The San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) screened “The Good Bad Man” at 10 AM on Saturday morning, May 31, 2014. I don’t know why this crowd-pleasing 1916 film featuring the acting talents of Douglas Fairbanks and Bessie Love played so early in the day, but it certainly could have secured a featured night-time spot even among this year’s impressive SFSFF schedule. The title says it all; it’s a Western about a good man and potential hero who does slightly bad things that pit him against both lawmen and other outlaws.
Fairbanks, who wrote the story, plays a bandit named Passin’ Through, who steals things such as a train conductor’s ticket punch in one robbery, and some groceries in another. He’s both playful and serious, like all of Fairbanks’ characters. A painful memory of what made Passin’ Through an orphan drives him to pass along his loot to unwanted orphans, although he keeps the conductor’s punch for himself. One day, Passin’ Through visits a shantytown village and bandit’s encampment, where he meets the innocent, yet eager, Amy (Bessie Love). Without trying hard, Passin’ Through wins her affection and she gleefully dons his cowboy hat. A rather nasty villain named The Wolf (Sam De Grasse) also covets Amy, which causes a staredown and trouble with Passin’ Through.
This conflict with The Wolf, who travels with his gang, and the romantic story could easily carry the plot forward, but the film makes a shift to tell us about Passin’ Through’s background. We soon meet Marshall Bob Evans (Pomeroy Cannon), who knows what drives Passin’ Through. The Marshall may be willing to bend the rules to allow Passin’ Through to redeem himself. The story gives us a flashback to fill in the blanks before our hero decides to take on The Wolf’s gang. Naturally, the outnumbered Passin’ Through encounters some precarious situations before he can restore order.
Allan Dwan directed The Good Bad Man and Victor Fleming provided the cinematography. They also worked together in the same roles in “The Half-Breed,” a 1916 Douglas Fairbanks film. Dwan directed Fairbanks in several other films, including “Bound in Morocco (1918)” “Mr. Fix-It (1918),” “The Iron Mask (1929)” and “Robin Hood (1922).” Many respected film critics and historians point out that Fairbanks mostly directed himself, but it’s interesting to see such a fruitful collaboration with one director. We can thank SFSSF, Cinémathèque Française, and the Film Preservation Society — who made the restoration of the film possible — for rewarding the SFSFF’s early Saturday audience at the Castro Theater in San Francisco.