Hail, Caesar! and 1940s Hollywood!


Hail, Caesar! is the most recent movie directed by the Coen brothers (Joel and Ethan Coen), famed directors of Fargo and that paragon of perfection, The Big Lebowski (“This is not ‘Nam. This is bowling. There are rules.” Yes, I have been to many midnight showings and even to Lebowski Fest once).

Hail, Caesar! is very much an ensemble movie that moves through one day and night in late 1940s Hollywood, focusing on a Hollywood studio fixer (Eddie Mannix, based on a real person and played by Josh Brolin) as he solves all the big and little problems that come up in the course of a wacky day at the studio. The film is somewhat episodic given all the various subplots that it covers, but I found it quite entertaining with a few serious laugh-out-loud moments. There are tons of in-jokes and classic Hollywood references, and Den of Geek and Slate have good run-downs if you’d like to read more about them. I, of course, am going to focus mostly on the costumes!

The costume designer was Mary Zophres, who has done a ton of work with the Coen brothers but only two real period films — Catch Me if You Can (2002), set in the 1960s; and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), set in the 1930s. Luckily the Coen brothers’ films are high-enough profile that there was a lot of press with Zophres when the movie came out, so here’s a rundown of the most interesting bits!

Zophres’s work has generally been very real-world, so Hail, Caesar! was a departure for her. According to Variety:

“They weren’t going for reality, and neither were we,” she says of the late-’40s/early-’50s musicals, Westerns, drawing room dramas and biblical epics, all of which are represented in “Hail Caesar!” This meant dispensing with the kind of true-to-life accuracy for which Zophres is known — an approach that came into vogue in ’70s Hollywood, when gritty realism was the norm — in favor of a more flamboyant theatricality. ‘Hail Caesar!’ Costume Designer on Creating Looks for Film Within a Film

Interestingly to me, the budget was extremely limited — something I wouldn’t expect given the big name that the Coens have in Hollywood and the number of big-name actors in the film like George Clooney and Scarlett Johansson. Zophres told Vogue:

We had very little money. In fact, I ran out of money toward the end of filming, and I was sewing things myself at the very end; we had to pull it out of the costume shop. We had some constraints because the scope of the film was huge and the money we had was not quite enough, but for the autonomy that the Coen brothers have — they explained it very well before we started shooting — they have autonomy because they never go back to the studio and ask for more money; they make it work. Behind the Scenes of Hail, Caesar! Perming Josh Brolin and Making Scarlett Johansson a Modern-Day Esther Williams

Zophres did a ton of research for the film:

The other treasure trove I found was in the MGM archives and in the Academy. They were kind enough to loan us their entire library. There were photographs of the crews, and that’s not something you often see back in those days, because people wanted to see the movie stars, not those people behind the scenes. Just in general, people dressed up and were more formal, [up until] the ’70s. There are no shorts, no sneakers — people were dressed. Just to see how technicians wore coats of the trade, literally. They had workwear that was related to what they were doing on set, and these old pictures were fantastic. Then there was a great piece in a magazine on Hollywood and the people who were the movers and shakers. It was from 1948, and our movie is 1948-1949. It was producers, a writer, cinematographers, and it was all in color, which is pretty rare. Behind the Scenes of Hail, Caesar! Perming Josh Brolin and Making Scarlett Johansson a Modern-Day Esther Williams

Now let’s look at individual characters. Since the film takes place over about 24 hours, most characters are in one (or just a few) costumes.

Josh Brolin plays the focal character, Eddie Mannix. Zophres planned to make his suit, but she changed her mind when she found a suit at costume rental house, Western Costume: “I found some fabric, and we were able to duplicate it … But we ended up using the original suit because there was something about it that no one wanted to give up, including myself.” ‘Hail Caesar!’ Costume Designer on Creating Looks for Film Within a Film

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Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix.

The key storyline centers on movie star Baird Whitlock, played by George Clooney with the world’s best/worst spray-tan. He’s starring in a sword-and-sandals movie based on films like Ben-Hur and is kidnapped from the set, so spends most of the film in his Roman costume.

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Clooney clearly had fun playing a cheeseball Hollywood star.

The Ben-Hur inspiration was quite literal:

Two years ago, the brothers Coen were with their longtime costume designer Mary Zophres when she excitedly shared an image of a helmet from 1959’s “Ben-Hur.” Fresh off Zophres’ home printer, the photo’s depiction of the helmet’s red thistle brush immediately besotted the brothers, who declared it the exact hue that would serve as a primary visual motif for the film. In an industry where color is finely calibrated, it was the pigment equivalent of plucking a starlet from the soda counter at Schwab’s drugstore. Costume designer Mary Zophres on the inspirations behind the Coen brothers’ meta-movie ‘Hail, Caesar!’

Plus, you see some of the filming of the movie-within-the-movie, so they also had to costume all the supporting actors and extras. In order to save money, the 500-or-so “metal” breastplates worn by all the Roman soldiers were made from molded plastic. Zophres told Variety, “It’s painted to look like metal, but it’s really more pliable — it’s almost like a polymer gel.” ‘Hail Caesar!’ Costume Designer on Creating Looks for Film Within a Film

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Molded plastic breastplates and the key focal red color.

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Bonus: Newman from Seinfeld plays a shifty extra who strums a lyre.

Another plot line centers on Scarlett Johansson as DeeAnna Moran in an Esther Williams/Loretta Young mashup. Moran is filming a mermaid movie, which is a definite highlight of the film in terms of costume and the aquatic dancing. The swimming costume that Johansson wears was critical to the production:

The Coens wanted a mermaid so Zophres had to design a suit that Johansson could swim in. After much research and debate over fabrics, she originally planned for one sequined, beaded suit, but ended up using four separate suits, gobbling up much of her budget. Costume designer Mary Zophres on the inspirations behind the Coen brothers’ meta-movie ‘Hail, Caesar!’.

Zophres elaborated on the scene to Vogue:

I loved designing mermaid costumes. Those Esther Williams movies, they’re magical to look at. The MGM studio had a complete staff, working full time; you didn’t have to hire someone. There was never a thought like, “Oh, this costume is going to be too much,” and they had the [swimming] pool going all the time, where they could go and do tests. We did not have that! We did shoot in the same pool that Esther Williams shot in at MGM. I think it’s one of the deepest tanks in the city, but it hadn’t been used in a long time. Like a week before, they were still cleaning it and painting it, and so all of our research and development had to happen kind of in a vacuum. We had to use [archival] research as our R&D because we didn’t have camera tests in the water or any of that stuff. I used to love to jump off this high-dive at the International Swimming Hall of Fame, where I grew up in Florida, and there’s something thrilling about just taking a leap and not knowing if it’s going to work, and then it does! Behind the Scenes of Hail, Caesar! Perming Josh Brolin and Making Scarlett Johansson a Modern-Day Esther Williams

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Johansson goes full mermaid.

Later, Johansson gets a super femme fatale, Lauren Bacall-esque ensemble with a fabulous caped blazer-dress:

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I haven’t found much information about Channing Tatum’s role as a Gene Kelly type in an Anchors Aweigh-esque film — but it doesn’t really matter, because the highlight there is Tatum’s dancing. It’s no Magic Mike, but who cares, because DAY-UM that boy has moves:

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Tatum can be my sailor boy!

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Tilda Swinton plays a dual role as feuding twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker, clearly inspired by Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. They’re not on screen enough to compete with the costumes worn by Helen Mirren in Trumbo, so I was slightly disappointed, but that’s probably an unfair comparison. Variety wrote,

Perhaps the most fashionably attired person in the movie is Tilda Swinton, who plays the double role of a Hedda Hopper-like columnist, Thora Thacker, and her twin sister Thessaly. The Coens told Zophres, “This is where you spend your money,” and the result was “form-fitting but period-correct” ensembles with a more vibrant color palette — bold green and canary yellow, for example — that contrasts with the earth tones that distinguish the non movie-movie scenes. “Doing Tilda was like a mini-movie because there were so many details that we were paying attention to,” says Zophres, “from the stitching on the gloves to the handbags to the hats,” one of which was a mini-fedora with a feather cocked just so. “She’s kind of a ballsy woman for those days,” Zophres adds, “and so we have a hat that was fashioned after a man’s hat.” ‘Hail Caesar!’ Costume Designer on Creating Looks for Film Within a Film

Harper’s Bazaar elaborates:

“Joel and Ethan Coen wanted the audience to be a little confused and surprised by the ‘twin’ aspect of the characters, so in fact their costumes in the first scenes are meant to be similar (so as to confuse), but not too similar. We wanted the audience to think: ‘Is this the same woman? No, oh, it’s her sister’. So the first change for both characters is a play on opposites. One way we did this was through the feathers in her hat. Both characters had feathers, but we had one feather for one twin going left and then the other feather going right. Tilda’s characters were some of my favourites; her costumes could have been a film in itself.” Mary Zophres on Dressing the Cast of ‘Hail, Caesar!’

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This is a FABULOUS hat.

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And I love the asymmetrical collar.

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I don’t recall seeing this on screen, but it’s too great to not include.

Alden Ehrenreich plays Hobie Doyle, an aw-shucks cowboy…

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Hobie in his element.

That the studio decides to turn into a suave, Cary Grant-style leading man under the direction of Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes):

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Note pocket square and ascot.

The scene where Hobie has to try to switch gears under Laurentz’s direction is pretty damn hilarious … and his movie-within-a-movie co-star gets a gorgeous green sculptural dress paired that Zophres said was inspired by fashion designer Charles James (Behind the Scenes of Hail, Caesar! Perming Josh Brolin and Making Scarlett Johansson a Modern-Day Esther Williams).

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I want everything about her look!

One last key character, from a costume perspective, was Carlotta Valdez (played by Veronica Osorio), a latina actress who is based on Carmen Miranda. She wears a vintage dress with a custom-made purse that’s a key prop:

Finding interesting period clothing was a great part of the experience. For example, Carlotta Valdez (a wise-cracking starlet played by Veronica Osorio) wears a dress that has an orange crepe on the skirt and a bodice beaded with tiny orange beads in a circular pattern. We made a little handbag to match and had it beaded by a beading craftsman in Los Angeles (which is harder to find these days). It was a lot of work, but Joel and Ethan wanted her character to have a handbag in the little dance number she does when Hobie (a film star of Westerns, played by Alden Ehrenreich) picks her up to go to an awards ceremony. Mary Zophres on Dressing the Cast of ‘Hail, Caesar!’

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Carlotta dances with the purse on her head in lieu of a basket of fruit.

So, if you love good comedies, classic Hollywood, and/or the Coen brothers … check out Hail, Caesar! You won’t be disappointed.


What’s your favorite classic film reference movie?


About the author



Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

9 Responses

  1. Charity

    I really want to see this. I’d kind of forgotten about it until the other night, and then due to a hitch in my internet service, I couldn’t get it to stream properly. This post is incentive to try again!

    (My comment to my mother the other day, when seeing a preview for it, was, “I’m not sure I want to live in a world where Ralph Fiennes is aging!” =P NO. You must stay young forever!)

    • Sarah Lorraine

      It’s pretty cute, but not really one of the better Coen Bros. films. There’s just weird plot threads that never get tied up (like Carlotta & Hobie, the cutest effing couple in the world, but you never get to know if they get together). The eye-candy, however, is fabulous.

  2. Karen K.

    I loved this movie. Alden Ehrenreich was delightful — his scenes with Ralph Fiennes are the BEST (and Channing Tatum is a close second). So much eye candy!

  3. ladylavinia1932

    “HAIL, CAESAR!” is actually set around the early 1950s – 1950-51. And Sarah Lorraine is right . . . it’s not one of the better Coen movies. My favorite scene is the one that featured Ralph Fiennes trying to teach Alden Ehrenreich how to be a dramatic actor. Those two had me laughing hysterically.

  4. Heidi Cochran

    Terribly late comment here! Sorry!

    One of my very favorite films is the Coen Brothers’ “The Hudsucker Proxy” set in 1959. Not only is it hilarious (to me, anyway!), the costumes are amazing. The montage of the lead character, Norville Barnes, turning into a smooth exec from a corn-fed noob is so much fun.

  5. angie kirby

    You should do a post on Scarlett Johansson historical costume films.She hasn’t got one yet.