Sunday, October 13, 2019

William S. Hart revisited: 18 bullet points

William S. Hart starring as a bandit in his first independent production The Narrow Trail (1917). Please click to enlarge the photo.

William S. Hart is a big favourite at the Le Giornate del Cinema Muto and Il Cinema Ritrovato festivals. In 2006 I followed the Bologna retrospective which covered Hart's career from 1915 till 1925. This year's retrospective in Pordenone, "William S. Hart, Knight of the Trail", curated by Richard Abel, Diane Koszarski and Richard Koszarski, focused on Hart's first four years as a film-maker – from 1914 till 1917 – with one film added from the year 1918. Most of the early films are short. Starting with Hells' Hinges (1916) they are feature-length.

The films we saw were almost all produced or supervised by Thomas H. Ince for New York Motion Picture Corporation (NYMP, branches: Kay-Bee, Broncho and Domino) distributing via Mutual, then Triangle Film Corporation. Triangle was formed in 1915 by Kessel, Bauman and Aitken. When Ince moved from Inceville in 1916, Hart bought it and named it Hartville.

Triangle was dissolved in 1917. Ince established his own studio, and Hart did the same, founding William S. Hart Productions whose first production was The Narrow Trail, released through Adolph Zukor's Famous Players-Lasky Corporation under its Artcraft Pictures Corporation label. Since 1924 Famous Players-Lasky became known as Paramount Famous Lasky Corporation.

Hart benefitted from getting started on his film career with Ince. Inceville in Santa Ynez Canyon, the model for all future Hollywood studios, had a huge ranch and a Western circus with cowboys and Sioux tribes. Ince was a co-founder of the Western genre in the cinema. Already the first Hart films look mature and and assured, thanks to the experience and enthusiasm of Ince.

Hart and Charles Chaplin both started in films in 1914 and gained international stardom. They grew to worldwide fame during WWI. Both played tramps and loners, even outlaws: they are outside society. Both are deeply romantic, and a child melts their cynical hearts. Both have instantly recognizable features and costumes. In the conclusion both may disappear into the horizon alone.

William S. Hart and John Ford are the two greatest artists of the Western Canon according to William K. Everson. I agree.

Hart was the first great "strong silent man" of the cinema, a predecessor of Gary Cooper, Randolph Scott and Clint Eastwood. Not forgetting his good friend Joel McCrea.

Hart has great screen presence and an innate camera talent, which was not self-evident for veteran actors of the theatre. Hart is not afraid of the camera look. Hart is stoic and even stonefaced (it came naturally for Buster Keaton to parody him), but he has a sense of humour and even a sense of the ridiculous. Hart has a wide psychological register. He is able to convey pain, loss, loneliness and agony.

Hart's tales were called "soul fights". They are often sagas of salvation and redemption. Hart's characters are walking contradictions, they are mysteries to themselves. His protagonists are often bandits who see no future in their ways and realize the necessity to change. It is easier said than done.

Everson comments that already at the time audiences were amused by the William S. Hart convention that his character reforms at the first glimpse of the leading lady. The Narrow Trail contains my favourite intertitle in the history of the cinema. Hart sees Woman. Intertitle: "The beginning of the end".

Men and women have mythical presence in Hart's cinema. They represent Eros and Thanatos. The man is the incarnation of the death drive. The woman is the embodiment of the life force.
    The woman is like a mirror. "I see myself in her". His conscience is awakened. Guided by her he moves closer to his true self. The woman awakens the better angels of his nature.
    The woman is not always a potential romantic partner. She can be the mother of his worst enemy. She can be a young girl or even a child bitten by a rattlesnake.

Although based on conventions, Hart's films are unpredictable. A tragic ending is possible. In some films the bandit reforms but it's too late. In some stories a fair-playing prospector is so badly betrayed that he turns into a monster. In some tales he is a monster to begin with. The Aryan, Wolf Lowry and Blue Blazes Rawden are brutal exposés of the alpha male. They have tragic resonance like the tyrant tragedies of Shakespeare.

The Western protagonist exists on the borderland of wilderness and civilization, often reflected in the female cast. There is the Wild West woman (often a saloon siren) and there is a woman of civilization, a builder of home and society. I don't know who established this dichotomy, but it would persist for decades (My Darling Clementine, High Noon). The female performances in Hart's films are often subtle in both categories: Margery Wilson and Margaret Thompson as the life-changing ones and Louise Glaum and Maude George as the wild ones.

William S. Hart may have established the "shy and awkward" routine in the dating behaviour of the strong silent man. In the presence of the woman he becomes clumsy and tongue-tied. Gary Cooper was Hart's main successor in this tradition.

The mise-en-scène is masterful. This is no longer early cinema. The Griffith lesson has been absorbed. The shot is a dynamic space. Shot sizes vary meaningfully from extreme long shot to close-up. The montage is dynamic. The focus is on the eye and seeing (on many levels). Sharp vision is a matter of life and death. Things are often perceived in reflections. Intelligent suspense based on perception is already present in In the Sage Brush Country, one of Hart's first films.

Early masters of the Western were among the pioneers to understand landscape as soulscape, simultaneously with Frenchmen such as Léonce Perret, soon followed by Nordic masters with new insights of their own. In the films of Griffith and Ince the symbolic charge of the landscape is conscious. Everson states that in Hart's films the land itself is the dominant motif, and the skyline is always high in the frame. With Ford, the skyline is low, and the epic action unfolds under a wide open sky.

Hart employed great cinematographers such as Joseph H. August (The Bargain, Hell's Hinges, The Aryan, The Return of Draw Egan, The Gunfighter, Wolf Lowry, The Cold Deck, The Silent Man, The Narrow Trail, Blue Blazes Rawden, etc.). His elegant austerity is perfect for Hart.
    August does justice to the unvarnished authenticity of the milieux: the rugged nature, the rough ambience, the endless desert, the ramshackle towns, the makeshift saloons.
    There are hardly any tracking shots, but there are panoramic shots of sublime grandeur.
    August is the link between Hart and Ford.
    Ford belonged to the Griffith school, but via August he was also influenced by the Ince school.
    In the same year when August shot Hart's last film Tumbleweeds he shot his first film for Ford, Lightnin', followed by Strong Boy, The Black Watch, Salute, Men Without Women, Up the River, Seas Beneath, The Brat, The Whole Town's Talking, The Informer, Mary of Scotland, The Plough and the Stars and The Battle of Midway, among others. Their crowning achievement was They Were Expendable.

William S. Hart and his red pinto horse Fritz were the first famous man and horse duo in the movies. Hart even wrote a book, Told Under the White Oak Tree (1922), as a first person narrative by Fritz. "A Sioux chief named Lone Bear reportedly brought Fritz to California in 1911" writes Petrine Day Mitchum in Hollywood Hoofbeats (2005). Hart discovered Fritz at Thomas H. Ince's movie ranch. When Fritz died in 1938 at age 31 Hart buried it on his ranch under a huge stone marker.
    The horse is the man's main object of tenderness before he meets Woman. A "transference of love from horse to woman" scene appears at least in A Knight of the Trail, The Return of Draw Egan and The Silent Man.

Hart mostly made Westerns, but in Pordenone we saw also a Northern: Blue Blazes Rawden. A lumberjack saga made in 1918, it is the earliest major film I have seen in this genre that became notable in Nordic countries with The Song of the Scarlet Flower (1919). In Finland this genre still survives with popular films based on the writers Kalle Päätalo and Veikko Huovinen. If anyone knows earlier achievements in this genre, I'd be grateful for leads.


Ben Hur (1907, as Messala, GCM 2010)
The Bargain (1914, GCM 2016)
In the Sage Brush Country (1914, GCM 2019)
The Sheriff’s Streak of Yellow (1915, GCM 2019)
On the Night Stage (1915, Bologna 2006)
The Taking of Luke McVane (1915, Bologna 2006, GCM 2019)
The Man from Nowhere (1915, GCM 2019)
Bad Buck of Santa Ynez (1915, Bologna 2006, GCM 2019)
Knight of the Trail (1915, GCM 2019)
Keno Bates, Liar (1915, GCM 2019)
Hell's Hinges (1916)
The Aryan (1916, GCM 2019)
The Return of Draw Egan (1916, Bologna 2006, GCM 2019)
The Gunfighter (1917, GCM 2019)
Wolf Lowry (1917, GCM 2019)
The Cold Deck (1917)
The Silent Man (1917, GCM 2019)
The Narrow Trail (1917, Bologna 2006)
All Star Production of Patriotic Episodes for the Second Liberty Loan (1917, GCM 2019)
“Blue Blazes” Rawden (1918, GCM 2019)
Selfish Yates (1918, Bologna 2006)
Branding Broadway (1918, GCM 2006)
Wagon Tracks (1919, GCM 1988)
The Toll Gate (1920, KAVI 1988, Bologna 2006)
The Testing Block (1920, Bologna 2006)
The Whistle (1921, Bologna 2006)
Tumbleweeds (1925, Bologna 2006)
Tumbleweeds Prologue 1939 (1939, Bologna 2006)

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