The Westerns of William S Hart
William Surrey Hart (1864 – 1946) was the foremost Western star of the 1910s and early 20s. In fact in some ways he was the first ‘movie star’ at all. He was to his era what John Wayne was to ours – the screen cowboy.
He wrote, directed and produced many of his movies as well as starring in them, and he created and maintained a screen character which became a standard for the genre: a tough, quiet hombre who followed a strict Western code of honor. Often he was a good-badman redeemed by the love of a pure woman. He rarely smiled on screen – life was too serious for that.
He made many one- and two-reeler silent movies in the early days, often working with the great Thomas H Ince, and moved on to longer feature films with almost epic pretensions. And he insisted on ‘realism’ and ‘authenticity’ despite the fact that his Westerns were in many ways screen versions of dime novels.
This insistence on authenticity was curious in a way. Hart was an Easterner, born in Newburgh, NY, who became a stage actor there. However, in later life he wrote an autobiography, My Life East and West (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1929) - cheaply available on Kindle, if you’re interested - and in it he describes his boyhood travels through the West with his father, a miller. He does not give many dates and much of the reminiscing concerns anecdotes of boyish pranks but he says he played a lot with Indian boys and learned the Sioux language, recounting how it saved their bacon when a party of Sioux in full war-paint accosted them and the young Hart was able to converse with them, to their amazement. I won’t say that the stories he tells are tall tales; I am sure they were true. But let’s say that he certainly made the most of his Western experiences, and this would have enhanced his claims to Western knowledge and background in later life. Here is an example:
"I saw two men killed at Sioux City. It was very early morning. My father was going to see about buying our horses. Some men half-rushed out of a saloon, shooting. My father gripped my shoulder and said, ‘Stand still.’
It was a sheriff against two gambler gunmen and the sheriff got them both, although he himself was mortally wounded.
My father had seen in a flash that they were all gunmen, so he told me to stand still, although we were right in the possible line of fire. If near a gun-fight and the weapons are wielded by amateurs, run for your life; if professionals are handling the trigger, stand still – they know where they are shooting."
His mother ill, Hart returned with her to New York (no date is supplied and we don’t know how old he was). “My eldest sister went to work in a soap factory and I sold newspapers.” Certainly life was hard. Bullied by “well-dressed, well-fed” Eastern boys because of his tales of life with the Indians, he says, “Never, never again did I speak of the West or of Indians.”
Hart writes, “I never had but two ambitions. One, to go to West Point; the other, to go on the stage.” With very limited resources or education, it was the stage that won. He worked his passage to England and in London saw Ellen Terry and Henry Irving. Back in the US, he got a variety of jobs and small parts in plays.
So in early adult life Hart was a professional stage actor, not a cowboy. He grew to be well known as an Eastern thespian before starting motion pictures. He acted in Shakespeare plays, was Sherlock Holmes, and he was Messala in the 1899 stage production of Ben-Hur, a big hit. He did not begin to make Western movies till the age of forty-nine.
But in 1902 he was noticed as cowboy villain Cash Hawkins in the New York and touring stage version of The Squaw Man. He recounts in his autobiography how playwright Edwin Royle was a fine dramatist but knew nothing of cowboys. He called a quirt a whip! Hart said with horror. So it was Hart who became the production’s adviser on costumes and props, making sure the right kind of chaps were procured and so on.
Then in 1904 he was cast as the Virginian in Kirk La Shelle’s stage adaptation of Owen Wister’s novel, “at one hundred and twenty-five dollars a week”. He remarked, “I loved the part of The Virginian. It is a beautiful story and a beautiful play.” He was becoming New York’s prime cowboy, considering himself the expert, and clearly did not refrain from expressing his opinions or share his knowledge of the frontier. He asserted, a tad presumptuously, that Wister’s work was “at variance with cowboy life as I knew it” and he criticized openly the plot device of the Virginian hanging his pard Steve just over a little extra-mural branding. That would never happen in the West. It didn’t go down too well with Wister.
Then he played Dan Stark in Rex Beach’s Yukon gold-rush drama The Barrier (though he was rather miffed that he hadn’t been first choice but only got the part when another actor dropped out) and was singled out by columnist Bat Masterson in The MorningTelegraph: “The part of Dan Stark by William S Hart seems to have been made to order for that clever impersonator of Western characters.” He added that Hart was “a true type of that reckless nomad who flourished on the border when the six-shooter was the final arbiter of all disputes between man and man.”
Hart wrote of the early Western motion pictures he saw, “Here were reproductions of the Old West being seriously presented to the public – in almost a burlesque manner – and they were successful. It made me tremble to think of it. I was an actor and knew the West. The opportunity that I had been waiting for years to come was knocking at my door.”
Hart went to California with a play he was doing, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, a 1912 adaptation of the 1908 novel (which was often filmed) and there contacted Thomas H Ince, the leading figure in movie-making. Ince told him that Westerns were a glut on the market. He had made one recently, Custer’s Last Fight. “It was a fine picture”, said Ince, “but it didn’t sell.” Actually, we shall be reviewing this film soon: it was Ince’s after a fashion, but it really ‘belonged’ to its director and star, Francis Ford, John Ford’s older brother. But more of that another day.
Still, Hart did a couple of two-reel shorts (recounting a tale of how the wranglers refused to believe that he was a New York actor because he rode so well), and he was the villain in one of them, His Hour of Manhood. He was waiting to lead in a picture but Ince had nothing ready. Hart says he worked up the story of a two-reel picture, doubling its length, and the feature became Hart’s first Western topping the cast, The Bargain (1914). He played bandit Jim Stokes who robs the stage but is wounded. Recovering on a ranch, he falls in love with the rancher’s daughter, marries her and tries to go straight. It was a classic Hart plot and was to become the standard. “What an exquisite pleasure it was to work on The Bargain,” Hart wrote.
This important 70-minute picture is still ‘alive’, in the Library of Congress, and in fact has been restored. We shall be reviewing it soon too, so hold on to your hats!
The Bargain was a hit, and was bought by Famous Players – which is why the modern print has Paramount on the title screen – and it persuaded Ince to give Hart a one-year contract on $125 a week, to star and direct. Hart took it eagerly.
Actually, these were not Hart’s first moving pictures. He had reprised his stage role of Messala, though uncredited, in a 1907 short Ben Hur, now lost, but curiously doesn’t mention this in his autobiography. Perhaps he wanted to give the impression that he did Westerns from the start.
Hart’s first picture as director-star was a two-reeler, The Passing of Two-Gun Hicks. It was at this time that he started using his horse Fritz, a pinto. “He weighed only a thousand pounds but his power and endurance were remarkable.” In 1915 Hart persuaded Ince to let him make a film ‘starring’ the horse, Pinto Ben. “That little horse stole the picture from me.” Fritz would remain with Hart throughout his career, and in his 1929 memoirs Hart said, “He is on my ranch today, monarch of all he surveys.”
All through 1914 and ’15 Hart made a long series of Western shorts with Ince which became extremely popular with audiences at the nickelodeons. Many of these films have not survived but some have. See, for example, Knight of the Trail (Mutual Film, 1915) – yup, you guessed it, review coming. In fact time has played havoc with Hart’s work. As far as I can tell, only about 25 of the 75 movies he is credited with are still extant, many in the Library of Congress. He is not the only one, of course. So many early movies, even important or landmark ones, either no longer exist or are not available.
Hart was impressively tall (6' 2" / 1.88 m) and his long, gaunt face, with its thin-lipped, grimly-set mouth established his character in the silent world of the screen. He looks like a Western Savonarola, and had something of the same puritanism.
But he made a conscious effort, consulting Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and other survivors of the ‘real’ West, and insisting on ‘authentic’ Western costumes (scruffy and utilitarian rather than glamorous or showy). He grew fascinated with the West and owned what were said to be Billy the Kid’s pistols. In interviews he often displayed his knowledge of the West to justify his ‘cowboy’ credentials.
In the fall of 1915 Hart saw and was greatly impressed by DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, and he determined to bring the epic scope of that picture to the Western - Griffith, the great genius of early American cinema, had made 44 Westerns since 1908 but was soon to abandon the genre. The result of Hart’s labors was Hell’s Hinges (Kay-Bee Pictures, 1916), a large-scale production with a very substantial budget for those days of over $30,000. It was a huge success. Naturally, Hart’s character, Blaze Tracey, was a tough badman redeemed by the love of a good woman (Clara Williams).
Hart was certainly influenced by the racialist school of thought most famously promulgated by Theodore Roosevelt, Frederic Remington and Owen Wister, which held that the Anglo-Saxon was a superior race to others and the West was the proving ground of such hardy Aryans, 'nature's aristocrats'. Hart’s villains tend to be half-breeds and Mexicans or other “low types” (saloon keeper and racketeer Silk Miller in Hell’s Hinges is described on an intertitle card as “having the oily craftiness of the Mexican.”) The films Hart made after Hell’s Hinges, such as The Aryan (“I regard it as … one of the best Westerns ever made,” wrote Hart) and The Patriot, made this even more explicit. The Return of Draw Egan , though, at the end of the year, was a straight Western and an excellent Hart picture (perhaps indeed my favorite) which gave us an early tough town-taming lawman, and even added a slight touch of humor to the mix.
In his memoir Hart goes on at some length about how underpaid he was with Ince, and describes the many far more lucrative offers he received from rivals, which he turned down because he liked where he was. But in 1917 he finally accepted an offer from Adolph Zukor to join Famous-Players Lasky, which later became Paramount Pictures. The one-hour long The Silent Man (still with Ince) was his first Western for them. He was by now firmly established as the leading Western actor. The Narrow Trail (1917) was another success – review soon.
In 1918 Hart made ten Westerns, one of which, Blue Blazes Rawden, a lumberjack picture, is another which has, happily, survived, and which we’ll look at. There were six in 1919 and, once again, we’ll be discussing Wagon Tracks.
Ince had come with Hart to Famous Players and they continued to work together but in 1920 there came a rift. Hart felt he was being exploited (of course we don’t get Ince’s side of it) and they parted company. The Toll Gate and Sand were Hart’s first pictures without Ince. The former friends would end up in court.
In 1919 Hart was in discussions with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and DW Griffith about forming United Artists. But he dropped out, unwilling to use his own money to co-finance the project.
In 1921 Hart married the Paramount actress Winifred Westover (1899 - 1978), the co-star of another Hart lumberjack picture, John Petticoats (1919), who was 35 years younger than he was, and they had one child, William S Hart Jr. (who became a noted cryptographer and environmentalist and who died in 2004). The marriage did not last, however: they divorced in 1927 and Hart did not remarry.
The beginning of the end
As the 1920s dawned, though, it was clear to many (though not to Hart) that his brand of gritty, downbeat Western was falling out of fashion. The movie-going public was much more attracted to the flashier, faster, more spectacular kind of cowboy hero. Trick-riding and stunts became the rage and costumes became glitzy and theatrical. Tom Mix movies like A Ridin’ Romeo (1921), Just Tony (1922) and Sky High (1922) were huge hits. Hart made four Westerns in 1920, four in 1921, and only one each in 1922, ’23 and ’24, when he took the title role in the 7-reeler Wild Bill Hickok, another film tragically lost or unavailable, which was interesting for including the first celluloid Wyatt Earp, played by a certain Bert Lindley. It was this picture that made Lasky write to Hart, suggesting that it was very old-fashioned. Hart was mortified and replied that the West was old-fashioned. But it was over. Paramount dropped Hart in 1924, when he was sixty.
Hart would not give up, however, and made one last bid to establish ‘his’ West as the ‘real’ one – or perhaps to bid a nostalgic and elegiac farewell to that West. In 1925 he produced Tumbleweeds, about the 1889 land rush at the opening of Oklahoma Territory to settlement. One might expect such a film to be about the dynamic West, a manifest destiny picture about the growth and settlement of the young country, but Hart’s take on this was that the old cowpokes had to give way to the settlers, and it was the end of the West. The subtext was, of course, that it was also the end of the Western.
It was to be an epic, a large-scale picture which impressed by its sheer scope and its quality too. Hart raised money for the project but a great deal of the funding came from his own bank accounts. He put up the astronomical sum for those days of $100,000, of the total $312,000. The film was released through United Artists and it turned out quite well – certainly spectacular - though it was noticeably melodramatic for our day - and even for those days, really. It only did moderate box-office business. Hart blamed UA for not promoting it properly and sued. The legal proceedings dragged on for years and the courts did in fact finally rule in Hart’s favor, in 1940, but by then legal fees had cost him more than he won and he was 76, frail and broken.
After Tumbleweeds Hart retired to his ranch home in Newhall, California, called La Loma de los Vientos, designed by architect Arthur R Kelly. He started writing short stories, many featuring his characters Injun and Whitey. He also wrote his autobiography, My Life East and West.
In 1939 he appeared in his only sound film, a spoken prologue for a reissue of Tumbleweeds. On location at his Newhall home, the aged Hart reflects on the Old West and recalls his silent-movie days fondly. The speech turned out to be his farewell to the screen. Most prints and DVDs of Tumbleweeds circulating today include the speech. It is definitely hammy and almost embarrassing to watch today but it’s a fascinating insight into Hart.
William S Hart died on June 23, 1946, at Newhall (now William S Hart Park), at the age of 81. He was buried in Brooklyn, New York, not the West, so returned at the last home to the East.