: Is it that some mustaches are badly designed, or is it that some faces are badly designed for mustaches?

If there’s a book out there on The Mustache in History (Its Forms and Uses), we’re not aware of it. But we’ll make the claim that the 1930s, 40s, and 50s was the Great Mustache Era of Hollywood—the golden age of male facial adornment. If they had faces then, they also had mustaches.

We’re not proposing a Global Mustache Theory, but we’ll start with a question: What’s a movie mustache for? For the mavens at a Hollywood studio with all eyes on the bottom line, the main reason, we think, would be to make their male stars look good. The Hollywood Studio System has aptly been called the Dream Factory, its purpose, as the label indicates, to produce hypnotically beautiful images of desire that will induce the public to line up at the box office for a look-see. The mustache is thus like the flower in the buttonhole; it adds the finishing touch to the well-turned-out façade:

But what of the non-beautiful mustache? The kind that, like the plain girl, lacks looks but possesses character? That’s when the mustache leaves the realm of the Decorative and enters that of the Metaphorical. It becomes an artistic tool, functioning for the actor as a visual shorthand to the character he’s playing. One might propose a mustache rule here: the bushier the facial hair, the more wickedly audacious the villain:

An example of the Boutonniere mustache is Clark Gable’s, one of filmdom’s most famous mustaches. Like Flynn, Gable could also go sans the lip ornament, but the mustache for him is like a lion’s mane. It’s a badge of masculinity; it lets us know that this guy is brimming with testosterone:

While Gable’s lip hair merely accents his appeal, David Niven’s trim mustache performs a more essential function; it gives his face a focus. Its presence on an otherwise bland countenance pulls together all the features, and adds an aristocratic, gentlemanly touch. The mustache helps make the man:

Speaking of gentlemen, Adolphe Menjou’s stylish mustache is the perfect accoutrement to his persona of a man of culture. With its slightly curled waxed tips, it also gives him panache:

William Powell was another case of an unremarkable face whose addition of a mustache made sexy. The mustache de-emphasizes Powell’s weak chin and shifty eyes, and instead gives him a suave, worldly air:

Orson Welles did not often wear a mustache, but it certainly became him when he did, offsetting his rather prominent jowls. He looks quite handsome with it in Citizen Kane. It also helped his then-boyish face look older in scenes when Kane is supposed to age:

But Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. is one who, mustached or not, always looks beautiful. He really makes the mustache:

With or Without? Here are two faces of Ronald Colman, with his mustache and without it (the latter from A Tale of Two Cities). How does its absence alter his appearance? According to David Shipman, when Colman first shaved off his famous appendage for a film (Clive of India), sob sisters mourned its loss. We’re not too fussy here; we’ll take Mr. Colman any way we can get him. But other viewers might have a preference:

Some movie mustaches are world-famous, notably Chaplin’s Little Tramp:

Chaplin’s mustache, in tandem with his huge, dark eyes, memorably limned his visage; it stripped his face down to its basic features and imprinted it on our collective movie unconscious. His mustache was also an expressive instrument, its shakes and twitches conveying gradations of emotion, both comic and sad:

But not every movie mustache was a thing of beauty and a joy forever. W.C. Fields also sported a mustache, during his vaudeville and silent-film days. The result is highly dubious:

Field’s mustache looks like a nasty little furry animal clutching his nasal septum; we always feel that it should be smacked down with a broom. It has neither the animation of Chaplin’s mustache, nor the comic effect of Groucho’s (which was actually a schmeer of greasepaint under his nose; he didn’t grow the genuine article till later in his career). Fields wisely dropped the lip fungus in his sound films.

A look at Cagney’s mustache in Torrid Zone recalls our earlier question: Are there faces not meant for mustaches or are there mustaches not meant for faces? A mustache can be a tricky proposition. Its purpose is mainly decorative; it gives a focus, a visual center to the countenance. Unlike a beard, it doesn’t hide but accents or realigns the features. Our own feeling is that Cagney’s face is not mustache-friendly. Note its shape: A broad forehead and big round eyes, but a small mouth and delicately pointed chin. The addition of a mustache seems to split the face in two; the two halves, upper and lower, no longer seem to match:

Perhaps the Brothers Warner thought a mustache on Cagney would have a sexy Errol-Flynn effect. But, paradoxically, its presence doesn’t emphasize the star’s masculinity. He looks like a small boy trying on Dad’s facial hair:

The case of Montgomery Clift’s mustache in The Heiress seems more an artistic decision. Unadorned, his face (in the film’s earlier portions) possesses the beauty of an adolescent’s dream. It has the kind of androgynous, unthreatening perfection that a shy, repressed, and unworldly young woman like the film’s heroine might long for, its beauty almost surpassing desire:

When, in the film’s finalé, Clift appears now decked with facial hair, the mustache spoils that beauty, bringing out such flaws as a too-long nose and shapeless lips and giving him the furtive, dissipated look of a card sharp or saloon habitué. (It also highlights Clift’s nervous tic of twitching one corner of his mouth when he speaks; you find yourself instinctively recoiling from this creature.) We assume the effect is deliberate; and it’s a brilliant one, giving you an insight into his character’s true nature. No wonder Olivia de Havilland locks the door on him.

There are bad mustaches, but there are good mustache faces, and Claude Rains had a great mustache face. It was not handsome but had a craggy attractiveness; the eyes and mouth balance each other. And the right mustache adds flair. A superb example is Captain Renault’s mustache from Casablanca: It gives Rains’ face a roguish sex appeal. Here’s a fellow who’s as corrupt as a Washington lobbyist, but much more likable. He could make you feel good about selling out:

Here’s Rains looking quite dapper in the title role of Mr. Skeffington. The mustache adds just the right touch of distinction, as well as a quiet charm; it goes with the rakishly tilted hat. We always watch the movie thinking that Bette Davis must be nuts not to fall madly in love with this fellow (which tells you something about her character):

And here is Rains as The Adventures of Robin Hood’s jolly King John, with not only mustache but beard, looking so sly and debonair, you almost find yourself rooting for him. (Almost. After all, he does go up against Errol Flynn’s mustache and beard.) Rains could wear a mustache so well, you wonder why he didn’t make it a regular feature, like Menjou or Gable:

But then they go and give us this:

Not even a good mustache face can survive a bad mustache. That’s Rains in Crime Without Passion, presenting an image we can’t look at without hysterics. It’s that object festooning Rains’ upper lip—as if a worm came crawling out after a rainstorm and decided to settle there; it almost looks alive. We sincerely hope that Rains was well compensated for having to wear that thing. It’s not fit for public consumption. Who knows what effect it could have on children and nervous adults? In cases of extreme reactions, wrestle it to the ground and subdue it by any means possible:

In contrast, John Wayne’s mustache in The Conqueror merely evokes our pity. There are bad movies and then there are really bad movies, into which category falls—an appropriate verb, that—The Conqueror. Its drecky awfulness pervades the film like a miasma, down to the face hair. Just take a look at that mustache, belonging to the title character, Ghengis Khan. He’s supposed to be pretty hot stuff, but you’d never guess it from the lip fuzz. Looks sorta limp and depressed, doesn’t it? As if it had read the movie’s script and then realized that there was no way of breaking the contract. The kind thing to do would be to put out of its misery—just shave it off and wash it down the sink with plenty of running water:

But this mustache is a lot tougher than at first supposed. Moisture seems to have no effect on it. A heavy coat of sweat won’t dislodge it:

Not even a good dose of water can budge it:

Moreover, the damn thing is catching. Now Pedro Armendariz has got it:

Even Thomas Gomez and John Hoyt are affected. You can’t keep a bad mustache down:

You’ll notice that co-star Susan Hayward seems uneasy in its presence. Perhaps she’s worried that it might end up on her:

Ok, enough of that. It’s a relief to turn to Charles Laughton. You’d know Laughton was a great actor just from his use of mustaches. He understood them as more than lip accents; they were expressions of character. In the example below, he’s the meek office clerk in the delightful Lubitsch-directed episode from If I Had a Million. Note the thick, drooping mustache, partly covering his mouth. It’s a mustache that lacks zip and fire. Yet it’s well-kept; it doesn’t straggle. It tells us that the owner, though beaten down by the cutthroat business world, still possesses, in however small an amount, some inner strength. And that strength will come through in the episode’s culminating scene, when Laughton, learning that he’s the lucky recipient of a million dollars, decides to inform the boss:

Laughton’s episode from If I Had a Million, a one-man (and one-mustache) show:

Next, look at Laughton’s mustache in his role as the ruthless publisher in The Big Clock. Laughton here plays the kind of character who beats down the mild clerk types of the previous film. He’s aptly adorned with a mustache that’s like a beetle’s entrails smeared across his upper lip:

Laughton’s most infamous mustache is the one he wore, accompanied by a small beard, in the role of mad Dr. Moreau in the pre-Code horror film The Island of Lost Souls. The ensemble is a horror, all right. The mustache looks like paint daubed on with the tip of the pinkie; whereas the beard looks like shaved pubic hair. Plastered onto Laughton’s puffy visage, its effect is obscene:

Laughton claimed that the inspiration for his make-up came from a visit he made, shortly before filming started, to an oculist who wore a similar set of whiskers. This may be a unique case of the eye doctor as eyesore:

It’s not just Laughton’s face hair that’s horrific in the film. Island of Lost Souls could be dubbed a Bad-Hair Movie. Many of its characters are human-animal hybrids, which gave the make-up artist an excuse to binge on the yak hair. Look carefully at that photo below and see if you can make out what’s behind the foliage. That’s Bela Lugosi as the Sayer of the Law. You can barely see Bela’s eyes glinting through the hedge. He looks like he’s been caught in the middle of a yak-hair explosion:

Laughton later said that he developed a hair phobia after making this film, even having nightmares about hair. Fortunately for the rest of us, movie mustaches, yak-haired or not, should not have that traumatic effect. Quite the opposite, really.

… Pleasant dreaming.

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18 Comments

  1. KimWilson

     /  January 31, 2012

    This was a hilarious read. John Wayne must certainly looks very wrong with a mustache–especially his Genghis Khan one. I think Chaplin wore that Tramp mustache to hide just how handsome he was–I suppose the Tramp couldn’t have any advantages in Chaplin’s view.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Kim, for your comment. John Wayne wore mustaches in a few other films (eg, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) and he looked pretty good in them; but ‘the Conqueror’ is something else. Glad you enjoyed our post!

      Reply
  2. muriel

     /  February 1, 2012

    Adolph Menjou is certainly the perfect definition of dapper! There was a line on a Jack Benny show when someone mentioned how good Jack Benny looked. The reason was that he had purchased Menjou’s used clothes.

    Reply
    • Adolph Menjou was certainly one of the most dapper fellows onscreen, with a mustache to follow suit; he was also famous for his beautifully impeccable taste in clothes. We can well believe why Jack Benny would want to buy some! Thanks for your comment.

      Reply
  3. Fall off the chair funny stuff! Also, I might have nightmares about Bandit Bogie, Ghengis Wayne and Dr. Moreau for which I do not thank you one little bit. I am going to try to think only of how dashing John Wayne looked in “Rio Grande”. Hypnosis may be required.

    Reply
    • In case of mustache nightmares, we recommend a good dose of nighttime viewing of Errol Flynn, Doug Fairbanks, Clark Gable, and Ronald Colman. Seriously, Wayne’s mustache in ‘The Conqueror’ hits some kind of epic low (as does the whole picture). At least Laughton as Dr Moreau was deliberately trying for a nasty effect, so he can be excused. Thanks for your comment and for stopping by!

      Reply
  4. GOM, your post is especially good since you are such an Errol Flynn lover, just like me! I liked him with or without, but have a preference for with! Cagney and Bogart look absolutely ridiculous in moustaches — they just weren’t meant for them! As for John Wayne, well it was bad enough that he played a Mongol, much less with the droopy lip brush. Talk about bad casting! This was really enjoyable!

    Reply
    • Errol, of course, would look good with a burlap bag over his head (not that we want him actually to wear one), but Cagney and Bogie really should have kept a stock of razors on hand. The big question may be WHY John Wayne chose to play a Mongol, a role for which he was distinctly unsuited (wouldn’t Yul Brynner have been a better choice?). Thanks for stopping by and for your comment!

      Reply
  5. Man, I always thought Bogie could never go wrong in the manliness department but apparently I have never seen him look so… douchy. I suppose some men just weren’t made for the mighty mustache. Though to be honest, I’m the kinda guy who likes to sport the 5 o’clock shadow, perhaps even going a day or two with a good mane of scruffiness. Now this is possibly the way to go for guys like Bogie and I who can’t pull off a decent patch of upper lip hair. I mean, it worked for him in The African Queen, it worked for Eastwood, and even Han Solo… so all’s I’m saying is there are alternatives in the facial hair department.

    Great post by the way 🙂

    Reply
    • We agree: Bogie is not meant for the mustache; but the burgeoning beard, as you suggest, might just work. Now Flynn could do one or the other, and look good either way. Maybe it’s a question of facial structure. It’s a pity that Wayne didn’t go with the scruffy beard look for ‘The Conqueror’; it would have been vastly preferable to what he has dangling from his upper lip. Clint Eastwood it is not. Thanks for stopping by and for leaving a comment!

      Reply
  6. A really enjoyable read but with some insightful observations about the way facial hair affects our perceptions of character and looks, and how it can affect the balance of individual features in a face. Seeing actors like Ronald Colman without their trademark moustaches makes me realize that rather than being a superfluous bit of adornment, it was really essential to creating his persona and also just plain making him look more attractive. For the negative effects of facial hair, your use of Cagney was shockingly apposite. It uglified him to the point of making him look like a troll!

    Reply
    • You make an excellent point about Colman, who was a handsome man in any case, but the mustache gave him a unique flair. Both Cagney and Bogie look dreadful with mustaches. On the other hand, if you look at David Niven without a mustache (eg, ‘Wuthering Heights’), his face is a blank; the mustache really gives him something. And the differences in the types of mustaches men wear, from a pencil-line style (eg, William Powell), to the bushy soup-strainer types that you see on silent comics like Chester Conklin, also affects appearance – no doubt, a thick furze on a man’s lip can create comic effects; just recall how James Finlayson in his Laurel & Hardy films would keep puffing his in indignation. As always, thanks for your comment!

      Reply
  7. Rick29

     /  February 5, 2012

    Certainly one of your most amusing essays! (Plus how could I not love your line: “as a way of diffusing our trauma via a brief survey of cinematic facial fuzz”?). And for the record, Ronald Colman and Errol Flynn were way cooler with their moutaches…certainly when playing men of action!

    Reply
    • Yes, the trend seems to be pro-mustache for Colman and Flynn, as well as for Gable, and anti-mustache for Bogie. (Maybe you could have a poll on the subject at the Cafe!) Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

      Reply
  8. GOM, your mustache meanderings had me laughing out loud at your wit and swooning over the more dapper mustaches, like Errol Flynn, Douglas Fairbanks, Adolphe Menjou, and William Powell; Powell’s ‘stache is indeed a great example of how the right mustache turns an OK face into a dashing, debonair visage, and how guys like Humphrey Bogart look best with either a clean-shaven pan or a raffish stubble instead of messing with mustaches.

    I feel sorry for poor John Wayne and his fellow CONQUEROR cast members; adding insult to injury — indeed, tragedy — Wayne and everyone else who worked on THE CONQUERER apparently died of cancer from exposure to the Yucca Flats radiation fallout. On a more upbeat note, I loved the IF I HAD A MILLION clip with Charles Laughton blowing a raspberry!

    For the record, I’ve always thought my favorite contemporary actor, Adrien Brody, tends to wear facial foliage well. While I think Brody looks great clean-shaven, I also find that when he has a nicely-groomed mustache and beard, it balances out his face well! (Anybody seen that Gillette Fusion Pro-Glide Styler commercial starring Brody, Gael Garcia Bernal, and Andre 3000? A must for fans of attractive facial foliage! :-)) Great post, GOM, as always!

    Reply
    • Hi Dorian, and glad you liked the mustaches! The story of John Wayne and the cast of THE CONQUEROR is a sad one, as so many connected with the film did become ill with cancer later on – one story has it that producer Howard Hughes even had radioactive sand brought back to the studio when filming more shots on studio sets. The clip of Charles Laughton from IF I HAD A MILLION is a classic; it’s probably the best episode in the movie; although the W.C. Fields section is probably the most famous (it’s when he first said his well-known phrase, “My little chickadee”). We’re hoping that the film will soon be released on DVD. Thanks for stopping by!

      Reply
  9. Judy

     /  April 7, 2012

    Oh my God! I laughed so much while reading this! But it’s really true, some men just don’t have the face to pull off a mustache. That being said i just can’t imagine Clark Gable or Errol Flynn with out their signature ‘staches. I really could have gone without seeing John Wayne’s Genghis Khan-like facial hair, i think i’m now scarred for life. But how could they do that to
    Monty? He looks like a complete creeper! Anyways, this is a great blog

    Reply
    • Yes, we agree, some faces are not meant for facial hair (just look at our Bogie example…). We kinda like Ronald Colman even without the mustache, but most viewers would agree that he should keep it on. We also recall that Montgomery Clift actually wore an entire beard in the movie FREUD; that didn’t flatter him at all! Thanks for your comment!

      Reply

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