Silent Movie Myth: Everything you know about silent film villains is wrong

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.

Keystone villain, maybe.

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.

Let's see... in a silent movie, wearing evening dress with mustache... the villain must die!!!
Let’s see… in a silent movie, wearing evening dress with mustache… the villain must die!!!

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.

If you worse these outside in the 1920s, you would be arrested.
If you wore these outside in the 1920s, you would be arrested.

(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?

muddy-romance-cursesAs 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.

Theda Bara in "A Fool There Was"
Theda Bara in “A Fool There Was”
Ford Sterling in "Barney Oldfield's Race for a Life"
Ford Sterling in “Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life”
John Gilbert in "The Busher"
John Gilbert in “The Busher”
Geraldine Farrar in "Carmen"
Geraldine Farrar in “Carmen”
Sally Rand in "The Fighting Eagle"
Sally Rand in “The Fighting Eagle”
John Barrymore in "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"
John Barrymore in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”
Erich von Stroheim in "The Heart of Humanity"
Erich von Stroheim in “The Heart of Humanity”
Lon Chaney in "West of Zanzibar"
Lon Chaney in “West of Zanzibar”
Conrad Veidt in "The Indian Tomb"
Conrad Veidt in “The Indian Tomb”

Who is your favorite silent movie villain? Leave a comment and let me know!

20 Comments

  1. Birgit

    so I guess The Tramp was a villain then eh? 🙂 I almost called my cat Snidely Whiplash but my hubby didn’t want that name. Yup our tuxedo cat has a black moustache under his nose that goes up on one end:) He is now Kaspar…the disaster. As for villains.. I like villains that are not all black and white so I go with the Phantom-Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera. Stroheim always was a good villain and sent Germans back 100 years

  2. artblogbybob

    I’ve grown to love Fritz Rasp’s villainy. He alone had so many villainous looks in so many different German films. He had multiple looks just in “Woman on the Moon” alone!

      1. Brad Kurtzberg

        Yes they did. Conrad Veidt was especially good in so many films in villainous roles like Caligari and Waxworks and of course, Emil Jannings in Faust was classic as well.

  3. mercurie80

    I’ve often wondered how Victorian melodrama tropes got attached to Silent Movies in the minds of people of the mid to late 20th Century. Granted I am not an expert on the Silent Era by any means, but I do know enough to realise that the Snidely Whiplash/Professor Fate type of villain was not common in Silent films. And don’t get me started about tying damsels to railroad tracks!

    As to my favourite Silent villain, that would be the original supervillain himself, Dr. Mabuse.

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      Great pick!

      My theories on the Victorian melodrama = silent film thing:

      1) The later silent era heckled early silent films as Victorian relics
      2) A lot of Sennett comedies (which spoofed melodramas) were re-released in the sound era and came to equal “silent films” in the minds of audiences
      3) Movies about the silent era made in the 1930s and 1940s added in Victorian tropes to emphasize their quaintness. “Aren’t we advanced today, in the year of our Lord 1938?”
      4) While silent films were released on 9.5mm and 16mm, it was still comparatively difficult for audiences to see the real deal before the home video revolution of the 1980s. By then, the myth had had a five decade head start.

  4. nitrateglow

    My favorite silent film baddies are probably Joseph Schildkraut’s campy villain in The Road to Yesterday, Erich von Stroheim in Foolish Wives (though I guess he’s a villain protagonist in that case), and Lon Chaney in West of Zanzibar.

  5. Faded Endless

    How to be an early 2000’s Superhero:
    1 – Clown shoes. No Superhero outfit is complete without Clown Shoes. Preferably red ones.
    2 – Anime teenagers are your mortal enemies. You must vanquish them. Hydra? All cosplayers.
    3 – “Yeah, that’s the ticket” must be said in every dramatic scene. When Batman confronted The Joker in The Dark Knight? Batman said “Yeah, that’s the ticket.” When Steve Rogers met old Peggy Carter? Peggy said “Yeah, that’s the ticket”, but Steve didn’t get the reference.

    That’s what comes to mind when I see Silent Film stereotypes in pop culture.

  6. Ross

    Didn’t Fantomas appear in both cape and mask at some point? I’ve watched (with great enjoyment) the whole series but I might be conflating the cape/mask combination.
    However, he or Mabuse my favourites, so far.

  7. popegrutch

    Have to throw in an mention Sessue Hayakawa in “The Cheat” as one of the all-time great villians. On the goofier side, Al St. John makes a good villain in a number of Arbuckle pictures, maybe most famously “Fatty and Mabel Adrift.” And he never even wears a top hat!

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      Yes, St. John’s comedic villainy is just wonderful. Part of the appeal (at least to me) is the obvious fondness they had for one another, even though they played antagonists.

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