Silent Star of December 1996

William S. Hart

Of all film genres, the most classic and enduring has been the Western. Its stock characters and situations - the fight in the saloon, the faithful horse, the dude who goes west, the sheriff who cleans up the town, the showdown, the trip west in a covered wagon -- what are now considered film cliches were first introduced to film audiences in 1914 with the arrival of William Surrey Hart.

The Western had long been a film staple. Indeed, the first feature-length film, The Great Train Robbery, was a classic "horse opera" that thrilled audiences with its chases and shoot-'em-ups. And Westerns were long a part of every studio's output; in 1914 Cecil B. DeMille's first films were such Westerns as The Squaw Man, The Virginian, and The Girl of the Golden West. Westerns were relatively inexpensive to film, for Hollywood was still a rugged terrain of rocky hills and dirt paths, and provided an excellent starting point for young, inexperienced directors such as John Ford and William Wyler.

What Hart brought to the genre was a freshness and complexity to these stock characters. His heroes were emotionally complex "good bad men," who, underneath their rugged exterior, exemplified those basic of American values: honesty and loyalty, toughness tempered with fairness. The theme of his films generally relied upon a "transformation," where the love of a good woman, a "Sunbonnet Sue" tamed the wild man and transformed him into the man of virtue we knew him to be all along. Sometimes the roles were switched: Hart as the noble cowboy who tames the bad girl. Often the bad-woman-turned-good redeemed herself by dying for her man, stepping in front of him to take the bullet with his name on it. However melodramatic, this was still a far cry from the one-dimensional, dime-store novel Westerns of the turn of the century.

For Hart, this was the real West, or at least the West as was celebrated in the frontier culture that flourished in the age of Teddy Roosevelt. Born December 6, 1890 in Newburgh, NY, Hart's claims of growing up in the West and living with a Sioux Indian tribe are part of his personal mythology. What is known is that, as a young man, Hart drifted East to New York City, eventually becoming a Broadway Shakespearean actor. His most famous role was that of Messala in the stage production of Ben-Hur. Later, when a hesitant Francis X. Bushman was undecided about taking the part, Hart strongly encouraged him to do so. "'Frank,' he said, 'that's the best goddamned part in the picture.'"

In 1914, Hart signed with Thomas Ince's New York Motion Picture Company at $125.00 per week. Moving to Hollywood, Hart was disgusted by the "pretty boy" Westerns that were currently being produced. He began directing and acting in his own productions for Ince, and his first film, The Bargain, marked the first teaming of Hart and his Pinto pony Fritz. Because Hart wanted to portray the West in all its gritty realism, he went so far as to use real Indians, gamblers, prostitutes, and saloon entertainers in films. His films, and film titles, reflected him and his rugged vision of the West: Hell´s Hinges, The Return of Draw Egan, and The Cradle of Courage.

Hart's film persona was a reflection of the man, and because he was a man of honor, whose word was his bond, he was genuinely shocked to discover that Ince had been playing on his loyalty to keep his pay low. Claiming that the market for Westerns was "glutted," Ince only paid Hart $875.00 for Draw Egan, at a time when equals such as Douglas Fairbanks were earning $2,000 per week. After the collapse of Triangle, Ince took Hart with him to Artcraft, where he was finally paid the more worthy sum of $150,000 per picture for films such as The Narrow Trail.

During the war, Westerns began to decline in popularity. Hart was still one of the few standouts, however, and one indication of his popularity was his participation in a Mickey Neilan-directed propaganda film War Relief. This film was shot to help sell war bonds, and starred Hart, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Julian Eltinge, and Theodore Roberts. Hart also criss-crossed the country to sell bonds, and sponsored the 159th California Infantry.

But by the late 'teens, Hart's vogue began to decline, and by the close of the war he was eclipsed in popularity by Tom Mix. Hart's age and unwillingness to tamper with the formula that reflected his own personal code of honor wore on audiences. They wanted showmanship, and flocked to see Tom Mix, with his "action and excitement spiced with a boyish sense of fun." Westerns began catering to an increasingly younger audience, and Hart, with his adult dramas and dour realism faded from view.

By the early twenties, Westerns themselves began to be segregated from the balance of a studio's output, relegated to the end with tag lines stating "...and eight Westerns." 1923's The Covered Wagon was a mild success and saw the rise of more adult Westerns, but it wasn't until the 1940s and 1950s that the genre came into its own, achieving its peak form.

Disheartened, Hart retired from the screen, only to try one last comeback in 1925 with what many consider to be the screen's finest Western, Tumbleweeds. Even with its thrilling climax, a reconstruction of the Cherokee Strip land rush, the film was only a minor success. Hart finally retired from films, making one last public appearance in 1940 with a sound prologue to a re-issued Tumbleweeds.

William S. Hart, the Western matinee idol of the silent screed died June 23, 1946 in Los Angeles.

Glen Pringle /
Kally Mavromatis /
Copyright © 1996 by Glen Pringle and Kally Mavromatis
ISSN 1329-4431