Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Ask The A.V. Club: December 11, 2006

Bad Boys, Bad Boys

Illustration for article titled Ask iThe A.V. Club/i: December 11, 2006
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It seems like there has always been the stock "scoundrel" or "cad" character in Hollywood—y'know, usually a man with a moustache and a top hat who spends his time tying girls to logs at sawmills, etc. This character has popped up in comic strips and movies and such, and obviously inspired Snidley Whiplash, but what is the origin of this character? Was there a particular movie that created him?

Drew

Donna Bowman says:

The word you're groping for, Drew, is villain. And where is the villain at his most villainous? Why, the Victorian melodrama, the theatrical genre that gave us these mustache-twirling bounders who are always lashing heroines to train tracks. Perhaps you know it from the old vaudeville routine satirizing melodrama by paring it down to its bare essentials: "You must pay the rent!" "I can't pay the rent!" "I'll pay the rent!" "My hero!" You might also associate it with dramatic, scene-punctuating piano music. That association is especially appropriate, given the strict definition of melodrama: a dramatic play interspersed with music.

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On the Victorian and Edwardian stage, melodrama was a popular rather than elevated dramatic form. Usually presented in a few short acts, it relied on stock characters like the virtuous but threatened heroine, the strong but delayed hero, and of course, the personification of evil in the form of the villain. Moral contrasts are heightened by the two-dimensional characters who are typically either all-good or all-bad. In his classic Anatomy Of Criticism, Northrop Frye wrote that melodrama's central theme is "the triumph of moral virtue over villainy, and the consequent idealizing of the moral views assumed to be held by the audience."

And that's where the villain comes in real handy. See, the portrayal of baddies shouldn't be complicated by gray areas and complex motivations and such. Evil men just get their jollies terrorizing good girls. The correct response is a swift uppercut, not rehabilitation or therapy.

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These days, we're most familiar with the stock characters of melodramas in parodies or pastiches of the genre. The Dudley Do-Right Show, the cartoon that features Whiplash, is a combined send-up of Victorian melodrama and Rose-Marie, the 1936 musical starring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy (as a heroic mountie). The traditional villainy of tying the heroine to some diabolical means of death derives from the most famous melodramatic film serial, The Perils Of Pauline, a 20-episode two-reeler from 1914. Two different episode endings found Pauline (Pearl White) tied to a railroad trestle and to a log headed toward the sawmill; both cliffhangers became clichés through Pauline's many imitators and remakes.

While he never twirled a mustache, one of the most enduring melodramatic actors was Tod Slaughter, an Englishman who made his name playing villains on the stage, then, at age 50, successfully transferred his career to talking pictures. In his time, he played most of the traditional melodrama heavies, including Sweeney Todd and Spring-Heel Jack, using sheer bulk and a maniacal laugh to menace the flower of English maidenhood.

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And Bad Mothers Too

"My mommy hurt my head." Do any of you recognize that quote? I could have sworn it was in a John Grisham movie, but I tried searching IMDB and the web for that quote, and couldn't find it. A cute little boy had to take the stand to tell the story about his mom putting his head in a vise, and the lawyer finally got out of him what she had done: "My head, my mommy hurt my head." Tiny little question, but it's been bugging me. Thanks,

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Sarah

Christopher Bahn responds:

Illustration for article titled Ask iThe A.V. Club/i: December 11, 2006
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John Grisham is very close, since the movie in question is also a twisty legal thriller based on a novel by a lawyer. The writer is Scott Turow, however, and the movie is 1990's Presumed Innocent, starring Harrison Ford as a prosecuting attorney in charge of investigating the murder of the woman he's secretly been having an affair with. The scene you remember comes from a flashback sequence in which Ford's character and the murdered woman, played by Greta Scacchi, are working together on a child-abuse trial. Ford sells the case for conviction to the jury by giving an emotional closing statement anchored on the child's disturbing testimony. The movie should be easy to find on video, and as one of the best in the genre, it's worth seeking out.

And Don't Forget Bad Comedy

Back in August, a TV comic was doing his routine (something about airports), completely lost his train of thought, and yelled an obscenity before slamming his mic down and running offstage. I kept the clip for months, but my TiVo HD crashed and I can't find the clip anywhere online. OutKast was the musical guest, that's all I remember. Looking back on it, I'm wondering if that was a scripted gag, or if it actually happened.

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GW

Steve Hyden reports:

The short answer is, yeah, it was a gag. Here's the long answer: The "comic" in question is Andy Sansone, who appeared on the Aug. 21 episode of The Late Show With David Letterman, featuring André Benjamin of OutKast, plus Julianna Margulies. The first hint that Sansone might not be a legit comic comes from a simple Google search—the only hits for "Andy Sansone" pertain to the Letterman appearance. On IMDB.com, the Letterman show is Sansone's only TV credit. Then there are other recent Letterman bits that have purposely blurred the line between reality and gag, like the tick expert whose guest appearance ended with a panicked sprint from the stage. (Sound familiar?) Actually, this isn't just a recent thing with Letterman: Andy Kaufman infamously brawled with Jerry "The King" Lawler back on Late Night With David Letterman in 1982, in an incident many people still believe was real.

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Next week on Ask The A.V. Club: Comics clichés we're ready to be done with, and more. Send your questions to asktheavclub@theonion.com.

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