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The Villain 1917
Description: In The Villain, Billy attempted something a tiny different. He's still imitating Chaplin, but this time he's testing 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.
Released: 15 Jul 1917 Director: Arvid E. Gillstrom Writers: N/A Actors: Billy West, Oliver Hardy, Florence McLaughlin, Bud Ross Genres: Short, Comedy
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The Villain Reviews:

Of all the users who made names for themselves in silent comedy, Billy West is surely the most frustrating from posterity's mission of view. The guy was obviously talented, yet he squandered the occasion to achieve top stardom. It's difficult to tell whether he lacked faith in his own abilities or in audiences to agree 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 popular 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 movies were taken directly from Chaplin's comedies. West was known as the greatest of the Chaplin impersonators and was certainly adept at mimicry, but even when his movies are funny it's difficult to respect a performer who makes no effort to establish an identity of his own.In The Villain, Billy attempted something a tiny different. He's still imitating Chaplin, but this time he's testing 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 opportunity we receive 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 boy imitating a woman. More about him in a moment.The plot is a loose reworking of the primary case found in Mack Sennett's 1914 box office smash Tillie's Punctured Romance, the first feature-length slapstick comedy. The true star of that movie was Marie Dressler, unforgettable as a wildly hyperactive farm woman who is cruelly victimized by a heartless town slicker --played by Chaplin, of course, in one of his atypical turns as the terrible guy. In this abridged ver 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-- receive 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 boy in disguise. And he's amazingly convincing! He's the true star of the show, overshadowing the lead comic with a high energy performance.As with 'Tillie,' the storyline concerns a rotter who tries to elope with a naive country woman in order to receive 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, finished with hacksaw hanging from the wall of his office; and in this movie the couple create repeated attempts to elope but never now reach the city. So the humor is mostly of the rural variety, as when Nell (that's Mr. Hardy) flounces about the General Shop in her calico dress gaily ordering kitchen supplies, or when she and Billy test to go rowing but her weight sinks their boat. For me, the funniest bits are the deliberate satires of old-time scene melodrama, i.e. those conventions that were already considered dated in 1917. I love the moment when Nell, actually 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 now tie him to a log in a lumber mill and roll it towards a band-saw. Soon still, in the comic highlight, Billy is imprisoned in a flimsy cardboard jail that looks like something the Our Gang children built in somebody's garage, but he's rescued, sort of, when his henchmen rip the whole jail off its foundations and "steal" it. And so it goes!The Villain is fast-paced, lightweight, and agreeably silly. Laurel & Hardy fanatics will wish to catch Ollie in this early and highly unusual characterization. As for the villain of the piece: in soon 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 tip of what West might have accomplished if he'd tried harder to break away from blatant imitation.


Billy West, a Chaplin imitator in these early Lord Bee films, takes on Charlie's role of the villain (see "Making A Living" or "Mabel at the Wheel") while Hardy plays the plump ingenue (remarkably well - in the tradition of Fatty Arbuckle at Sennett). West is quite nice in his Chaplin roles in my opinion, and this is one of Hardy's greatest performances in his early career - more subdued for the most part than his over the top villains of this period.



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