Ask the average person to describe a silent movie villain and you’ll probably hear something like this:
“Big, curly mustache, black top hat, black cape. Always terrorizing damsels.”
The thing is, they’re describing Snidely Whiplash and Professor Fate, both of whom were created decades after the silent era. Time to smash some myths!
In recent weeks, I have noticed a sharp uptick in queries regarding silent movie villains.
“Who was the villain in silent films?”
I have a problem with that definite article up there. There was no “the” when it came to silent movie villainy. Variety is the spice of life and silent movies were nothing if not spicy.
Casual movie fans can be forgiven for believing the myths about silent movie villains. After all, it’s hard to find good information in a sea of bad information.
First, let’s have a bit of clarification. The silent era did have its share of tropes, stock character types and fashion themes (just as we do today) but the idea that there was a particular uniform for the villains is erroneous. This is silent cinema and not Commedia dell’arte, which assigned specific masks and costumes to stock characters. Plus, the silent era lasted for almost four decades in the United States. Fashions changed, audience taste changed and movies changed with the times.
It is true that a silent movie villain could wear a top hat and a mustache because these things were in style (off and on) during the silent era. This means, of course, that the heroes sometimes wore them too. And while some of the early silent era was indeed influenced by the Victorian melodrama, most silent films went their own way.
Is it possible to find an isolated case of a serious silent movie villain in a top hat and mustache? Of course. As I said before, we’re talking about decades of time and thousands of movies. What I object to is the notion that the “silent movie villain” (that is, Snidely Whiplash) was common and expected on the screen throughout the silent era. Silent movie audiences loved variety and they demanded new and exciting spectacles. Are we really supposed to believe that they spent two generations watching the same film with the same characters remade over and over and over again? Oh please!
I think my main problem with these people setting themselves up as experts and yammering on about “silent movie villains” is that it is clear they have never, ever, ever seen a silent movie. It reminds me of those cheesy “flapper” costumes that consist of micro-mini skirts and ridiculous neon ostrich plumes stuck in sequined headbands. Stop it. Stop it at once.
(In the midst of all this kvetching, please enjoy this intelligent and well-researched video tutorial on actual 1920s makeup application!)
The fact is, silent movie villains came in all shapes and sizes. Some were melodramatic, yes, but there were also plenty of subtle, complex bad guys. I think a lot of people are mistaking Ford Sterling’s comedic villainy for the real deal. Um, you do know he was very silly, don’t you?
As we tend to do so often with the past, silent movies have been reduced to a collection of stereotypes. A vibrant and fascinating period seems inaccessible to newcomers because so many self-proclaimed experts have never bothered to look below the surface and have added layer upon layer of scorn and bad information. If you ask me, that’s the real villainy.
And now, please enjoy a selection of real silent movie villains, from scary to zany.
Who is your favorite silent movie villain? Leave a comment and let me know!