William S. Hart: Star of the West

When William S. Hart approached his friend Thomas Ince with the idea of making a new kind of Western film, Ince responded with very little enthusiasm. In fact, according to Hart’s recollection, Ince told him that Westerns were “a drug on the market” in 1913, and there was little future in the form for either of them. But a few months later Hart was working at Inceville on a shortterm contract, slaving away at $75 per week in an effort to prove that Hollywood’s canniest producer was wrong. Two shorts and two features later Hart was back in Connecticut, canvassing the Broadway agents and producers in an effort to resume his stage career, where what reputation he had rested on his creation of “authentic” Western characters in plays like The Squaw Man and The Virginian. None of his films had been released yet, and Ince seems to have made no effort to convince him to stay on. As a seasoned theatrical trouper, Hart had sensed that his success in these roles came from his understanding of the “Westerner” as a distinct character type, not just another everyman with chaps and a six-gun. This character had a personality formed by the time and place in which he lived, a frontier crucible which could test a man’s moral fortitude in ways an Easterner could hardly imagine. But in order for the character to seem authentic, the mise-en-scène had to be authentic as well. Hart observed the way such Westerners walked and talked, ate and drank, dressed, prayed, and rolled their own cigarettes. Some of this knowledge may have come from the years his family drifted around the Midwest when he was still a boy, but much of it was clearly the product of the actor’s research in Western art, lore, and literature. The result was more idealized than authentic, but Hart inhabited the role with such conviction that audiences at the time were clearly impressed.

In his autobiography Hart recalled seeing a Western movie in a Cleveland nickelodeon, a film that was both unimaginative and inauthentic. He was so sure he could do better that when he reached California with the road company of The Trail of the Lonesome Pine in the autumn of 1913 he put his idea for improving the Western directly to Tom Ince. The men had worked together on stage ten years earlier; now Ince was making Westerns for the New York Motion Picture Company, with the entire Miller Bros. 101 Wild West outfit to play with. Hart was dazzled by the Ince operation, where real cowboys and Indians chased up and down the arroyos of Santa Ynez Canyon. “The West was right there!” he remembered.

But Hart did seem to have arrived at the wrong moment. George Pratt cites a September 1913 warning, published in the Moving Picture World, that Western pictures had worn out their welcome: “A closed season…may safely be declared on these overworked and senseless types: The Outlaw, The Sheriff, The Queen of the Ranch, The Half-Breed, The Bandit (Foreign and Domestic)….” But was it Westerns that the World was writing off, or simply the formulaic cowboy-and-Indian pictures that had fueled the nickelodeon boom for the past five years? Ince himself would continue to release two-reel Westerns for two more years (“Shorty” Hamilton was the resident hero), and Broncho Billy Anderson was still producing one-reelers in 1913. John Ford would not even start directing two-reel Westerns until 1917.

The World, and Tom Ince, may have spoken too soon. Even before Hart returned to Inceville to begin shooting his first film in May 1914, Cecil B. De Mille’s version of The Squaw Man was transforming the Hollywood landscape. Not only could Western pictures successfully negotiate the leap from short films to features, but the increased length of the new form seemed to open up entirely new avenues of theme and characterization. Of course, The Squaw Man was not much of an advance over Broncho Billy as far as “authenticity” went. But Bill Hart, and the production company already camped out at Inceville, would take care of that.

Richard and Diane Koszarski