“Hello Bill?’ I asked. ‘Yes.’ ‘This is Dick. Bill, you blankity blank! You stole my picture, do you know it?’
“The reply came instantly back: ‘Certainly. I expected to. Goodbye.’ And he hung up.”
So recounted Richard Barthelmess in 1929 about his telephone call to William Powell on the night of the premiere of The Bright Shawl. Richard Barthelmess by this time was a major movie star, having been in motion pictures since 1916 and he’d scored a massive hit in 1921 with Tol’able David, that whimsical and romantic picture of Americana. Filming for The Bright Shawl involved a trip down to Cuba but Dick and Bill couldn’t stand each other on sight! As Bill remembered in 1930:
“I thought he was surly and he thought I was upstage. We went to the boat hating each other.”
The Bright Shawl was the tale of a young American, Charles Abbott, who sails across to assist the war for Cuban independence, while also finding time to fall in love with Narcissa, played by Mary Astor, and be the object of La Clavel’s affections, played by Dorothy Gish. Bill played dashing Spanish officer Gaspar de Vaca, needless to say a villain, but a stylish one.
“I remember the first picture we made together.” said Richard Barthelmess, “It was The Bright Shawl. We went to Cuba to make it and Bill and I formed a friendship that we enjoy to this day. I was the hero, a rather dub part, and Bill was the bold, bad villain who showed me up for fair. It was a great part and he played it splendidly. It was then, I believe, that critics first called him a picture stealer.” Indeed, the review in Photoplay magazine specifically mentions William Powell’s performance as ‘a real hit’ and you can see from the photos above that clearly the Powell charisma was starting to emanate.
Now mercifully The Bright Shawl is still with us, stored at the UCLA Film & Television archive, but hasn’t been released to the public. It is occasionally shown at silent film festivals though. I hope it will be soon because it sounds like an interesting picture and introduces another intriguing element as, on top of this being the picture that introduced William Powell to Richard Barthelmess, this was also Edward G Robinson’s second movie outing.
“Out of that trip came a close friendship and today Dick and Ronald Colman and I are buddies.”
William Powell: The Life & Films – Roger Bryant
Picturegoer Magazine, July 1923
‘Is Bill Powell a Picture Stealer?’ – Photoplay Magazine, March 1929