The Good Bad Man is Douglas Fairbanks’ first 100% Western, written & produced by Doug, with Allan Dwan returning as Director and Victor Fleming returning as cinematographer. The trio had a great first film in The Habit of Happiness that they returned for yet another film, produced by Triangle and distributed by Fine Arts. Ultimately Dwan and Fleming were to work with Fairbanks, off and on, for the next 15 years.
Filmed in the Mojave Desert, The Good Bad Man portrays Doug once more as the affable “Good Guy” even though he is supposedly a bandit named “Passin’ Through.” The problem is, whatever Passin’ Through steals – and it’s never much more than food — he gives away to children “born in shame,” or in today’s parlance, born to single moms, with unknown fathers. While not having a father present in a child’s life is always a sad affair, in 1916 it was a societal kiss-of-death. Anyone born “without a father” faced a lifetime of shame, closed doors, and limited opportunities to advance. In an era that believed in Horatio Alger success stories, having no father was a black mark against social acceptance.
It was a topic close to Doug’s heart as while he wasn’t born “in shame,” his father deserted his mother and his siblings when Douglas was five years old and the lack of a father while growing up had been rough, both financially and emotionally. While Douglas’ mother, Ella, always managed to make ends meet and even have enough left over for drama classes for Douglas, it was a tight existence without much margin for mistakes or accidents. So the main theme of The Good Bad Man – a “bad man” amending his ways by giving his stolen loot to fatherless children — was the Western version of Doug’s main movie persona: a flawed-but-kind man helping others and in the end, doing right by others, turns life right for him, too.
There must be a love interest, and Bessie Love stepped up to play Doug’s love interest for the first time in The Good Bad Man. Bessie was to do one more 5-reel movie (Reggie Mixes In) and Douglas’ short, The Mystery of the Leaping Fish. Bessie was a great foil to Douglas’ cowboy, who falls for her, rootin’, tootin’ and the whole ball of wax.
Contrary to the popular image of a silent film heroine, Bessie Love’s character is both tenderhearted, and tough. In a scene where Passin’ Through reveals to The Girl he has found out who his father was, Love depicts a spunky frontier gal, who has no trouble wielding a weapon to protect her hero.
Sam De Grasse is wonderful as the villainous Wolf, and an actor with the unusual name of Pomeroy Cannon plays the affable US Marshall Bob Evans who helps Passin’ Through avenge his father’s death.
On April 22, 1916 The New York Times published an article about the Rialto Theatre opening in Times Square noting, “With Fairbanks as Star.” The article focused on the luxuriousness of the new “stageless” cinema palace, “a handsomely appointed house dedicated entirely to the movies.” After five gushing paragraphs about the theater itself, the article concludes,
“Triangle films seem to be the central attraction at the Rialto and the opening bill contained an abundance of the Triangle’s trump card — Douglas Fairbanks. His Wild West, sagebrush photoplay, “The Good Bad Man,” might have been designed by Penrod Schofield with flashes by a sentimental chambermaid, but it is full to the brim with Fairbanks. His expressive face, radiant, toothsome smile, immense activity, and apparent dispoition to romp all over the map make him a treasure to the cinema. No deserter from the spoken drama is more engaging in the new work than Douglas Faibanks. May his shadow never grow less.”