Douglas Fairbanks is Passin' Through
The whole notion of the good badman is fundamental to the Western. Central characters with a murky past who come good and act heroically are a staple of our noble genre, and that has been so since the earliest days. William S Hart made a specialty of it. An absolutely classic example was The Good Bad Man, with Douglas Fairbanks in the leading role. Some posters for the movie called it The Good Bad-Man, and whether it's bad man, bad-man, or badman, well, you can take your pick. The idea is the same, and it concerns an outlaw or a man with a criminal, tragic or misunderstood past who comes through, despite all, to heroism.
Will Bessie Love him?
The Good Bad Man was made by silent Western royalty. It was “supervised by” (we would probably say ‘executive producer’ these days) DW Griffith, the undisputed crowned head of the silent cinematic oater. The Good Bad Man ranks with DW’s great Westerns such as Ramona (1910), The Battle of Elderbush Gulch (1913), Martyrs of the Alamo (1915) and The Half-Breed (1916).
The Good Bad Man was directed by Allan Dwan, one of the most prolific of all Hollywood directors. He has 407 credits on IMDb, 175 of which were Westerns, from The Claim Jumper in 1911 to The Restless Breed in 1957. It’s a remarkable record. The Good Bad Man was only the second of his feature Westerns.
And Victor Fleming was at the camera. Fleming started as a stuntman in 1910, became a cinematographer and then moved to directing. He is perhaps most notable to us for helming the greatest of all the versions of The Virginian, the first talkie one, with Gary Cooper, in 1929.
Victor was at the camera
So when you look at those behind the camera, you have a veritable aristocracy of the silent Western. As for the cast, Douglas Fairbanks was perhaps the biggest star of them all in the silent days. He was a founding member of United Artists and the Motion Picture Academy and hosted the first Academy Awards in 1929. With his marriage to Mary Pickford, the couple became Hollywood royalty and Fairbanks was referred to as "The King of Hollywood". All this was still in the future when The Good Bad Man was released but he was nevertheless one of the biggest stars around in 1916. He wrote and co-produced The Good Bad Man. Yes, he is better known for 1920s swashbuckling roles like The Thief of Bagdad, Robin Hood and The Mark of Zorro but he did do Westerns – the genre was an integral part of the whole motion picture industry in the early days. The same year as The Good Bad Man he did his most famous, The Half-Breed, with much the same cast and crew, and we’ll be reviewing that soon.
Megastar of the day
Supporting him was the great Sam De Grasse. Sam was the go-to disreputable, nasty, slimy bad guy of the silent movie. Want a villain? De Grasse is your man. He was the wicked Prince John in Robin Hood, for example. He occasionally did goody (he was Silent Smith in Martyrs of the Alamo) but for Griffith, Dwan and Fairbanks he was the black hat. In The Good Bad Man he plays the boss of the gang of outlaws, known as The Wolf. He is splendidly ruthless and cruel.
Bad guy Sam
The heroine, known in the film simply as The Girl (as was often the case in silent movies) is Bessie Love. Texas-born (her pa was a cowboy), Bessie, then 17, became a Griffith protégée and would make it big in the 20s. In 1916 she was still relatively unfamous but still part of the stock company. She did twelve Westerns: eleven silent ones from 1916 to ’27, and, bizarrely, the paella western Catlow in 1971!
Bessie Loves him
The 5-reel (50 minutes) The Good Bad Man was made by the Fine Arts Film Company (86 films, 1915 – 17) and released in May 1916 by Triangle Distributing. Sad to relate, no copies of this picture are known to have survived. However, the rights were bought by Tri-Stone Pictures, which re-released it, revised and retitled, in 1923. And a copy of this version was found in the Cinémathèque Française and restored in collaboration with the Film Preservation Society, being premièred at the San Francisco Film Festival in 2014. It is quite splendid visually and the quality of the print now available on DVD is superb. It was filmed in the Mojave (Griffith pioneered location shooting) and the long shots especially are really impressive.
The story is set “in a remote district of Wyoming” as a title card tells us (The Virginian territory, the first film version of which had come out two years previous). We open with a trick roper (uncredited) twirling his lasso and we see old-timers “swappin’ stories” at the camp fire. They tell of the exploits of outlaw Passin’ Through (Fairbanks) who has a definite smack of Robin Hood about him. We see Passin’ Through holding up a train “but he took only the conductor’s ticket punch”, then he makes all the denizens of a saloon put their watches on a table and tells them that they must now grab their timepieces back but anyone who gets the wrong one must pay him five dollars (he leaves the saloon with a hatful of money which he gives to poor Yuma Kate), and finally he robs a grocery store (the grocers overact dreadfully) and gives the sack of goodies to young orphan Little Bill. We are told that Passin’ is “a queer cuss” who “makes a specialty of helpin’ kids that’s born in shame”.
Laughing Passin' Through is arrested
After these character-establishing scenes we move to The Wolf’s lair outside Maverick City. Being an outlaw, Passin’ asks for shelter with the outlaws who guide him to a paralyzed old man and her daughter (Love), “a white flower among the poisonous weeds”. Of course it’s lerve pretty well at first sight, though naturally Passin’ is ultra-respectful and well-behaved with the maiden. The trouble is, outlaw king The Wolf (De Grasse) has already set his cap (or Stetson) at the fair Girl and so he is furiously jealous at Passin’ muscling in.
Passin’ draws his (late model) revolver, tosses a playing card up and shoots the center of the ace of spades out of it, greatly impressing The Wolf, who tries, later, the same trick but fails dismally. Passin’ tells the Girl that “I never had no father” – daddy was shot in the back when Passin’ was a young ‘un - and his ma was scared all the time and that’s why he became a badman.
Passin' robs the grocery store
The next scene is set in Maverick City itself, chiefly in the saloon. There’s a “peace-loving but ineffective sheriff” (Fred Burns) but it’s really The Wolf who rules the roost. He smokes a fat cigar (Cuban, it looks like) and he drinks whiskey. Prohibition was still four years away when the film was first released but alcohol was already greatly disapproved of by the bourgeois (at least publicly) so when a character pours himself a whiskey that’s a sure sign that he is a bad guy. And of course when the picture was re-released, in '23, Prohibition was in full flood.
US Marshal Bob Evans (Pomeroy Cannon) appears on the scene and in the gang there’s a sinister Indian (Griffith, like many at the time, was quite casually racist) who leers at the Girl and even seems to want to assault her in her bedroom. Shivers of horror in the audience. Passin’ guns him down. Phew.
Uncredited Indian horrifies the audience
But The Wolf abducts the Girl and now there’s a posse, one of those that gallops in pursuit, shooting in the air. It is revealed who it was that shot down Passin’ père all those years before (you may guess). The marshal and The Wolf have a showdown and both are hit but The Wolf’s bullet hits a locket and the marshal is not killed. Unlike The Wolf, for whom it is RIP. Passin’ and the Girl ride off over the border together (the Canadian border?), The End.
Dramatic stuff, you see.
The acting is good (Fairbanks was clearly enjoying himself as the laughing bandit) and with a few exceptions there is very little of the absurdly over-the-top melodramatic thespianism that often disfigured these silent movies (including those of Griffith). Fairbanks, De Grasse and Love keep it in check. Action, romance and comedy are skillfully blended.
There are some key silent movies in the history of the Western, and this is one of them. It’s fortunate that such a high-quality print of it is available for us all to enjoy.