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Thursday, August 20, 2015

Good Bad Men Are Hard To Find

Bill Hart Mows 'Em Down in Knight Of The Trail (1915)

William S. Hart has another romance impeded by road agent/badman past. The title is tip to Bill's essential goodness. As was case in so many of his, it only took a right woman to sever ties with outlawry. Any Hart yarn could be told in two reels, reason maybe for his early shorts being a best intro to the cowboy immortal's stuff. Bill would invariably start as a man with secrets and emotions pent up, payoff deriving from disposal of no-goods that have misled the gal he loves or town he protects. Knight Of The Trail situates Hart alone in crowds, seldom facing others at the bar, a solitary drinker even when surrounded. At cards he's disengaged, unless someone cheats, then it's hell from both barrels. There were more close-ups for Hart than was accorded most stars, his face a reliable map to where stories were headed. Being older, and looking it, relieved Bill of action expectation a Tom Mix would have, and that eventually made his stuff seem quaint. Hart's approach by nature wouldn't change with times, but he had a nice run and kept standards high at work he did.


Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Ever see his spoken prologue to the 1939 reissue of Tumbleweeds? Better than some of his two-reelers. Eight minutes of the 74-year-old Mr. Hart speaking lyrically and in measured tones about his feelings for the West, and his love for making pictures. Every time I see it I'm impressed with Hart's stately presence, and when he bids the movie audience farewell, I always think he's just delivered his own obituary.

You can watch it here:

10:25 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Yes, it's a great segment. Makes you wish Hart had done talkies, or been interviewed on camera (I do recall a Hedda Hopper short for Paramount where she visits Bill at his ranch).

At least we have this marvelous prologue ...

10:31 AM  
Blogger CanadianKen said...

Love William S. Hart. At least half a dozen of my favorite silents are Hart vehicles. And - considering his splendid work in the "Tumbleweeds" prologue, not to mention the success he'd enjoyed as a stage actor - I don't think it's a stretch to think he could well have distinguished himself in sound films had he had a mind to. I always wished he'd played the High Lama in Capra's 1937 "Lost Horizon". I believe another silent great, Henry B. Walthall, had been provisionally cast - but died just before filming began. I think if Hart had taken over the role,his tremendous presence and beautiful speaking voice would have added even more resonance to an already remarkable film. I certainly wouldn't have replaced Ronald Colman, the unimprovable heart and soul of the picture. Nor the under-rated John Howard who I think is terrific as his brother. But I was never sold on Jane Wyatt as the pic's femme star. An efficiently lady-like performer, she always seemed too practical a type to inspire Colman's poetic longings. I think the ideal Sondra was already on the Columbia lot. That would be Iris Meredith, the soulful and beautiful actress who did leading lady duty in a score of B westerns Columbia turned out from '36 to '41. Terrific as she was in these, it always seemed a shame the studio never gave her the A picture showcase her beauty and talent deserved. As it happens, she did have a connection to "Lost Horizon", Some sequences in my favorite of the Charles Starrett-Iris Meredith westerns, "The Cowboy Star" are shot on the Columbia lot (as the title suggests Starrett plays a cowboy turned movie star). And in the background of one scene you can actually spot part of the "Lost Horizon" set. Anyway, when I read your Hart tribute, I found myself thinking again of that lovely but never to be version of "Lost Horizon" where Ronald Colman would have shared the screen with both marvelous Iris Meredith and the great Mr. Hart.

10:03 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

That's a neat alternative to "Lost Horizon" casting, Ken. And Hart would indeed have been great in the High Lama part. I wonder if he was considered for character parts in 30's or early 40's features --- he was certainly a visible presence around town, being anything but a recluse. Hart would have enhanced any number of cast lists during his elder years.

6:03 AM  
Blogger MikeD said...

The William S Hart Ranch in Santa Clarita is definitely worth a visit if one is in the LA area and has access to a car. When he donated his ranch, I think to LA County, he stipulated that it should become a park and no fees charged. Though not far from the 14 Freeway, the walking trails are a very peaceful stroll and you can imagine Bill Hart doing the same 80 years ago. There's a little cemetary for his pets with a shrine to his horse. And a grazing area set aside for the descendants of some Walt Disney buffalo. Disney's Golden Oak Ranch and Gene Autry's Melody Ranch are only a couple of miles away but not open to the public, not to mention Placerita State Park where Laurel & Hardy filmed parts of 'Way Out West'.

8:12 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

The first William S. Hart film I saw was an 8mm print of HELL'S HINGES. Wow! That moment when his horse falls down the side of the dune and then he gets back in the saddle was astonishing. His grim justice on the town pre-dates Sergio Leone. I recently rescored it with the music of Ennio Morricone. Too often the accompaniment to silent films makes the acting appear hammy when it is not. It's the music that is hammy. The Morricone spaghetti western music may seem out of place to film purists but everything seems out of place to purists. It allows the grit to shine through. Over the last couple of years I have picked up surprisingly good copies of every Hart film I found surfing the web ordering doubles from alternate sources. His non-Western films I find as interesting as his westerns. THE WHISTLE (1921) is first rate as is 1920's THE CRADLE OF COURAGE. Too bad we can't see his WILD BILL HICKOK.

6:22 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer looks back on an early TV encounter with William S. Hart:

It's remarkable how a movie you experienced when very young can remain so fresh for you so many years later. I saw a bit of "Hell's Hinges" when I was a boy in an episode of "Silents Please." I still remember images of the minister lying dead on the steps of his church--a church he tried to burn down himself at the head of drunken mob--cradled in the arms of his sister, or of William S. Hart bent over his two drawn guns and cowing the crowd of rowdies in the saloon, or shooting down the saloon owner who'd instigated the violence and then bringing down the burning oil lamps inside with shots from his pistols, setting fire to the place, and only letting the terrified mob escape when they were about to be burnt alive. The web allows you to find almost anything these days, and I looked up the show I saw all those years ago. "Silents Please" began as an ABC summer replacement program during the 1961 season, hosted by the gifted comic, Ernie Kovacs. The " William S. Hart" episode was telecast on August 15th, a Tuesday, at 10:00 o'clock p. m. eastern time. It would have been well after my bedtime, so my mother would have had to have gotten me up to see it. That was often problematic. More than once I awakened at daybreak, only to realize that I had not seen the show I had been looking forward to, my mother assuring me later that she just hadn't been able to get me up and that, really, I had wanted to stay in bed. That seemed hardly likely, though truth to tell, my own nocturnal adventures in TV land later on would sometimes find me awakening on the living floor with the Magnavox still on, but showing a test signal. That was how I missed "The Big Sleep" the first time I tried to see it. The "big sleep," indeed. Besides "Hell's Hinges," though, this particular episode of "Silents Please" apparently included the land rush sequence for " Tumbleweeds" and Hart's introduction to the re-release of that movie. Somehow, none of the rest of the show made an impression on me, but those scenes from "Hell's Hinges certainly did, a terrific one. Hart was like an avenging angel, tall and gaunt and striding through the streets of burning buildings being consumed, as though by the very iniquity of the denizens there. But he was also a man redeemed by the love of woman blessed with innocence and faith, and with her he rode off into a new life. There were seeds planted that evening, of standing by what was good, even against the world, or finding the realization of love in a first glimpse of the beloved, though they would not send forth shoot and leaf for many years to come.

9:57 AM  

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