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.)


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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