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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

William S. Hart: the first Western film star

I've always been a fan of silent films. Like most people, I loved the old Chaplin and Keaton slapstick shorts as a kid. Unlike most people, I soon became entranced with the silent dramas and adventures. Back in the 80s when I was growing up, you could still see these pictures on late night TV and in New York City revival houses. Now I watch them on the Internet or at rare showings at arthouse cinemas.

I've recently been getting into silent Westerns. The first silent Western star was William S. Hart. He starred in more than 70 Westerns from 1914 to 1925 and helped establish many of the tropes still used in Westerns to this day.

Hart had a stony face and dominating manner that was perfect to play heavies. In fact, he often portrayed villains. Sometimes he'd be saved by a good woman, sometimes not. Every Hart film contained a gunfight, sometimes several, and they were always quick, brutal affairs that looked very realistic.

In The Return of Draw Egan (1916) Hart favors a slight grimace and a cigarillo that looks like it inspired Clint Eastwood's The Man With No Name. I wouldn't be surprised. Hart inspired many Western actors and helped establish the genre. He was hugely successful in his day but sadly all but forgotten now. His films are full of Victorian moralizing that come off as dated. For me at least, they retain a primal power that makes them worth watching.

In preparation for this post, last night I watched what's considered one of Hart's best films: Hell's Hinges (1916). That link will take you to Youtube where you can watch this public domain film. The rest of this post contains spoilers.

Hell's Hinges is a simple tale of a Wild West town dominated by the bandit element, which includes Hart as Blaze Tracy, a hard-drinking and deadly gunfighter. There's a small population of decent citizens who have put their hopes in the new preacher--a weak-willed rich kid from the East accompanied by his beautiful and pious sister. One look at the sister and Blaze is enchanted. He stops the outlaws from disrupting the services and warns them off.

Trying a different tack, the outlaws get one of the dance hall girls to seduce the pastor and bring him over to their side. Drunk with whiskey and sin, the pastor leads a torch-wielding mob to burn down his own church. A gunfight ensues between the churchgoers and the sinners, with the good guys forced to flee into the desert. One of the few casualties on the outlaws' side is the pastor himself.

Blaze Tracy had been out on the range when this happens. He meets the refugees in the desert and learns his lady love is still in town grieving over her fallen brother. With a pistol in each hand and goes on the mother of all vendettas. There's a great sequence as he goes through the saloons shooting down bad guys. As he clears out each room, he shoots down the oil lamps hanging from the ceiling, causing them to crash to the floor and set off a blaze.

Soon the entire town is on fire and the rest of the bandits and prostitutes are fleeing. With the screaming sinners screaming and running through the smoke and flames it looks like a scene from Hell, which is certainly what the director intended.

Of course, the film ends with Blaze riding off with the girl who has saved him. The end. Yep, that's all there is to it. It only runs 53 minutes and is a simple tale. This simplicity, though, only acts to make it more powerful. The acting is good on all sides, the gunfight sequences are excellent even a century later, and Hart shows some interesting character development as he struggles between his violent nature and an emerging faith.

So check out the films of William S. Hart, and stay tuned later in the month for my post on Tom Mix, another early Western star.


  1. Gee I didn't know that! When I was growing up they had fantastic western movies on television, and I loved them. All good movies then! I always think of John Wayne! www.sandysanderellasmusings.blogspot.com

  2. Thanks for the movie history lesson, a fun one, though I'm not a silent movie fan.

  3. He does have a mean face. I don't think I've seen many of the older westerns.


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