Welcome to FrockTalk, the web’s only costume-based movie review site. The goal of Frocktalk is to shed light on the magnificent artistry of costume design in motion pictures. Reviews on this site are written by working costume designers in the entertainment industry – people who know, better than anyone, what it takes to make it all happen. The focus of FrockTalk is not to comment on the big flashy costume dramas, but to call attention to the seemingly ordinary costume design work in film that silently and persuasively moves the audience toward understanding the characters. Costume design for motion pictures is an art form that deserves more recognition than it usually gets. Fancy, pretty costumes do not always equal effective, appropriate costumes. The art of the costume is in letting the audience know who the character is, before the actor even has a chance to open his mouth. Read on, and enjoy. ** CAUTION: ALL REVIEWS CONTAIN SPOILERS! **

To Kill A Mockingbird

NOTE: I could NOT get permission from the studio to use photos from the film.  Hence, Chachi.

I COULD NOT GET PERMISSION FROM THE STUDIO TO USE THEIR PHOTOGRAPHS. HENCE, CHACHI.

This review has been bumped up in the Frocktalk schedule to honor director Robert Mulligan, who left this mortal coil on December 20, 2008.  Not only did he direct To Kill a Mockingbird, he also directed Summer of ’42, Up the Down Staircase, and The Great Imposter.  What a legacy.  RIP, Robert Mulligan, and thanks for the great films.

Review Date: 10-21-08
Release Date: 12-25-1962
Runtime:  129 min.
Period: 1932
Costume Designer:  Rosemary Odell

To Kill A Mockingbird is hailed as one of the world’s classic movies.  It ranks right up there with The Wizard of Oz, The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, Casablanca, and Citizen Kane.  Why is it so good?  It’s the performances, and the source material – a Pulitzer-prize-winning novel of the same name, written by Harper Lee, originally published in 1960.  This is one of those books, like The Red Badge of Courage, Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies, that is required reading in the junior-high- and high school-aged crowd.  Personally, I think that the movie is great, but it does have some flaws, which were probably overlooked at the time, but to our 21st-Century eyes, they appear readily.

Lee (born 1926) grew up in Monroeville, Alabama, and the story of To Kill A Mockingbird reflects many of the events and people from her childhood.  The lead character is a young girl, Scout Finch (Mary Badham), who gets into childhood mischief with her older brother Jem (Phillip Alford) and the neighbor boy Dill (John Megna).  Side note: the character of Dill is based on Truman Capote, also Lee’s childhood friend.  The three are terrified and obsessed with a young, possibly mentally challenged man named Boo Radley (Robert Duvall) who lives at the end of their street.  No one in town wants to talk about Boo, although there are whispers that he has a violent past.   It seems, however, that Boo (or someone) is leaving small gifts and trinkets for the children in the hollow of a tree outside his house, but Boo is never seen.

Scout’s father, Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), is a middle-aged, Lincoln-esque, widowed attorney, who is asked to represent a defendant in a local rape case.  Here, the rapist is a black man (Tom Robinson, played by Brock Peters), and the victim is a white woman (Mayella Ewell, played by Collin Wilcox Paxton).

This being the rural South (the film is set in fictitious “Maycomb”, AL) the deck is heavily stacked against the defendant, based solely on the color of his skin.  True to its setting, the movie contains some disturbing hate-language from the more racist characters in the film.  These bad guys attempt to lynch Atticus for defending Robinson, and are eventually only disarmed by the presence of Scout, intervening on her father’s behalf with the swift, magical weapon of innocent charm that can only be wielded by a child.

Thus begins the trial, and while Atticus has warned the children not to attend, they sneak into the “colored-only” balcony and watch the proceedings.  Atticus quickly establishes that Mayella and her drunk, abusive father Bob Ewell, are lying.  During cross-examination, Mayella’s claims of rape fall apart, and the real story (of a seduction perpetrated by Mayella) becomes apparent.  Those facts notwithstanding, the all-white jury convicts Robinson of forcible rape.

Following the trial, Robinson breaks free from his captors as he is being transferred to another facility.  He is shot and killed on the spot. Atticus goes to Robinson’s home to consult with Tom’s widow, and a drunken Bob Ewell shows up and spits in his face.  Later, Bob Ewell attacks Jem and Scout as they walk home from a Halloween pageant.  A mysterious stranger helps them escape the attack, delivering the wounded Jem to the front door of his home.

The Sheriff arrives at the Finch home and informs Atticus and Scout that Bob Ewell has been killed in his attempt to harm the children.  The Sheriff, noting Ewell’s mortal wounds, and ignoring the circumstances, states that Ewell “probably fell on his knife”.  However, the Sheriff knows full well that there was a fourth party involved, the person who saved the children, the person who probably killed Ewell, who turns out to be Boo Radley.

In the end, Boo is the hero of the film, having rescued Jem, saving both of the children’s lives.  Scout begins to consider how unfair their initial perception of him really was.  Life goes on in Maycomb, but nothing is ever the same.

Thematically, this is a movie about growing up, discrimination, racism, class, courage and redemption.  While the movie points to racism as one of the most destructive evils to threaten society, the film does not depict black characters in an accurate, fully realized or realistic way.  It is very interesting to watch this film with a 21st-Century perspective.  The film is a late 1950s-early 1960s interpretation of 1930s Alabama.  This film was made after Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, and after the brutal Mississippi murder of Emmet Till, both in 1955. However, the film was made just before the Selma-to-Montgomery marches, before the tide started to slowly turn in the civil rights movement.  Clearly the filmmakers had sympathy for the plight of black people in the South.  Nonetheless, what we see here is an inaccurate and incomplete depiction of black characters, and that makes this movie sting a bit.  For a movie that condemns racism, the fact that these characters are marginalized is truly disappointing.  The portrayal of these black characters might appear sympathetic, but I contend they never reach real.  I could talk about this subject for hours, but since we are focusing on the costumes, I will move on!

The movie was shot in black and white, in a time when color was also widely available.  I have to wonder about this choice – was it to make the movie look “older”, as we see in The Last Picture Show?  Or was it to underline the issue of racism?  Black? White?  Shades of grey? Or was it perhaps a budgetary concession?  I actually think that it was an artistic choice, though I can find no evidence to back up my claim.  The movie is brilliantly shot by Russell Harlan, and the opening credits sequence is marvelous.  No costumes in it, but marvelous, nonetheless.  The black and white photography turns the costume influence on the film into shapes, shades and silhouettes.  I think the use of the black and white medium makes the costume design job slightly more challenging.  When we design for color, we have to consider everything: shape, silhouette, movement, texture, lighting, and 256 million shades of color.  Take away the 256 million colors, and it’s still a big job; you just have fewer tools in your toolbox with which to express the characters.

The costumes in this movie make the distinction between the poor and the “less-poor”, since no one in Maycomb is wealthy.  Early in the film, an embarrassed farmer (Cunningham) delivers hickory nuts to the Finch home as payment for legal services.  The following dialogue ensues:

Scout: Is he poor?
Atticus: Yes.
Scout: Are we poor?
Atticus: We are indeed.
Scout: Are we as poor as the Cunninghams?
Atticus: No, not exactly. The Cunninghams are country folks, farmers. The crash hit them the hardest.

Cunningham is wearing a ratty hat, chambray shirt and overalls, aged to within an inch of their life.  Atticus wears wool trousers, a collared shirt, necktie, and a vest with watch and chain.  From the beginning, the film is set up so that the audience can clearly see the financial divide in the town.  The costumes tell the story before the actors can even open their mouths.

Scout, a classic tomboy, wears overalls and sneakers, just like her brother. There is a lot of Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn imagery in the film with the siblings in overalls.  She climbs trees and rolls down the street inside of an automobile tire.  Her costume not only informs the audience about who she is, but it serves as a practical means for her to behave like the boys – she can get dirty.  What we discover as the film unrolls is that Atticus lets Scout be who she is.  He doesn’t judge her for wanting to wear overalls, for wanting to play with the boys.  He lets her be her true self.

When Scout and Jem meet Dill for the first time, the contrast in their costumes is striking.  Jem and Scout wear worn-out overalls.  Dill wears prissy white shorts.  He’s a sickly-looking, runty nerd, with inconceivably large front teeth – he is an odd bird, but he is up for the brand of mischief in which Jem and Scout are involved.  He wants to be part of their adventures.  Dill’s costumes never arc into Jem & Scout’s world – he is always separate, always other.  It is interesting to think about the character of Dill in light of his inspiration.  I wonder if Rosemary Odell thought, “Hm, what would Truman Capote have worn as a boy?”  In any case, the resulting decision (all-white) is fantastic.  Dill looks much fancier, overdressed and dandified, in a childlike way, than Jem and Scout.

Atticus is sitting on his front porch at night when Judge Taylor comes over to ask him to represent Robinson.  This is a time when people would just come over to discuss business, gossip, and so on.  No cell phones, no texts.  Judge Taylor wears a white suit – implying truth, justice, purity, and innocence perhaps?  Judge Taylor’s white suit also conveys his status, his class.  No dirty overalls on the Judge.  This is someone who has the money to dress well in the Depression.

Jem, Scout and Dill decide to spy on Boo Radley that night, and Jem’s overalls get stuck in the fence as they make their getaway.  Thinking quickly, Jem wriggles out of his overalls and runs home in his underpants.  It’s actually quite comical.  Later, Jem runs back to the fence to retrieve his overalls, finding them neatly folded over the fence.

The next day is the first day of school.  Jem wears a shirt and tie, with slacks.  Scout wears (gasp!) a dress!  Scout’s face looks as though she has been wedged into a sleeve of stinky cheese – she hates the dress and all is stands for.  “I don’t see why I have to wear a darned old dress,” she says.  It doesn’t appear that Atticus himself has forced her to wear a dress, but more that society dictates (and maybe the school dictates) that all girls wear dresses to school.  Play-clothes are another thing.  The kids eat their breakfast, and are shuttled out the door by the maid (Calpurnia, a black woman wearing an apron), Atticus, and the neighbor lady.  Side note: the neighbor lady, Maudie Atkinson (Rosemary Murphy),  over at the Finch house helping get the kids to school– curiously, she is wearing a leopard-print dress.  This is the only garment in the film that feels like an anachronism to me.

The school dress doesn’t keep Scout from roughhousing or getting in fights during recess.  Jem has to physically pull her off of some little boys as she pummels away at their heads and bodies.  One of these boys is Walter Cunningham (Steve Condit), son of the farmer who delivered the hickory nuts in the beginning of the film.  Scout was beating up Walter because he made her look bad.  Walter didn’t have any money for lunch, and the teacher offered him a quarter.  Scout intervened and said that he wouldn’t be able to pay her back, and that he wouldn’t accept the charity anyway.  In the book, Scout’s hand was slapped, and she transferred her rage onto Walter, beating him up.   Cut to – Walter having dinner with the Finches, pouring massive amounts of syrup on his dinner (which, considering the dinner is roast beef and all the trimmings, is a step up from squirrels and rabbits).

In this sequence, Scout wears what looks like it would have been a pink (or maybe light blue) kind of frilly school dress, and Walter wears dirty overalls.  Walter’s freckly face is wan, and the audience can surely recognize the hunger (literal and figurative) in Walter from the outset.  His costume helps to tell the story.

The trial sequence is interesting, because it goes on for so long in the film.  It must have taken a month or more to shoot it.  Okay, at least three weeks.  The scene is comprised of a lot of principal coverage, expository dialogue, and reaction shots of the crowd and of the emotionless jury.  Atticus wears a light-colored, possibly cream colored, suit for the trial.  Again, the costume department might have been going for purity, justice, innocence.  The defendant, Robinson, wears work overalls and a chambray shirt.

The “victim” in the trial, Mayella, wears a girlish floral-printed frou-frou jabot-collared dress.  The problem here is her hair and makeup.  Maybe I didn’t read all of my Delineator magazines thoroughly, but I am pretty sure that long messy bangs were not in style in 1932 – 1934.  Just a guess.  Neither in style is backcombing, which we also see consistently on the neighbor, Maudie.  For these two characters, we smell the early 1960s influence.  It probably wasn’t noticeable at the time the film was released, but it is very evident now.

Later that year, after the trial, Jem and Scout go to a Halloween pageant.  Scout is dressed up as one of the county’s agricultural products, a giant ham.  The costume looks like it was homemade, of papier-mâché or something similar.  The costume was constructed so that the leg of the ham-hock was facing up, so that the wearer’s face was in the leg, and the big meaty part, the big bell-shape, was where the wearer’s legs would be.  In this manner, Scout could walk around in the costume, but her vision would be restricted to only what she could see through the small eyehole.  Scout wears this costume home from the pageant because she has lost her dress and shoes.

On their walk home, through a wooded area, a shadowy figure attacks Jem.  Scout, still in the ham costume, is knocked to the ground.  Hearing her brother being attacked, she struggles to get out of her costume, but is unsuccessful.  Jem is knocked unconscious, and when the attacker turns to get her, another body enters frame and attacks the attacker!  Scout tries to see what is happening through the small eyehole.  The struggle ends, and there is only silence.   She gets up, and with her limited vision, observes Jem’s body being carried home by an unknown man.

The ham costume protects Scout from harm, but also renders her helpless and exposed.  The costume, in this case, becomes a part of the story, a plot device to prevent her from getting hurt while enabling her to bear witness to violent assault and (what ends up being) murder.  The costume could be viewed as symbolic of many things, but in my mind it could symbolize a parent’s love and teaching. That, while the parent can do all he can to protect the child physically, the exposure to harsh realities of the world are unpreventable.  It might be a stretch, but since this “harsh realities” message is repeated often in the film, I can’t help but make the association with the costume.

The revelation of Boo Radley at the end of the film is really interesting.  Boo wears a rumpled striped shirt and cotton trousers.  He’s not a farmer, he’s not a businessman, he’s something other.  Something we haven’t seen in the movie.  This “other”ness of Boo, in terms of his costume, is remarkable.  As a designer, you would figure out what Boo was going to wear for his reveal costume, and then very carefully, purposefully, make sure no one else in the film wears anything even closely resembling that, making Boo’s revelation clean and new.  Nice job.  And wow, Robert Duvall as Boo – he looks amazing – pathetic, scary, forlorn, frightened.  His revelation is a beautiful moment.

The exploration of “other” ness in the film is interesting.  Boo, Dill, Atticus, and to a certain degree, Scout, are all part of the “other” in 1930s society.  The costumes in the film helped to silently underscore their separation from the norm.  I say: well done.  Definitely see it, but with a 21st-Century grain of salt.

-KMB

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