Great Movie Villains — Hisssss (1938) 🇺🇸
The speaker was Basil Rathbone, born in South Africa, educated in England and forced to lead a skulking, sinister life on Hollywood celluloid: “In Tale of Two Cities, I rode down some children and killed them. I have beaten little Freddie Bartholomew. In Anna Karenina, I gave Greta Garbo the heave-o out of the house. In another picture I made friends with a very nice old lady, and then, having won her confidence, stole all of her paintings and murdered her, to boot. In still another picture, as the butler of a huge home, I made all other servants pay me ten per cent of their meagre wages and when one old chap begged be not to take the percentage, because his wife had to go to a hospital for an operation, I said, falsetto-key, ‘That does not interest me. Hand over the money.’ I have been a cad and a bounder, a sinister, skulking villain who has forced unwelcome attentions upon Colbert, Sigrid Gurie, Loretta Young, Olivia de Havilland. I am Public Enemy No. 1, an offense to decent nostrils, and I am fed up with it. I’d like to lead a respectable life on the screen.”
Rathbone went on to explain the social repercussions of his screen villainies. If he steps into a department store elevator, women cower against the rear wall of what he calls the “lift” and hide their affrighted children under their skirts. He believes firmly that the only reason women are wearing longer skirts is because the abbreviated skirts did not permit them to hide their affrighted progeny. When he walks along the boulevards, policemen trail him in radio cars. Old men turn pale and cover their beards when they see him, fearful that he will tweak their lush growths and perhaps sink a knife between their aged shoulder blades. At Santa Anita and lnglewood race-tracks, when he appears at a window to place a bet, the pari-mutuel men hastily hide the money and keep a wary eye on him until he departs.
Yet Rathbone will admit that his life of crime and brutality on the screen has paid handsome dividends. Virtue may be its own reward, but the illustrious Rogues Gallery of the screen indicates that it pays well to beat the aged, steal from the blind, kick the crutches from under the armpits of the infirm, torture the helpless, abuse the weak, blackmail the indiscreet and commit minder with knife or gun or poison.
I submit that the movies, in proving that villains are better remembered than Pollyannas, have proved nothing new. Cassius, who stabbed Caesar, rode to fame on that minder. Of all the apostles, the name that comes most readily to mind is that of Judas, who betrayed His Master for thirty pieces of silver. Benedict Arnold is another traitor who has his own peculiar niche in history, and the world still writes about John Wilkes Booth, not because he was an actor, but because he assassinated Lincoln. Of all the characters in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” the most readily remembered is Simon Legree.
So if you want to make history, there are two routes open to you: become a great hero or a great villain. It is this latter route which has been pursued successfully by Charles Laughton, Basil Rathbone, Peter Lorre, the late Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, Akim Tamiroff, Boris Karloff, Edward G. Robinson, Charles Bickford, Claude Rains, Humphrey Bogart, Lloyd Nolan, John Carradine, George Raft, Ian Keith, Joseph Calleia, J. Carroll Naish, Porter Hall, Ivan Lebedeff, Brian Donlevy, Warren Hymer, Walter Pidgeon, Bruce Cabot and others of the Rogues’ Gallery of the cinema. Rogues Gallery, indeed, for they have explored the gamut of rascality from murder to manacles. “Wanted, Dead or Alive” has hung over each one of them.
There is a co-ed phase to villainy, of course. Bette Davis, who heckled crippled Leslie Howard in “Of Human Bondage,” vaulted to stardom because of that performance. In Jezebel, she added more twigs of laurel by sending George Brent to his death in a duel that she provoked. Bonita Granville is a junior member of the rogues, proving that there’s more ways of skinning a cat than Shirley Temple has suggested. Bette and Bonita indicate that vinegar is as potent as honey.
To hear Cecil B. DeMille on the radio, or in person at a banquet, when he unloads his sophistries, you’d get the impression that here indeed was a mild little man, good to his folks and wishing evil to no man. Yet DeMille, subscribing heartily to the credo that a producer must shock movie audiences, has thrown more Christians to the lions in his spectacles than any single Hollywood individual. For all his seeming mildness, DeMille is a blood-thirsty fellow. In Buccaneer, you will remember that his ruffians killed by sword, cannon and fire; forced little Franciska Gaal to walk the plank, and in other sequences strangled actors with bare hands.
What is the most horrifying or shocking scene you’ve ever shuddered at on celluloid? My choice would be that scalp-crinkler in Lives of a Bengal Lancer, when Douglass Dumbrille, as the Mohammed Khan, drives pointed sticks under the fingernails of Gary Cooper and Franchot Tone, and then sets the sticks ablaze. The close-up showed the beads of sweat on Cooper’s forehead. If the camera had panned to the loge section where I was seated, it would have found equal beads on my own forehead.
In Mutiny on the Bounty, Charles Laughton hit a new high in horror when he had a deserter flogged until dead. Remember Bruce Cabot, in “Let ‘Em Have It.” (I think that was the picture), when he stripped the bandages from his face and you saw his name cut into the flesh? Or the picture in which the gangsters took Cagney from the hospital, killed him, propped him against the door of his home? When his mother opened the door, the body of her son crashed to the floor? John Carradine, as the brutal jailer in “Hurricane,” was a horrible character. In “Marco Polo,” Basil Rathbone either had his chained vultures released to peck out the eyes of captives, or, if lie felt mellow, tossed them to the lions for an a la carte luncheon.
Karloff, Tamiroff and Lugosi have done some nice work in their screen careers, scaring ushers out of theatres, giving old ladies nightmares at Bank Nights and otherwise allying themselves with the league of horror.
Somewhere, in a middle lane between heroism and rascality, has Wallace Beery charted his course. Beery’s villains always are mellow, well-liked fellows, and he has prospered accordingly. Tamiroff, in “Buccaneer,” was given that kind of a half-and-half role and ran away with the picture, proving that the parts which Beery plays are actor-proof.
For that matter, any rogue, rascal or villain is a cinch to click in the movies or on the stage. The abnormality of such parts insures the success of the actor playing the role. Recall if you can any actor who ever has flopped in the part of a rascal. These are the actor-proof roles, and many a bad actor has became famous because his studio so typed him.
Take, for instance, the Dead End kids, and contrast them to Bobbie Breen, if you wish a pertinent illustration of my contention that villainy is more palatable screen fare than sweetness and light. The “Dead End” group of juvenile delinquents abuse their parents, heckle the cops, lie, steal and cheat and as a result get steady employment in the movies. Yet they are vastly more entertaining and believable in their misbehavior than the saccharine Master Breen is in his sugar-coated characterizations.
If I have failed to win you over to my side, take “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Even Disney had to compromise, and introduce a wicked Queen, an old shrew who went about the countryside placing Mickey Finns in apples.
There is one angle to this Rogues Gallery article that should be touched upon, in a world which has become propaganda-conscious. Italy, Germany, Spain and the South American countries refuse to permit an American picture to play their theatres, if the villain of the piece is identified by name or speech or mannerisms as one of their nationals. As a result, all screen villains must be Americans or English. Over the course of years, this has had its effect. Throughout the world, the impression has been broadcast that Americans and Englishmen have a monopoly on villainy.
This dates back as far as the first Chaplin comedies, when Mack Swain played the rogue parts. Swain, a big fellow, was Goliath to Chaplin’s David and in the end, using his cane as a slingshot. Charlie always brought the portly Swain to grief.
Even in their treatment of villains, the movies always insist that in the last reel, the malefactor must be killed or placed behind bars. He can murder or maim, strangle or poison his victims for seven reels, but it is written in the book that in Reel 5 (if it is an 8-reeler), he must be disposed of by the forces of law and order. The Will Hays office would not have it otherwise, and it is only on this condition that Mr. Hays and his attaches unlatch the cells of Rogues’ Gallery.
Lloyd Nolan, a villain who will cast a menacing shadow over “Prison Farm.”
(Right) The tough boys who appeared in “Dead End” and “Crime School” are doing pretty good for themselves. Humphrey Bogart went good on us in the latter picture.
Porter Hall, a different type, but still a villain.
(Right) Bonita Granville plays so many “mean” parts it is as if “These Three” went on forever.
In roles that are sinister, John Carradine is at his best.
(Corner) Bette Davis always reaches great heights when she plays rebellious characters.
(Right) J. Carroll Naish, villain par excellence.
(Below) Akim Tamiroff is especially good in menacing roles. Suave or uncouth, he takes it in his stride.
Source: Screenland Magazine, August 1938