Heroes v. Villianslike
by Fritzi Kramer
Illustration by Wayne Shellabarger
A hero is only as good as the villain he or she has to defeat and the silent era was full of dynamic rivalries. Some were so dynamic, in fact, that they called for a rematch.
Douglas Fairbanks v. Sam De Grasse
No silent leading man could boast of more pep than Douglas Fairbanks and not many villains stood a chance against his energetic brand of heroism, but Sam De Grasse played antagonists who very nearly defeated the human tornado. The two actors had appeared together in Fairbanks’s early western/wilderness films but they were most famously paired in swashbucklers.
What was the secret to their success? Contrast. Fairbanks was all about stunts, speed, and enthusiasm. De Grasse took things slower, satisfied to observe his foe under heavily lidded eyes and wait for a chance to stab him in the back. As Prince John in Robin Hood, De Grasse doesn’t break a sweat; that’s what his lackeys are for. He very nearly uses Robin for his archers’ target practice but gets thwarted at the last minute. In The Black Pirate, De Grasse’s tactics are even more covert. The first mate of a particularly brutal pirate band, he watches as Fairbanks’s mysterious interloper wins the hearts of the crew. Fairbanks improvises his way out of some tight scrapes but soon finds that De Grasse had been one step ahead of him all along and our hero is forced to walk the plank.
Ultimately, De Grasse’s villains knew that they couldn’t compete with Fairbanks physically so they relied on cunning schemes and superior numbers. De Grasse never won, of course, but it was touch and go on more than one occasion.
Bebe Daniels v. William Powell
Before William Powell’s smooth voice and sharp comedic timing made him a matinee idol, he was typecast as a villain, a despoiler of Gishes and an all-around louse. Meanwhile, Bebe Daniels had made a name for herself as Harold Lloyd’s leading lady and as a rival to Gloria Swanson in a few Cecil B. DeMille films.
As a solo star in the mid- to late-1920s, Daniels’s shtick was remaking and spoofing popular films with the added twist of reversing the genders of the romantic leads. She squanders a million dollars in Miss Brewster’s Millions, dons a Zorro-like black costume in Senorita, and abducts Richard Arlen across the desert sands in She’s a Sheik. Powell reenters the narrative here as her nemesis in these last two titles, but he proved to be no match for her sword in either.
In a subsequent pairing, Daniels plays an heiress whose claims of mortal illness prove to be all in her head in Feel My Pulse, one of a subgenre of hypochondriac comedies, usually with male leads, that enjoyed a very minor vogue in the silent era. Arlen once again appears as the love interest, with Powell as the bootlegging villain. Instead of vanquishing her nemesis with a sword, Daniels turns Powell’s own booze against him, hurling bottles and barrels at him and his gang after they take Arlen prisoner. The scene concludes with Daniels throwing a magnum-sized bottle of chloroform. Needless to say, by the end, Powell is feeling no pain, leaving Daniels to triumphantly rescue Arlen’s gentleman-in-distress.
William S. Hart v. Louise Glaum
William S. Hart’s grim and gritty westerns took the box office by storm in the mid-1910s. Now, they may seem old-fashioned, but they also feature what was then the latest fad in villainesses: the vamp. In 1915 and 1916, Hart collaborated a half-dozen times with Louise Glaum, probably most famous for slinking her way through the provocatively titled 1920 film Sex, but her Wild West vampires are worth a look as they come equipped with schemes, seductions, and hidden daggers. Her campy antics and “Curses, foiled again!” performances were an ideal counterbalance to Hart’s stern-faced heroes.
Glaum is memorably wicked in Hell’s Hinges when she is given the task of seducing the town’s minister, but she is the mastermind in The Return of Draw Egan, providing both impetus and nerve to the local ne’er-do-wells on their mission to drive Hart out of town. The closest Glaum came to victory was in Keno Bates, Liar when she goads leading lady Margaret Thompson into pumping Hart full of lead. Glaum’s attacks earned her Hart’s scorn and she often ended up thrown across the room, but she lived to vamp another day.
John Barrymore v. Gustav von Seyffertitz
Gustav von Seyffertitz was an ominous fixture of silent features, menacing everyone from Mary Pickford to Lionel Barrymore to Pola Negri. His resemblance to another star, John Barrymore, resulted in one of silent-era cinema’s iconic defeats.
He had already played Moriarty to John Barrymore’s Sherlock Holmes in 1922, but the similarity of their sharp profiles had not been exploited. Barrymore and von Seyffertitz more than made up for that omission in Don Juan (1926). Von Seyffertitz has a small role as Neri, the Borgia’s torturer. Neri has Mary Astor lashed to the wheel in the accepted villainous manner and Barrymore’s Don Juan arrives to save the day. He hurls himself on Neri but the outcome of the fight is momentarily ambiguous. The audience sees a robed figure looking very von Seyffertitz-like. It is only when Barrymore relaxes his face that both the audience and Astor understand that the hero has triumphed. Their resemblance is cleverly played to the hilt for suspense and gives Barrymore a chance to show off his knack for rearranging his own face.