Picture Play Magazine – May, 1925 Vol. XXII No.3
To the Rescue of the Villain
William Powell lends a much-needed note of humanness and charm to those abused screen characters.
By Nadeyne Fergus
WHEN I had five stage failures in one year I decided it was about time to think of making a decent living again.” Thus did William Powell concisely and eloquently explain the question of how it all happened. I had met this fascinating screen intriguer in a studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey, than which there seems no place more outlandishly isolated to the New Yorker. And after we started talking and Mr. Powell began to radiate something that must be the “It” Elinor Glyn talks about, I forgot that I had planned to stay only long enough to collect a few facts and rush back to civilization. What cared I if I were two hours late for dinner? You don’t meet “It” every day. But, you are probably thinking, if William Powell is so charming as all that, why such a disastrous stage record? Alas, it isn’t only being a good actor or an attractive personality that matters nowadays. As a matter of fact William Powell was a clever, capable actor with ten years’ stage training in all kinds of parts. But his experience is typical of a curious situation that now exists on the stage. Plays open in New York constantly and with much trumpeting. Plays die out in New ‘ York almost as constantly, but without the trumpeting. And when they die in New York,- that is the end of them. “There is practically no road any more,” said Mr. Powell. “Whether it’s the movies, or the radio, that has killed it, is hard to say. But the stage actor to-day can depend really only upon the New York runs, and there are so many miserable plays that open only to flop that even that is becoming more hazardous all the time. Why, I know any number of clever, responsible actors who are hanging around the Lambs Club and other places, without jobs, pretty nearly broke.
“So when I realized that the stage wasn’t what it used to be and that I would have to do something to insure a livable income, I thought of the movies. Luckily, white I was still on the stage, I had played a small part in “Sherlock Holmes” with John Barrymore, who had seen me in “Spanish Love” and asked me to appear in the picture. That served as an introduction, and I have been on the screen now for over two years.” In talking with him you become conscious that he is just the sort of person to play characters with a dash of devilment. Not that he is devilish, but in his rather strange blue eyes there is a potentiality of adventure, a promise of impetuous romance, that is very effective in arousing feminine interest and that seems particularly suited to such parts. He has just the thing we need to make our so-called villains more like the human and all-too-likable persons such characters very often are in real life. His performance of Tito in “Romola” brought forth much praise from the critics and caused considerable wonderment within the industry as to how it managed to slide through the cutter’s fingers.
Many persons who saw the production when it first appeared criticized Lillian Gish for making a picture in which she was almost a negligible figure, and in which the villain—of all persons—had the best acting part and most of the spotlight. But Mr. Powell explained that neither Miss Gish nor the director, Henry King, really wanted to go ahead with the picture. It was the choice of Charles Duell, president of the company, who, apparently, had power to overule every one else. Struggle as they would with the scenario, they could not fix it so that Miss Gish would have the chief interest, as a star naturally should. So it became a case of trying to save what story there was, let the interest fall where it would. Which is how it happened that William Powell was permitted to offer such a perfectly charming and magnetic sketch of an unscrupulous character that he snatched most of the sympathy and interest from a very fine and well-known cast. Usually, such things never get past the cutting room. When I saw him Mr. Powell was playing a hero—for the first time in pictures—in a film called “White Mice,” taken from the Richard Harding Davis adventure. His tall figure was clothed in a modern Palm Beach suit, which seemed rather a pity, for he is one of those rare actors who has a genuine flair for wearing costumes. And, even worse, the debonair mustache which seems so much a part of his personality, had been shaved off at the request of the company. They were afraid, perhaps, that the audience might not recognize him as the hero.
“Do you find much difference between playing heroes and villains?” I asked him. “No difference at all,” he answered promptly. You know, that’s the important thing about screen acting. You have to be careful not to grow type-conscious, and to have a certain set of tricks for a heavy role and another set for a hero. No matter what kind of a part I play, I just try to act like that particular human being and let the story explain whether I’m good or bad.”
This is rather a novel attitude for a film actor. And as has been said before, the secret of everything is in the attitude. That, probably, is what makes William Powell such a refreshing addition to any picture. You can always be sure that there will be a gleam of magnetism, a note of difference, in anything he does. Like Erich von Stroheim and Lew Cody he can play unscrupulous and even despicable characters so charmingly that you are anxious to forgive him and start all over again. Which, I have always thought, is the great test of screen personality. Later, after all our talk of acting, he suddenly surprised me by saying, “The more I see of picture making, the more I think that it is nine-tenths direction. The actor seldom has the chance he should to get really inside his part. I so often have a sense of bewilderment, a feeling that I haven’t really been able to grasp a scene, and I think that if I could have had a little more time to absorb it beforehand I would do so much better.
“You see, one of the hardest things about movie acting is keeping up with the new ideas the director gets overnight. You go to the studio in the morning, and discover that a scene you never heard of is going to be shot. You must jump right in and act it without any preliminary thought or preparation, and with only a sketchy outline from the director. You can see that an actor can’t get much satisfaction out of that system. “But it’s a fascinating game just the same. Even though there are a lot of things you wish were different, you keep right on. And then there is the credit side of the situation. On the stage you don’t have the variety of parts or contracts, the interesting side diversion. Neither do you have long trips to Italy, in which you can manage to see a good part of Europe in between times.’ And of course, with all that, you have a very nice salary.” William Powell so far has confined his screen activities to New York.
“I’ve been thinking a lot of going to the Coast,” he told me, “but” — with a rather wistful smile—”I hate to think of going so far away from the stage. You know,” he added more lightly, “we actors are always hoping that the great play will come along and that we will get the great part. And how terrible it would be to be in Hollywood if that happened!”