Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Where movie villains come from

Villain Nationalities in Early American Films
How did some of the movie stereotypes start?

Will H. Hays became President of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors
Foolish Wives 1922 ad
Erich Von Stroheim
of America (MPPDA) in 1922. "If here and there a nation found a detail in a film offensive to its ideas - what matter? Ours were the only goods on the market." 

"'What the motion picture business needs,' remarked one of Will Hays' assistants as he attacked his daily correspondence, 'is an island of its own. A child-size island will do so long as we have our own national government and a good, peppy name that people will always remember.' 

"'What for?' asked his visitor obligingly.

"'For all the villains to come from,' replied the Hays man.

"The foreign work of the Hays organization began with that trouble - the nationality of villains. And in spots and spurts, it remains trouble even to this day." 

Villains who rocked the world. "One of the first tasks of Filmland's adviser was to soothe the injured feelings of half the nations of the globe." Here are excerpts from an a 1933 article that discusses some of the common villain nationalities we see in old movies. Cliches and prejudices. It made audiences more comfortable if the villains had no back-story and if the villains were nothing like them.

The article doesn't address other marginalized segments of society, then or now, who may be seen as easy targets, stereotyped and placed a negative light. Characters of certain ethnicities and types were seen more rarely. When seen, they were too often represented only in certain ways. The article doesn't address the different female villains, African Americans, Native Americans or the number of villains with physical disabilities.

Change after World War One  
When Hays took over, "the producers paid little attention to foreign tastes and preferences. It was not necessary or at least so they felt. Just at the moment when the American film was finding itself the World War had disrupted all the European studios. Foreign audiences had to take American pictures of go without. Decidedly they preferred not to go without. 

"By train, by airplane, by muleback, camelback, llamaback, the American motion picture penetrated every corner of the world.  If here and there a nation found a detail in a film offensive to its ideas - what matter? Ours were the only goods on the market. The producers simply translated the titles into sixteen or seventeen languages and let it go at that. Into this scene of honest industry and peaceful prosperity, enter the villain."

The Woman in Grey, Arline Pretty; Just one of the many early film serials. Where the term cliffhanger was born. What nasty villains!

Roots in Theater 
"A superb showman named William Shakespeare had perceived long ago that it is always safest to make your heavy villain a foreigner. His Iago was Italian, his Shylock a Jew his king in Hamlet a Dane his Lady Macbeth a Scot. 

"He couldn't do anything about Richard III without faking history but everyone knew already that Richard was a bad one. Popular drama, taking a cue from him, hardened this custom into a tradition." 

"The Bad Man finds a worse man"
1927 Original Print Film Scene Bad Man
Western Holbrook Blinn
Westerns and Mexico
"Even to monotony the character who stampeded the herd, sniped at the foreman, kidnapped the ranch man's beautiful daughter and took a sock in the jaw from the one-hundred-per-cent-American hero was a Mexican. In spite of which these films were going to Mexico along with the rest. To say that the Mexicans did not like this would be to state the obvious."

American films 'offensive to Mexican patriotism' were prohibited from entering Mexico. Then all US films were prohibited; this included newsreels. Hays sent a representative to Mexico and he was there for five weeks. When he returned he carried treaty drawn in perfect diplomatic form signed and sealed by the high Mexican government officials. Hays was to sign it. 

"It provided that the motion picture business should keep the Mexican villains out of their films, should in all other ways refrain from offending Mexican sensibilities. And on their part the Mexicans agreed to admit American films freely and without prejudice." 

Edward G.Robinson was Caesar Enrico Bandello
Little Caesar 1931

Gangster films, Italy and Greece
"A simple gunman film had a villainous character called Nick - or some other name equally noncommittal. One scene showed, in just a flash, the front of his restaurant bearing the sign, Nick the Greek. A mere bit of background, it had slipped by unnoticed. 

"But all the Greeks here and abroad noticed it and most emphatically. Spartan, Athenian and Corinthian societies protested, the Greek government expressed offense, their minister brought it to the attention of our authorities. 

"A half dozen times during the craze for the underworld film, Italy stood offended at an Italian surname attached to an underworld character or even an Italian baptismal name." ...

Looking at character and cast lists of gangster movies from the 1930s and 1920s I see several that used nicknames instead of names with any nationality at all. Angels with Dirty Faces had Soapy. In 1928, The Racket had Spike and Chick. When used, last names tended to become vague as to nationality.

Little Caesar in 1931, a milestone film for Edward G. Robinson, costarring Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. had characters with Italian names.

D.W. Griffith's short The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) said to be one of the first gangster movies, was made in a time when characters often had no specific character name anyway. The Little Lady, The Musician, The Sidekick, The Policeman. More than one character is called 'Rival Gang Member.'

Just like the old movie serial villains, Boris and Natasha on The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show are going to drop the heavy object du jour on our heroes' heads. This dastardly duo is not only foreign, but they are macabre like some of their horrifying villain fore-fathers and mothers of the past.

Dubbing; What did you say? Germany
"Up to last July [article was from mid-1933], American firms did some business in dubbing native films with German speech. Dubbing is the process of cutting out the English speaking sound-strip and supplanting it by voices speaking a foreign language and synchronizing with the lips of the actors. Now all dubbing for German exhibition must be done by German firms."

Related Books and Pages of Interest:

Early movie censorship 1900s-1920s Dirty Business Movie Censorship in Early Hollywood: Coverups, Arrests, Ballots and Scorecards, States and Cities 

Badmen, Bandits, and Folk Heroes: The Ambivalence of Mexican American Identity in Literature and Film

Hollywood Italians: Dagos, Palookas, Romeos, Wise Guys, and Sopranos

Heroes, Lovers, and Others: The Story of Latinos in Hollywood  

Boris and Natasha Vintage Post Card, Toys

New Movie Magazine

No comments:

Post a Comment

Welcome and thanks for visiting.

Please keep your comments topical & respectful. We can't accept links or be responsible for content of comments.