19 November 2018

The Gunfighter and Gregory Peck's moustache

Henry King's The Gunfighter (1950) is a terrific Western about an ageing outlaw who tries to escape his past and comes back to town to see his wife and son. The film, which stars a wonderful Gregory Peck in the title role, was an atypical western for its time as it is, for the most part, devoid of any action and concentrates on the gunfighter's character. Today The Gunfighter is considered one of the finest psychological westerns ever made, a forerunner to classics such as High Noon (1952).

Upon release The Gunfighter received much critical acclaim, but it was not a commercial success making only a slight profit. Often cited as one of the main reasons for the film's mediocre performance at the box-office is Gregory Peck's moustache. Peck's unfamiliar look reportedly kept away audiences, especially female fans who wanted to see their idol clean-shaven, not sport a thick moustache while wearing grungy clothes.

The decision to give Peck a moustache came from director Henry King who aimed to give his film a historically accurate look. In the fall of 1949, King started filming without informing 20th Century-Fox boss Darryl Zanuck (in Europe at the time) or the studio's president Spyros Skouras about the period moustache. Both Zanuck and Skouras hated it when they finally saw the rushes, but by then it was too late to have Peck shave it off and have the production start over. Zanuck said that he would give $25,000 of his own money to get the moustache off Peck. Skouras claimed that the moustache eventually cost the studio a million dollars at the box-office.

A moustached Peck in a publicity shot for The Gunfighter and clean-shaven in Twelve O'Clock High.

On 13 July 1950, a month after the film had been released to the public, Zanuck wrote to producer Nunally Johnson about the film's disappointing box-office results. He mentioned two major complaints people were having about the film, among them Peck's "walrus" moustache. Concluding his memo, Zanuck pondered the unpredictability of the film business, wondering why certain films become box-office hits while others "that belong in the same category do not do fifty percent of the business".

NB! If you haven't seen The Gunfighter, Zanuck's memo contains a MAJOR SPOILER!

July 13, 1950
Mr. Nunally Johnson
20th Century-Fox Productions, Ltd.
Shepperton, Middlesex

Dear Nunnally:
Here is the story to date on The Gunfighter. It did miserable business at the Roxy Theatre in New York where, with the exception of Yellow Sky, no Western has done well in New York. It did ordinary business here in Los Angeles. It has done much better however in most places in the rest of the country.
It will be a profit-making picture, but in spite of its sensational reviews it receives everywhere, and the unstinted praise, we will be lucky if we do seventy or seventy-five percent of the business we did on Yellow Sky. Perhaps, in the outlying districts and western areas it will eventually come up to anticipation. As I said, in any event, it will be a profit-making picture but certainly nothing like we had every right to anticipate.
It is unquestionably a minor classic, but I really believe that it violates so many true Western traditions that it goes over the heads of the type of people who patronize Westerns, and there are not enough of the others to give us the top business we anticipated.
By way of passing, [Fox executive] Al Lichtman showed me a report from the ushers at the Roxy Theatre [in New York City].  As you know, they have more than 100 ushers and floor employees and they are trained to talk to patrons whenever there is a gracious opportunity. What do you think the complaint is on the picture? I will list them separately:
a.) Why do they cast Gregory Peck in this kind of role and then put a walrus moustache on him and hide his face? If they wanted an ugly man, why didn't they take an ugly actor? Why waste Peck? This comment occurred hundreds of times, particularly from women and young girls.
b.) Why didn't they let him live at the finish? After all, he had been reformed. He could have been wounded, if they wanted to shoot him. But he should have been allowed to live.
The only thing I can say is that we live and learn. Sometimes, you wonder why classic pictures like The Snake Pit, Twelve O'Clock High and Pinky* are enormous box-office hits and other pictures that belong in the same category do not do fifty percent of the business. Yellow Sky, in my opinion, is not half the picture The Gunfighter is. Yet it went into a more formula mold and obviously had broader popular appeal. But, on the other hand, there was certainly no formula mold about The Snake Pit and look what it did....
Best always,
*NoteThe Snake Pit (1948) and Pinky (1949) are two Fox movies that deal with issues that were controversial at the time, resp. mental illness and racism. The western Yellow Sky (1948) and war film Twelve O'Clock High (1949) are two other films that starred Gregory Peck
Source: Memo from Darryl F. Zanuck: The Golden Years At Twentieth Century-Fox (1993); selected and edited by Rudy Behlmer.
Above: Producer/screenwriter Nunnally Johnson (left) and 20th Century-Fox boss Darryl Zanuck (r.) / Below: Millard Mitchell and Gregory Peck in a scene from The Gunfighter --who has the biggest moustache?-- with Helen Westcott in the middle.
This post is my contribution to the Classic Movie Blog Association's Fall Blogathon OUTLAWS. Click here for links to all the other entries.


  1. My goodness, what a fuss about a little fuzz! Of course, where the bottom line is concerned all things must be considered. A fascinating article on the lonely outlaw. PS: Coincidentally my contribution to the blogathon is Yellow Sky.

    1. Yes, what a fuzz indeed! And I read your great contribution on Yellow Sky:) Thanks for visiting!

  2. Great letter. thanks for sharing. Even the big moguls like Zanuck cannot always predict public reaction. I preferred Yellow Sky!

    1. I prefer The Gunfighter, although it's actually a sad movie. Thanks for dropping by!

  3. Very interesting backstory. There's Clark Gable, whose career seems to have flourished along with his mustache - and Gregory Peck, whose movie was sabotaged by his! Ah, the unpredictable moving-going public. Great post, fascinating letter.

  4. Wow, this memo is so interesting! At the same time we see Zanuck worried about profits, of course, but also considering what makes the films they were making "classics".
    I had to laugh out loud at the "walrus moustache". It didn't really add anything to the character, but the facial hair wasn't so bad either.
    Fascinating article!