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Monday, June 01, 2009

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 ideas 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 than 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.


Blogger G. D. Wilson said...

Loved the W. S. Hart article--Please, PLEASE let's see more of those great Blackhawk ad spreads from the early 70's--most of us were fools and threw 'em away! Call me dummy.

10:40 PM  
Blogger Samuel Wilson said...

I saw Tumbleweeds on DVD and it was actually quite good. It also has the spoken intro or trailer that Hart filmed around (I believe) 1939. He must have seemed archaic even then but there's something powerful about his presence in that footage, as if he's an emissary from the actual era he made films about.

12:39 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

And don't forget that Bill was Jed Clampett's favorite cowboy movie star.

When banker Drysdale bought MAMMOTH PICTURES as a tax shelter for the Clampetts, Jed's first comment was, "You mean Ole' Bill Hart's gonna be working for me?"

8:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wm S. Hart's hillside home near Santa Clarita is available for free tours and is very interesting, as is the rest of the property which is now a park. The handgun collection in one of the pics you posted was stolen about 10 years ago, and the last time I toured the house, I asked if it was ever recovered. It wasnt. Have you seen the episode of HEDDA HOPPER'S HOLLYWOOD (a series of shorts available on Amazon. Damn well worth the cheap price if you dont mind VHS. I dont.) that shows her visiting Bill at his beautiful home, which is still very much the same. Steve Beasley

4:30 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

I was just thinking yesterday,how I wish I still had a few of my old Blackhawk catalogs that used to pile up like old newspaper next to my bookshelf between 1973-79.I'd like to see what was available back then that hasn't yet made it to DVD,got alot of silents and Laurel and Hardy and Our Gang from them..
I just love Hart's farwell speach to the screen on the 1939 reissue of Tumbleweeds,its the old stage Bill,but yet hes so earthy and real.Hell's Hinges is probably my favorite Hart western.kinda reminds me of a Lon Chaney picture with its look at early organized crime bosses trying to keep things sin city and the goody goodies on the run..
LOL..One of the most obscure silent movie names I heard dropped by Jed Clampett was Bull Montana!..Hoot gibson was another of their faves..loved it when they got the undying Gloria Swanson to act in their picture!

10:07 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Hi, John -- Another great article, and good to see Mr. Hart receiving his due. Also nice to see the Blackhawk catalog page. I particularly miss the tabloid-sized Blackhawk Bulletins, which pre-dated the smaller "Catalog of Motion Pictures" format.

William S. Hart certainly made an impression on his frequent director Lambert Hillyer, who was still channeling Hart in the forties. If you watch the middle chapters of the 1943 "Batman" serial, director Hillyer introduces a no-nonsense miner in the Hart mold, and played in the Hart manner by Charles Middleton.

10:13 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

I'd love to see a Hart box set on DVD like the recent Fairbanks one-- although Tumbleweeds is the most widely seen, I prefer the ones around 1917-21, the filmmaking is fluid enough to make them easily watchable (Hart, like that other great stone face Keaton, seems not to date in his pure and minimalist style) but the stories are still the strong, stern Victorian medicine.

The Darkening Trail may have been slow to get going, but wow, what a punch that ending delivered, as grim and final as a Twilight Zone. And only Hart could do things that basically qualify him as a psychopath, and convince you that when he acts as the avenging hand of almighty God, he's probably onto something there.

2:16 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

How heartening that those two x-ray techs recognized Hart's name without prompting; speaks well of them!

I always thought Hell's Hinges was one of the great western titles, right up there with, say, Riders of the Purple Sage or The Burning Hills -- a title that evokes a a milieu and a moral universe at the same time. Best thing about Hell's Hinges is that the film lives up to its title.

And I love today's banner of Joan Crawford cheerfully taking an axe to the cake for Strait-Jacket -- you can't say Joan wasn't a game 'un, eh?

2:55 PM  
Anonymous R.J. said...


This'll kill ya. You know who first turned me on to Blackhawk Films when I was a little boy? Their catalog came one day, literally stuffed inside a thick, letter-sized envelope. The letter inside read in part -- "Note you have a movie projector. This catalog sent me recently, thought you would like. Note they have several L&H films for sale. As ever your friend, Stan Laurel".

5:04 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

Hart as sort of a biblical "avenging angel"..thats how I pictured him in Hell's Hinges,moving among the the burning town like godzilla

6:29 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Bill as avenging angel --- yes! --- and who ever did it better?

G.D. Wilson and Scott, I could post whole Blackhawk catalogs, such is my affection for them. I wonder how many former 8mm collectors visit Greenbriar ...

Samuel, the "Tumbleweeds" prologue is amazing. I watched it several times just this week.

Bolo and Christopher, I'd forgotten about Jed's professed devotion to Bull Montana. Good for him!

Anonymous, if I'm ever in California again, I'll be going to Bill's ranch --- fer sure.

Michael, you are right. A Hart box set is long overdue.

Jim, I want "The Burning Hills" on DVD. Warners, add this to your Archive Collection!

RJ, to get a Blackhawk catalog by way of Stan Laurel is just about too much for me to imagine. Do you still have his note and the envelope?

7:44 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

Yes, R.J., thanks for yet another amazing story. Once again, just when I think I've heard the most jaw-dropping anecdote of all, you go and top yourself!

8:22 PM  
Blogger G. D. Wilson said...

Here are some Real Life True anecdotes from an old-timer:
Around '74 after watching Vincent Price perform in "Oliver!" at Kenley Players in Columbus, I waited around backstage hoping to get an autograph. He emerged from a doorway behind me and I nearly ran into him. His eyes seemed to say, "What a moron!" but I got an autograph anyway.
Earlier the same year I was in a bookstore at Eastland Mall in Columbus and heard a familiar voice. It was Hans Conried, in town performing at a Country Dinner Playhouse. I told him how much I enjoyed "5,000 Fingers of Dr. T." He grumpily said the only person who saw the movie at the time was his mother. I didn't ask for his autograph.
While at a Memphis Film Fest, I posed with Iron Eyes Cody as a friend took a snapshot. Iron's eyes seemed to say, "You cheap bastard--don't I get a few bucks for standing beside your sorry ass?"
Anyway, some True Life Anecdotes from a non-bullshitting Buckeye from Ohio.

9:43 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

I think a blog story on Blackhawk Films would be a great..THey have been around a looong time..since 1927 with Kent D. Eastin and Eastin Pictures
I look to Blackhawk as I do Robert Youngson and William K. Everson as being one of my early educators on Silent Movies..

11:39 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Hey John...Remember the night Spanky McFarland told me I looked like the guy who ran BLACKHAWK?

9:13 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Yes! I'd nearly forgotten that ... it was when we went to see Spanky at that little college near Charlotte. Can't recall just how many years ago that was ...

10:10 AM  
Blogger Christopher said...

I consider myself fortunate enough to have attended in the spring of 1992,a showing and disscussion of a few Hal Roach comedies at the AFI festival here in Dallas, with Hal Roach(then 100 and wheel chair bound),Spanky,authors Richard Bann and William k Everson in attendance.Everson played piano for the silent Charley Chase film they showed and Bann had to answer most questions for Roach,whos memory was a little faulty but talked more about his old pal Charley Chase than anything else..A memorable evening!

2:07 PM  
Anonymous East Side said...

One of the AFI collections of movies features "Hell's Hinges" in a great print. Fabulous movie, with an honest, old-fashioned sense of right and wrong, with a little religion and love thrown in. The finale -- the titular town burning to the ground at the hand of Hart -- is one of the eeriest images I've ever seen in any movie. It made me wonder if Ingmar Bergman was influenced by that shot for the climax of "Seventh Seal." Which would be a heck of a connection!

6:02 PM  
Blogger greg said...

The Spanky show at Belmont Abbey College? Wow. I was there too. That would have been September of '86. I was in sixth grade and my mom took me.

I still have some old Blackhawk catalogs, but they're all from the early-mid 80s (when they were transitioning from film to VHS). I was a strange strange kid.

5:21 PM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

Seem to recall Tom Mix and Wallace Reed being mentioned as well as the Gloria Swanson episode....about the same time as Disney showed THE MOON SPINNERS with Pola Negri...

4:02 AM  

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