The Two Gun Square Deal Man
Whilst undergoing barbarous medical probings the other day, I was approached by radiologists who wanted to know what I’d brought to read as torture instruments were applied. A book about William S. Hart, I replied, to which the first said, Big black hat, followed by the second, First western star. What were chances a pair of x-ray technicians, both middle-aged, would recognize the name of Bill Hart? Have I been mistaken in assuming forgotten status for a cowboy star that rode off screens in 1925 and died twenty years later? Hart stands like a monolith of frontier sculpture carved (mostly by himself) to stand forever as point man among movie cowboys. To look at that image is to respect it. To watch him ride and shoot and bust up saloons is to get close as we’ll ever be to a west not so old when Bill left his brand on it. I’ve been a serious fan since sixth grade acquisition of Griffith and Mayer’s The Movies, wherein Hart stood tallest among silent plainsmen. Bronco Billy got there sooner, was beefy to Hart’s lean, and nondescript besides. Tom Mix began as austere, but smiled and donned circus spangle too readily when employers divined audience preference for showy performers. Hart’s near-religious zeal for outdoor authenticity brooked no compromise. Riches be damned if that meant forfeiting an ounce of picture-making integrity. Bill toiled for a fraction of what he was worth but made it up in creative control of prolific turnout (seventy or so films), handshaking his bond with Hollywood rattlers who took gross advantage of an honor code they read as another name for sucker bait. So you see, Bill really was just like characters he played, which is prime reason lots of us revere him. He was far gone theatrical in that likeable way that comes of utter sincerity and conviction disarming even unto modern cynics for whom genuine articles are too seldom seen. Hart believed and makes us do so still. For me, he’s the most believable cowboy that ever sat a mount.
Were fiction and fact blended, Pike Bishop and his Wild Bunch might have stopped in to view a Hart feature somewhere below the border on their way to die for honor’s sake, for who indeed was a better role model for the hard-bitten oath than Bill? He’s all that was good about nineteenth-century manhood and plays somehow modern besides. Hart had stern notions of right vs. wrong and never bent, his screen image a near-heresy in modern climates bowing to dreary moral equivalency. The least of Bill’s vehicles have moments that cut to the bone and address reality movies no longer touch. Last week’s Cinevent found a packed house for The Darkening Trail, admittedly off as to structure and pace, but when Hart corners the blackguard who’s despoiled his woman, you could hear collective pins dropping amidst viewers in full embrace of moral issues as Bill defined them. His declarative style might date (and yes, Bill went for sweeping gesture), but the essence of Hart represents pioneer spirit we’re yet likeliest to respect, if not emulate. He never really went out of style, even as those who supplanted him did. Will Tom Mix come back? Gene Autry? Hart most assuredly would and often, in the persons of Randolph Scott, Clint Eastwood, and others seizing timeless hold upon audiences who like silent men of action best. Hart’s westerns never talked, but he spoke eloquently through peerless titling of C. Gardner Sullivan, master scribe and that early era’s counterpart to Scott’s mouthpiece, Burt Kennedy. I wonder if any top postwar western writer got there without studying Hart’s output.
Bill gets credit for realism in westerns some say he hasn’t got coming, but who am I to judge that standard? Greenhorn critics are no fit arbiters of taste when it comes to westerns Hart made, for his was a sensibility that had at least as much to do with tank-town barnstorming and caterance to appetites quenched by melodrama broadly enacted. Offscreen Bill was himself an ongoing performance delivered in wide brush, with settings locked on Bigger Than Life. Never mind his personal biography. Hart got cues from Buffalo Bill and Wyatt Earp in days when a man could rewrite past life with the flick of a quill. Everyone had fun with Bill’s whoppers, so why not go on telling them? Picture narrative via Hart was ongoing refinement of a theme or two he adopted early, and sure enough these went stale in the face of rivals and pointed satirizing, but much of Hart seems now like fresh flowering of themes we’ve done too long without. I for one wish they’d just reuse his film's titles --- The Testing Block, Hell’s Hinges, The Cradle Of Courage --- all bespeak red meat content and few disappoint. My bedroom during High School was decorated with a Portal Publications poster repro of Bill in The Cold Deck, a western lost then and now, but one I knew just had to be a powerhouse. 8mm collecting from Blackhawk yielded The Toll Gate, wherein Bill sizes up a traitor thus: In My Baby Days, They Told Me About A Man Named Judas … I Reckon You’re Him. Said terse titling was backgrounded with imagery of dice, a hangman’s noose, etc. To my boyish mind, this was essence of a west that should have been history’s own, with Hart the ideal spokesman for it.
Hart’s was virtually the only Big western series around during the late teens. A lot of these survive, but few are available. Worthy prints could be struck of near-epics like Wagon Tracks, photographed by future John Ford cameraman Joseph August … private label DVD's only faintly suggest its pictorial beauty. Bill and his films were earthy and profane, with Damns/Hells peppering text titles and the star's interview observations. He was otherwise a loner in extremis, marrying once and briefly, but preferring withal to live with a sister to whom he seemed devoted (she might actually have been about the only person a wary Hart could trust). Unexpected shots like this one of Bill gamboling at seaside with saucy Olive Thomas were uncharacteristic and suggest still waters running deeper that we know, but having missed such events by some ninety years, I’m figuring we never will. There was a son and vessel of dashed parental hopes, William S. Jr., who measured up no more than any human could to unrealistic expectation the old man had. Jr. tried a lifetime to get back property his father left to Los Angeles County, but was thwarted by Hart’s punitive Last Will and Testament, yet another story of frustrated offspring that would make quite the saga in itself (Bill Jr. died but recently --- May 2004). To a Hollywood done with silents, Hart himself seemed like a brontosaurus long extinct but not gone. He was invited back to lend authenticity to sound westerns by way of props he loaned or younger players ennobled by photo sessions with him. To pose beside Bill was to fulfill a manhood ritual. John Mack Brown and Robert Taylor played Billy The Kid in 1930 and 1941 respectively, but it was frontier monument Hart that initiated both to legitimacy (and note here an undiminished flair for majestic posing even as late as '41 with Taylor). Hart lamented age and old injuries preventing his return to films, but likelier it was money saved that enabled a singularly dignified retirement. Warner’s One Foot In Heaven (1941) showcased Bill to indicate moral teaching early films conveyed. This was sincerely felt tribute and must have pleased a still living Hart. He died in 1946, but the two-gun image lived on as shorthand for very old cowboy shows almost never shown in entirety. Some negatives were allowed to rot and sped-up clips positioned Hart as jester for Granny Clampetts who bandied his name like a punchline. There’s too little (accessible) evidence of William S. Hart today as Greatest Of All Western Stars, but plenty to name him most in need of revival and celebration. Of all as yet (un)rediscovered silent era giants, Bill’s my nominee for one who’d reward us best.