William Powell’s Silent Villains!

With Thelma Todd in Nevada (1927)

‘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.

With Clara Bow in My Lady’s Lips (1925)

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! 

As ‘Nemesis’ in Feel My Pulse (1928)

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

With Bebe Daniels in She’s a Sheik (1927)

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

Love’s Greatest Mistake (1927)

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!


References/Recommended Reading:

William Powell: The Life and Films – Roger Bryant 

Photoplay Magazine, March 1929

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28 thoughts on “William Powell’s Silent Villains!

  1. Bahaha! He hates to commit a murder before breakfast! That is hilarious.

    Because I’m woefully unfamiliar of William P’s silent career, I had no idea how many (A) villains he played or (B) how many types of villains. Even Westerns?! This just proves what a versatile actor he really was.

    Thank you so much for joining the blogathon and for sharing your research on this dastardly era in William Powell’s acting career.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes he was also a villain in the silent western Desert Gold! For sure the man had a very versatile career in the silents and I think it did him the power of good, as he does use his physical presence and that mobile face a lot in his pictures.

      This piece was a pleasure to write – am glad everyone’s enjoyed it so much 😊😊😊

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ooh I forgot to mention – if you’re wanting a later iteration of a Powell villain have a listen to the Lux Radio Theatre version of Shadow of a Doubt – the film I think starred Joseph Cotten but Alfred Hitchcock wanted William Powell, who was sadly unavailable. Hitchcock always rated Bill highly as an actor – like Cary Grant, he saw that the light comedy persona had sinister undertones and was very interested in its potential in drama. Such a shame their collaboration never happened!

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    1. Ooh I will, many thanks! Sorry for the late reply, I’ve been ill this past week or so ☹️ Glad you enjoyed the piece 😃

      Yes Bill had a very interesting silent career – needless to say most of his films are lost but I’ve watched most of the survivors. The majority of them are on YouTube if you want to check them out. To be honest, I’m not that keen on most of them, although in fairness this may because of the poor quality prints you’ll find on YouTube and poor scores. Music is everything in silent pictures! If I wasn’t such a tight arse I would invest in proper DVD versions. My bad.

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  2. Thank you for sharing! I really have unfortunately not seen any of his silent films. As you said, it is really difficult to see him outside of his wonderful screwball persona. However, portraying villains is important to show an actor’s range. I am glad that there is a whole other side and world of William Powell films I can discover!

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    1. Many thanks! 😃👍

      Yep most of his surviving silents are on YouTube, you should definitely check them out. The only one that I’ve really fully enjoyed is The Last Command, that would be my recommend as a must see – I was actually transported to a whole new emotional level! So you should defo check that one out 👍

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  3. Great actor! Have never seen his silent villain roles, but the wonderful pictures you found give a clue. Powell was such a skilled actor, he became more attractive as a leading man, especially when Myrna Loy and a tuxedo and martini gave him all that sex appeal!

    Great post!!

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  4. This is terrific! My eyes have been opened ^_^ I also never saw his earlier films esp his silent roles. For me, I grew up knowing Powell as ‘Life with Father’ and the doc in “Mr. Roberts’ then later Thin man, etc. I’m looking forward to tracking these down and seeing him as a villain.

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    1. Many thanks ☺️👍Ah now, interestingly I haven’t seen any of his later 1950s pictures – I’m trying to do them in order (slight OCD tendencies). I want to see how he developed as an actor. One thing is certain – Bill had a f**ktonne of natural charisma right from the start, and you can see that in his first picture, Sherlock Holmes. The fact that he wasn’t tremendously pretty is immaterial when you consider how he could command the screen with his face, body and of course latterly that fruity voice. It’s a rare talent and Bill had it in spades 😊

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      1. He’s just marvelous, and timeless. When I have one of his films on my husband always ends up staying in the room to finish it.
        Have you seen My Man Godfrey yet? So charming, it’s hard to tell if that is acting or that is himself. Add Carol Lombard and it’s perfect.
        It was also very cool to be able to read that Photoplay magazine from the 20’s, thank you ^_^

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I recall your enjoyable review of Feel My Pulse. I had no idea Powell played so many villains! Another film of his that I love is where he’s on a cruise ship to death row, and falls in love with Kay Francis, who is also a passenger on the ship, but with a bad heart!!! One Way Passage; perhaps he was a villain before we meet him in this film, but his love for Kay’s character transforms him. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh! I haven’t seen One Way Passage yet! I’m saving it 😉 I want to do his silent era justice first. But believe me I am busting to see it, I am reliably informed it’s a fantastic picture 😊😊😊👍

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    1. LOLZ #sorrynotsorry 😜 My Man Godfrey is how it all started – I was in the midst of a Clark Gable marathon, which of course got me into Carole Lombard and well you can imagine the rest! It’s a fantastic movie, really it’s got the lot – the scene by the kitchen sink is my absolute favourite, it’s very real, like you’re intruding on a private conversation 😊

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