‘Not Guilty’ screamed the headline in Photoplay Magazine in 1929 – ‘Bill Powell declares he is not a picture stealer’. At this point William Powell had appeared in 33 motion pictures since his debut in Sherlock Holmes in 1922. He’d obviously fancied himself as a leading actor but his journey to that status was going to be a circuitous one – as Bill noted in my post on When Knighthood Was In Flower, ‘It was my ambition to be a screen hero… But I had a wonderful sneer and a leer which registered perfectly. So I became a villain.’ A villain so charismatic that, as Photoplay Magazine noted, he had a tendency to be the only person on the screen that you would want to look at.
After freelancing around, in 1925 the Los Angeles Times announced that Jesse Lasky had signed William Powell to an exclusive contract with Paramount Pictures, ‘I consider Mr Powell one of the foremost artists in motion pictures and he is a most welcome addition to the ranks of our character players… He will be featured in a number of our most ambitious productions, plans for which are under way.’ And this is where Bill’s villainous career really started to kick on.
So imagine this scene: Bebe Daniels is cowering on a double bed edging away from the attentions of William Powell who is coming ever closer, chattering away manically. This scene, where Powell’s character threatens rape is from the 1926 comedy Feel My Pulse (which can be viewed on YouTube) and is incredibly unsettling!
It was then that I realised how complete an actor Powell was, because he is so sinister in that scene that it threw out all my preconceptions about my lovely gorgeous William Powell, the charming light comedian of the screwball era. Ugh! What a scumbag!
You can split William Powell’s villain roles into a couple of recognisable tropes, which I have outlined below:
The Shady Foreigner
As seen in When Knighthood Was In Flower, The Bright Shawl, Under the Red Robe, Dangerous Money, Too Many Kisses, The Beautiful City, Sea Horses, Beau Geste, She’s a Sheik
The name ‘William Powell’ on its own is a bit generically Anglo-Saxon don’t you think? It doesn’t denote ‘film star’. I mean any old joe can be called ‘William Powell’ really. But William Powell’s looks belied his rather ordinary name, as he was the owner of a rather exotic looking face. This face, in the silent era, enabled him to play what would be considered ‘ethnic’ roles in those unenlightened times. Ronald Colman, on account of his brunette appearance, would also be cast occasionally as Italians, but William Powell began to specialise in a type of sinister criminally minded foreigner, often one who’s sniffing around the film’s heroine in a vaguely threatening manner. A slight change to that character was Boldini, the coward from Beau Geste. Boldini isn’t in the business of chasing women, more after saving his own skin at the expense of his compadres.
These types of roles have always been a well known device in Hollywood that we can all recognise, playing into and exploiting the public’s fears of the unknown. Very relatable today in my view.
The Smarmy Git
As seen in When Knighthood was in Flower, Special Delivery, Beau Geste, Aloma of the South Seas, Time to Love, Paid to Love
This type of role was also often engaged in the pursuit of the film’s heroine, but instead of merely using threatening behaviour, would turn on a type of slimy, oleaginous charm. These characters would often be smart talking, super rich smoothies used to getting their own way, until either the hero or heroine would give them a metaphorical kick in the nuts. Bill would play this type of bounder with moustache smoothed and eyebrow raised, most famously in Paid to Love where Prince Eric peels a banana while Virginia Valli undresses behind a screen, the dirty devil!
Other Assorted Slimes
For Bill’s other silent pictures there’s a mixture of cowards, gangsters and hoods, but also a smattering Western villains. Naturally the common theme that links all these characters is that they get a very satisfying comeuppance in the end, but the Powell charm ensured that even if he made an early exit it was his part that would stick in your mind.
“Bill, I’ve always been curious; how do you feel when you’re about to commit a murder?” asked Ricardo Cortez in 1927.
“Right now, I’m feeling pretty punk. I was just thinking that if I had gotten up ten minutes earlier, I’d have had time to eat some cereal. If there’s anything I hate to do, it’s commit a murder before breakfast.”
This post is part of the Great Villains Blogathon hosted by Speakeasy, Silver Screenings and Shadows & Satin. Check these evils demons out!
William Powell: The Life and Films – Roger Bryant