A two-reel version of 'Tillie,' but who is that in the Marie Dressler role?
Of all the players who made names for themselves in silent comedy, Billy West is surely the most frustrating from posterity's point of view. The guy was obviously talented, yet he squandered the opportunity to achieve top stardom. It's hard to say whether he lacked faith in his own abilities or in audiences to accept him for himself, but, for whatever reason, he spent years-- too many years --imitating Charlie Chaplin, submerging his own talent under a blatant impersonation of the most famous comedian of the era. Billy West dressed, acted and danced like Charlie, and for a while he even curled his hair so that it would more closely resemble that of his model. The imitation didn't end there, however: some of the gags in his films were taken directly from Chaplin's comedies. West was known as the best of the Chaplin impersonators and was certainly adept at mimicry, but even when his films are funny it's hard to respect a performer who makes no effort to establish an identity of his own.
In The Villain, Billy attempted something a little different. He's still imitating Chaplin, but this time he's playing the wicked, top-hatted Charlie found in some of his earliest Keystone appearances (e.g. Mabel at the Wheel), the ones where Charlie himself seemed to be imitating the studio's recently departed Ford Sterling. Throughout this short there is much spoofing of old-time melodramas, a frequent motif of Sterling's comedies. So, on this occasion we get to watch Billy West imitating Ford Sterling as imitated by Charlie Chaplin. Under the circumstances the final product is surprisingly enjoyable, but this is mostly due to the antics of the leading lady, who is played by a man imitating a woman. More about him in a moment.
The plot is a loose reworking of the basic situation found in Mack Sennett's 1914 box office smash Tillie's Punctured Romance, the first feature-length slapstick comedy. The real star of that film was Marie Dressler, unforgettable as a wildly hyperactive farm girl who is cruelly victimized by a heartless city slicker --played by Chaplin, of course, in one of his atypical turns as the bad guy. In this abridged version of the tale our villain is introduced much like Chaplin was in Sennett's feature: out in the countryside we see a slickly-dressed dude smoking a cigar and taking in the scenery, and when he spies a rather portly country lass he responds with excitement. But instead of Chaplin our frock-coated villain is Billy West, and instead of Marie Dressler our leading lady is-- get this --Oliver Hardy in drag! Young Babe Hardy played opposite West in a number of comedies made around this time, usually as the "heavy," but here he plays a woman, not a man in disguise. And he's amazingly convincing! He's the real star of the show, overshadowing the lead comic with a high energy performance.
As with 'Tillie,' the story concerns a rotter who tries to elope with a naive country girl in order to get her father's money. There are variations from the source material, however: in The Villain the girl's father isn't a farmer but a doctor, complete with hacksaw hanging from the wall of his office; and in this film the couple make repeated attempts to elope but never actually reach the city. So the humor is mostly of the rural variety, as when Nell (that's Mr. Hardy) flounces about the General Store in her calico dress gaily ordering kitchen supplies, or when she and Billy try to go rowing but her weight sinks their boat. For me, the funniest bits are the deliberate satires of old-time stage melodrama, i.e. those conventions that were already considered dated in 1917. I love the moment when Nell, now dressed like Red Riding Hood, is about to elope with Billy but first turns back to her house, strikes a tragic pose, and exclaims "Father!" Later, when Nell's dad is foolish enough to intervene, Billy and his henchmen abduct him and actually tie him to a log in a lumber mill and roll it towards a band-saw. Later still, in the comic highlight, Billy is imprisoned in a flimsy cardboard jail that looks like something the Our Gang kids built in somebody's garage, but he's rescued, sort of, when his henchmen rip the entire jail off its foundations and "steal" it. And so it goes!
The Villain is fast-paced, lightweight, and agreeably silly. Laurel & Hardy fans will want to catch Ollie in this early and highly unusual characterization. As for the villain of the piece: in later years Billy West dropped the pseudo Chaplin disguise and tried to develop a more original comic persona, but unfortunately never caught on as a comedian in his own right. Although The Villain is -- once again -- derivative of Chaplin, it's nonetheless something of a novelty, and gives a hint of what West might have accomplished if he'd tried harder to break away from blatant imitation.
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