I recently came across this movie on the Westerns Channel one late night- Gunfight At The OK Corral – A movie that I have never actually watched in its entirety. However, something compelled me to stop and watch and interestingly enough, I found the plot to be somewhat compelling even though I knew straight off that it was almost 90% fiction; but it was entertaining and that’s what counts in a movie. 🙂
When first released in 1957, the movie Gunfight at the OK Corral was a major blockbuster. Starring Burt Lancaster as Wyatt Earp and Kirk Douglas as Doc Holliday, this movie was hugely successful, making $4.7 on its first run. On the female side, there is Jo Van Fleet as “Kate Fisher”, a character loosely based on Mary Katherine Horony (aka Big Nose Kate) and Rhonda Fleming as “Laura Denbow”, a lady gambler and Wyatt Earp’s love interest.
Riddled with historical inaccuracy and downright fiction, Gunfight at the OK Corral plays fast and loose with the facts and the story is full of rivalry, betrayals, and various plot twists but it manages to get by on the sheer acting talent of Lancaster and Douglas; they create a chemistry between Earp and Holliday that was largely unequaled until the movie Tombstone (1994). Combined with an excellent supporting cast (including Lee Van Cleef and DeForest Kelly of later Star Trek fame), a memorable soundtrack by Dimitri Tiomkin, and even it’s own theme song sung by Frankie Laine; it’s definitely a A-List movie. Although a bit dated by today’s standards, it’s still a pretty decent story. As for the historical facts? Well, for that you’ll have to consult a book. 😉
The locations used for filming were varied and include Arizona locations such as Old Tucson Studios, the Empire Ranch, and Elgin. In California there filming was done at Paramount and Agoura Ranches (funny thing, we’ve been to just about all of these at one time of another).
And naturally, my attention was drawn to the costuming…so how does it stack up? Well, the term “1950s Western” probably summarizes things best. Designed by Edith Head, one of Hollywood’s foremost costume designers at the time, the costuming is somewhat predicable but still offers some interesting designs on the female side. For the men, the costuming is the usual 1950s B-Western garments mixed in with a few period garments from the 1890s/early 1900s and everyone is wearing the ubiquitous buscadero gun rigs. It does not appear that Ms. Head spent much time on designing the men’s outfits.
However, for the female side, the situation vastly improves. Although the female costumes are more reflective of the 1950s than the early 1880s, they provide a contrast to the somewhat dreary men’s wardrobe and especially in the use of bright color. Below are some examples of the wardrobe for the principle actresses. In some cases, I was able to locate the actual costume sketches behind some of the costumes.
We start first with the character “Laura”, played by Rhonda Fleming:
The above evening dress is interesting in that it tries to combine an off-the-shoulder bodice with three-quarter sleeves, something that was not historically done with evening dresses (or ball gowns) in the late 19th Century. Also, it’s doubtful that Laura is wearing a period corset but rather a bustier with built-in cups, a very common style of the 1950s for evening dresses.
Here’s the only shot from the movie:
Unfortunately, the green traveling dress is largely wasted in the movie; the only shot to make it into the final cut is a long one and it’s impossible to make out the details. Going by the sketch, style-wise, the green travelling dress has a more “period” silhouette although it’s a pastiche, combining elements from spanning the 1870s, 80s, and early 90s.
The above design above appear to have not have made it into the final film but it’s representative of female costuming for Westerns commonly found in 1950s productions- sort of a practical “independent woman” look that was especially employed for exterior scenes set in the “country.” Below are several similar designs for the “Laura” character that made it into film. The first one is when Wyatt Earp and Laura first fall in love:
The next two are from the breakup scene between Wyatt and Laura:
Note the different blouses and the addition of a scarf. Both outfits maintain the same color palette.
Now for something a little different…I was unable to locate a costume sketch for this dress. The pastel blue is an interesting choice but for this night scene it certainly works, acting as a contrast for the Wyatt Earp’s black coat and adding light to the scene. The dress itself reads more like a 1950s formal dress that’s been slightly modified to make it somewhat 19th Century.
Finally, in terms of color pallette, Laura’s costumes are in shades of yellow and green with some brown which reflects the character’s somewhat “good girl” image- while she’s a lady gambler, she falls in love with Wyatt Earp and wants to settle down with him. Of course, the color choices could also simply be an attempt to set Laura apart from Kate.
And now we turn to Kate, played by Jo Van Fleet:
Below are two screen captures of the dress. Unfortunately, they’re not the best but they do give an idea of the basic silhouette.
Here’s a better picture although the dress is partially obscured.
The above dress is the “Kate” character’s signature dress and shows up in several key scenes. The use of red is no accident, no doubt tying in with her “bad girl” role (at one point she deserts Doc Holliday, siding with the Clantons). Also, like the other female costumes in the movie, this dress combines bits and pieces of various 19th Century style elements to create an evening dress of sorts. We see a bustle/train effect of sorts along a bodice based on the characteristic 1950s bustier foundation. Interestingly enough, in the final dress the three-quarter sleeves are eliminated and there remains vestigial straps that create an off-the-shoulder look that once again is more in keeping with a 1950s evening dress.
Below is another dress that shows up for which I was unable to locate a costume sketch:
Compared to her initial evening dress, this is a complete 180 degree opposite. This dress is worn during a scene in which Kate attempts to reconcile with Doc Holliday.
Below is something a bit different and it’s hard to get a read on it. Clearly this is much more demure than the above costume and it almost looks like a bathrobe trying to be a dress. It does appear in several scenes where Kate is at her most vulnerable, coming to realize that her actions have contributed to the coming clash between the Earps, Doc Holiday, and the Clantons/McLaurys.
And now for one final outfit:
Unfortunately I could not find a sketch for this dress but the red color palette for this day dress does once again serve to emphasizes Kate’s “bad girl” image. Style-wise, the dress is the typical mash-up of various period design elements that make it read vaguely 19th century. One sees the use of draped skirts but there’s no train or bustle. At the same time, the neckline of the bodice appears to be a mix 1870s/80s style combined with early 1890s sleeves.
So in the end, we have a movie that’s a re-telling of the classic Western tale of good versus evil, one man cleaning up a lawless town, and getting the girl (sort of). Naturally, as with all movies, the costuming goes a long way towards supporting the story. In some ways, it could be argued that for the male characters, costuming is secondary to acting and especially with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas whose acting is superb. When it comes to the female characters, the costuming takes a more prominent role, underscoring Laura and Kate’s characterization.
Of course, one must also take this in context of the 1950s Western- these were movies based on a formula in which the male characters performed the main action while the female characters added a more of a backdrop. The formula worked in that it appealed to a broader audience of both men and women and that meant more revenue at the box office.
It’s almost a truism that a movie’s costuming reflects the era in which the movie was made and Gunfight At The OK Corral is no exception. At the same time, it’s all too easy to dismiss the whole thing on the basis that none of the costuming reflects anything that was actually worn in 1881 and that’s hard, if not impossible, to counter. But, one needs to look beyond this and ask just WHAT is the purpose of costuming? Simply put, the purpose of costuming is to help advance the story and give it a greater impact.
Even if the entire cast of the movie had been costumed in appropriate 1881 clothes, the question would still remain “does this advance the story?” Possibly, but then again, maybe not. I would venture to say that in the end it really doesn’t matter- the key thing is the impact of the plot or story on the viewer. The costumes are secondary and should only serve to enhance the characters, not stand out on their own. In short, if you can recall the costumes but not the plot, then the movie has failed.
I hope you have enjoyed this, stay tuned for more observations on the period movie costuming. 🙂