Sunday, July 02, 2006

Retrospective William S. Hart, Star of the West (Bologna 2006, a cura di Richard and Diane Koszarski)


A cura di Richard and Diane Koszarski

The William S. Hart Westerns are about the conflict between wilderness and civilization, and his star persona is a battleground for both. The stories are ideal material for an actor, who gets to display extremely different sides of a single character, including the polar opposites of good and evil. There is a sense of realism in Hart's Western milieux, and also a sense of the elementary mythic forces of the stories. Encounters with women and children are important. Without them, the man is doomed to stay a wild being. He must tame the town for the woman, and facing the child, he finally grows up himself. The Western is about the birth of society, law, justice, and conscience. The Western starts in the wilderness of the soul, but the state of utter egoism is arid and lonely, based on lies and deception. It is the road of spiritual death. Redemption is the true story of William S. Hart's "soul fights", as the contemporary critics called them. They are adventures of the conscience. The films are full with action and laconic humour, also in the witty intertitles.

On the Night Stage / Postrøveren fra Montana (US 1915), PC: New York Motion Picture Company, P: Thomas H. Ince, D: Reginald Barker, SC: C. Gardner Sullivan, starring William S. Hart ("Silent" Texas Smith), GEH, restored from a 28mm positive with Danish intertitles, ♪ Donald Sosin, 1161 m /16 fps/ 63'. The William S. Hart star persona is already mature in his second feature film. In his calm charisma as the strong silent man he is the first in a series of Western heroes that continues with Gary Cooper, Randolph Scott, and Clint Eastwood. Already he has a good producer, screenwriter, and director comparable with the dream team around Randolph Scott in the 1950s. William S. Hart's hero is already the good badman, the bandit who faces some devastating experience, which forces him to change his life. The milieu is already the lawless frontier town, which must be made fit to live for women and children. The laconic wit of the intertitles can be sensed even in this Danish version. GEH has done a great job with the 28mm material. The definition of light in this print is better than in most of the other films in the Hart retrospective.

The Taking of Luke McVane / The Fugitive (US 1915), PC: New York Motion Picture Company, P: Thomas H. Ince, D+starring: William S. Hart (as Luke McVane), MoMA, print (1992) from a diacetate print from the original camera negative, ♪ Donald Sosin, /19 fps/ 26'. In self-defense, Luke shoots a card cheat. An escalating tragedy starts as he escapes an imminent lynch mob. His friend Mercedes helps him by creating a false trail in the sand, but the sheriff finds Luke. In a tragic twist, they meet an Apache renegade band.

"Bad Buck" of Santa Ynez (US 1915), PC: New York Motion Picture Company, P: Thomas H. Ince, D+starring William S. Hart (as "Bad Buck" Peters), Library of Congress from a nitrate positive at the AFI/Miller collection, 1924 Tri-Stone reissue, ♪ Gabriel Thibaudeau, 530 m /18 fps/ 26'. Bad Buck Peters insults the sheriff, but escaping the posse he meets a covered wagon where the father has died, helps bury him, and then the little girl is bit by a rattlesnake. Peters sucks the poison from the wound and rides back to get "the only doctor in Santa Ynez, specialist in snake bites and delirium tremens". The doctor arrives on time, but in a tragic ending Peters collapses having sacrificed his life for the girl.

The Return of Draw Egan (US 1916), PC: Triangle (Kay-Bee), P: Thomas H. Ince, D+starring: William S. Hart ("Draw" Egan / William Blake), SC: C. Gardner Sullivan, DP: Joe August, also starring Louise Glaum (Poppy), Photoplay, Digibeta (alas) transfer (2006) from an original tinted Kodascope positive, presenta Kevin Brownlow, ♪ Gabriel Thibaudeau, 55'. Egan the bandit arrives into the Round-Up Saloon in Yellow Dog, the town of broken hope, changes his name to William Blake (qf. Jim Jarmusch: Dead Man!) and is appointed sheriff. He is caught between two women, the kind Myrtle and Poppy the queen of the dance hall. A bandit companion of Egan's, Arizona Joe, teams with Poppy, and they expose Egan. After the showdown he is prepared to quit, but asked to stay as a marshal and a friend. "I reckon I better be goin'". Myrtle: "Even if I ask you to stay?". Egan: "In that case it'll take dynamite to move me".

The Narrow Trail (US 1917), PC: William S. Hart Productions for Paramount-Artcraft. D: Lambert Hillyer, DP: Joe August, starring William S. Hart ("Ice" Harding), Sylvia Breamer (Betty Werdin), La Cinémathèque française (1997) from a safety dupe negative with flash titles>lengthened, French/English intertitles, ♪ Neil Brand, 1454 m /20 fps/ 64'. "The beginning of the end" is the memorable intertitle when the outlaw meets woman. But this time the girl that changes the outlaw's life is an outlaw, herself, Betty "the undisputed queen of the Barbary Coast honky tonk". The ironic double twist is that meeting each other, they see purity, and the truth (that they are a robber and a whore) is a terrible disappointment for both. The films contrasts the purity of the mountains with the true wild west of the San Francisco underworld. "The narrow trail that leads to the light" is Biblically contrasted with "the crooked road that leads into darkness". Of equal importance is Fritz, Hart's beloved little pinto pony; the film was conceived as a love poem to him! Magnificent scenes and action due to a bigger budget.

Selfish Yates (US 1918), PC: William S. Hart Productions for Paramount-Artcraft. D+starring: William S. Hart (as "Selfish" Yates), SC: C. Gardner Sullivan, DP: Joe August, also starring Jane Novak (Mary Adams), MoMA (2005), colour with supplemental tint flashing as well as using additive lamps, world premiere of the print, presenta Anne Morra, ♪ Gabriel Thibaudeau, 1257 m /19 fps/ 57'. This screening of this great Hart film was its first in decades. It's a tall tale resembling a Biblical parable or a fairy-tale with its bold stylization and intentional caricature. There is something Balzacian in the juicy exaggeration of a single character trait. Yates is a man whose selfishness borders on the proverbial, and his young protégé Hotfoot ("nameless offspring of a 'departed' showgirl"), is a terrible miniature image of Yates. Again a father dies in a covered wagon, and two orphan daughters arrive in the awful desert city, to the gambling saloon of selfish Yates. It's Hotfoot whose encounter with the younger daughter starts him thinking, and it's he who first takes alphabet lessons with the girls. Riley saves Mary from his rapist partner, and, at Mary's request, more dangerously, he stops the lynching party for the partner, for the citizens have realized that "she's the only good thing this town's known".

The Toll Gate (Cowboypäällikkö, US 1920), PC: William S. Hart Company, D: Lambert Hillyer, DP: Joe August, starring William S. Hart (Black Deering), Anna Q. Nilsson (Mary Brown), MoMA (early 1970s) probably from Hart's own 1929 nitrate print, ♪ Alain Baents, 1518 m /20 fps/ 66'. Black Deering wants to disband his gang of outlaws, but Tom Jordan persuades them to a last great train robbery. The bandits are killed except BD who is arrested and TJ who had betrayed them. BD escapes from the moving train, and when he does not get a job in the town, he sets it on fire. During the two-day escape from the sheriff's posse his horse is killed. He saves the little son of Mary Brown from drowning, and gets to play husband and dad as the posse arrives. The play turns into reality, but not before a final terrible showdown with TJ. As the title of the film (like that of The Narrow Trail) reveals, it's a Biblical lesson, with a direct reference to the Sermon on the Mount: "by their fruit ye shall know them". Clean, strong cinematography by Joe August.

The Testing Block (Sierra Bill: taistelu naisesta, US 1920), PC: William S. Hart Company, for Paramount-Artcraft, D: Lambert Hillyer, DP: Joe August, starring William S. Hart ("Sierra" Bill), Eva Novak (Nelly Gray), Cinémathèque française, ♪ Neil Brand, 1820 m /20 fps/ 78'. The life of the bandits at its most arid, and the frustration of the bandit chief at its greatest. He is really fed up with the all-male drinking and fighting. The turning-point is the meeting with a travelling minstrel show with the "girl with the magic bow". The masked bandits order the players to perform at gunpoint, but the sound of the violin touches the bottom of their souls. Sierra Bill is a swine, himself, and when he spares the girl from an abject fate in the hands of the criminals, he weds her at gunpoint. Jump in time: "the drink-crazed being" has turned "into a being of tenderness". The bandit companion from the past sets a psychological trap of mistrust for the happy family, a weapon more terrible than guns. Child, horse, and woman are all significant in the final battle.

The Whistle (Vihellyspilli, US 1921), PC: William S. Hart Company, for Paramount-Artcraft, D: Lambert Hillyer, DP: Joe August, starring William S. Hart (Robert Evans), Library of Congress (1975) from a nitrate positive from AFI/AMPAS, ♪ Donald Sosin, 1633 originally, [1377 m /20 fps/ 60' announced], actually 71'. The motto refers to Plato and Socrates and the old conflict between capital and labour. It's an industrial story about the rich man and the poor man. The girl they both loved has selected the rich man. William S. Hart is the poor man, a factory foreman, a single father, who has to keep his young boy employed at the factory. In a splatter image, the most shocking image of the Hart oeuvre, the boy gets stuck in the conveyor belt, and we witness him whacked to death on-screen. Hart rescues the boss's boy in an accident that is also related to the boss's gross negligence of labour safety; believed dead, the boy grows up with Hart on a huge dam construction site. The mother is mentally crippled by the loss of the child. An accident brings them all together, and Hart, by the "punishing inquisition of his own conscience", does the right thing, as does the boss, who sets about better labour safety.

Tumbleweeds (Aavikon kulkuri, US 1925), PC: William S. Hart Company, for UA, D: King Baggot, SC: C. Gardner Sullivan, DP: Joe August, starring William S. Hart (Don Carver), Barbara Bedford (Molly Lassiter), Academy Film Archive & Film Preservation Associates (2006) from a dupe negative, presenta Mike Pogorzelski, ♪ Marco Dalpane, /22 fps/ 85'. Hart's last film is his "end of the West" saga. Might this be the earliest film to explicitly use the term? It's one of the 1920s epic Westerns (Covered Wagon, The Iron Horse, 3 Bad Men). A strong finale to a great oeuvre, though somewhat clumsier than some other Hart films. The exciting land rush sequence obviously inspired John Ford in 3 Bad Men (1926). The theme song "I'm a tumblin' tumbleweed" about a wandering cowboy. is quoted in the intertitles and was ignored by the pianist. The print is OK with a duped look.

Tumbleweeds Prologue to 1939 Reissue, from the original negative (2006), 9', William S. Hart's talking testimony, the most moving "extra" in Western film history.

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