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Friday, June 1, 2012

STAR OF THE MONTH: William S. Hart

Cowboy screen hero, William S. Hart

To borrow a saying: If the West hadn't existed, Bill Hart would have had to invent it. Some believe that is just what he did, at least cinematically speaking. The Western genre has been a part of American film culture since The Great Train Robbery of 1903, but it wasn't until William S. Hart hopped in the saddle  over 10 years later that the myth of the cowboy and his place in this strange and wild country took shape. Today, with Ford, Hawks, Wayne, Autry, Cooper, and Eastwood providing the well-known and celebrated vertebrae of this branch of filmic history, Bill is forgotten, underrated, and underappreciated. His performances seem hammy; his stories seem cheesy and cliched. It is hard for one to put him or herself into the theater seats of his early, avid fans-- a people who cheered when his sturdy, eagle face appeared on the screen. A William S. Hart film was a promise. You would be entertained, you would be thrilled, and you would take something away with you. Hart, in his iconic, giant hat, atop his trusty pinto pony, Fritz, was a solid guarantee to people living in a world that is anything but consistent. He did not enter the film business until he was nearly 50-years-old and only remained in it for but a decade, but he changed the industry and the American ideal forever. His specific place in celebrity as the quintessential Western hero-- a man of open plains, horses, and bravery-- was a surprise to everyone including him. You see, this rustic, earthy cowboy was born in New York.

William Surrey Hart was born on December 6, 1864 (most likely) to Nicholas Hart and Roseanna McCauley. He was the first son to follow two daughters, Mary Ellen and Frances. He would also be the youngest, despite the fact that his mother birthed another two daughters and two more sons. Only the eldest three would survive. This is perhaps the result of the hard living the family had to endure. Nicholas was what Bill would later refer to as a pioneer of white gold: flour. The patriarch was born with itchy feet, and his ill-adept entrepreneurial wishes to set up his own mill led the family all over the country, providing for Bill memories of life in desolate and under-populated towns throughout the United States: Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota, etc. Roseanna's ill health, exacerbated by her difficult births and her mental and emotional struggles in the open West, resulted in her temporary hospitalization. Bill remained traveling with his father, helping out his sparse neighbors with plowing and thrashing, and made friends with the Sioux Indians, who taught him to speak in their tongue and use their sign language. With a limited to non-existent education, Bill learned early how to sustain himself in isolated conditions: he used his imagination. His memory of his boyhood days, where he and his father traipsed all over the map, was inflated and exaggerated in his mind. He had only fondness for these pure, adolescent days-- days of playing games with the Sioux boys, whom he came to love and admire, of riding horses, and of roughing it in general. His recollections always poeticized his life; that was how he survived it. In truth, life was hard, lonely, frustrating... but then he knew no different. Being dirt poor, being constantly uprooted, was normalcy. When he was brought back to New York to rejoin his mother and sisters, and when his father ultimately gave up on his own dreams of a Western lifestyle-- much to Roseanna's relief-- Bill missed the peace of the frontier and the blue skies.

Bill in an early theater role in "Ben-Hur" as Messala.

You couldn't blame him. New York, though exciting, was a big difference from the free West. He was a "country bumpkin" as far as his new school chums were concerned. He dressed weird, he spoke Sioux gibberish, and he was an awkward loner. A life of isolation doesn't prepare one for social graces. Bill lacked his father's gregarious personality, possessing instead his mother's shier demeanor, but he did have his father's guts. When he was picked on for his manners or for his "girly singing voice," Bill was known to throw out a powerful slug that would silence his naysayers rather quickly. Still, his sense of not belonging and his fear of judgement, his social paranoia, and his mistrust, would never leave him. He would build a wall around himself for protection and decorate it with pictures of wild horses and rolling plains. While he found time for himself, entering in and winning several speed-walking races at the Manhattan Athletic Club for example, he did his duty to his family. His father was a hard worker but an unreliable one, and due to his failed business schemes, poor eyesight, injuries-- his hand was caught in a conveyor at one point-- and his early death, Bill at 30 was left to be the breadwinner. As he wasn't educated enough to really make much of himself, he took what jobs he could. Entry at his desired West Point was off the table, so he worked as an errand boy, a horse trainer, a cashier, whatever paid the bills. What money he earned went toward the family, though he did find time for himself to take a few dancing and fencing classes and even a trip to Europe. It had been his loving father's suggestion that he polish himself off a bit in the old world. See, Bill wanted to act. This was but another example of the dreamer in Bill retreating into imagination over reality.

This was not the most prudent decision, considering the number of mouths he had to feed. While his sister Frances eased the family burden by getting married and decreasing the household by one, and Mary Ellen found work of her own, Bill was still taking a great risk in setting his sights on such a temperamental career. The pay was not good, work was scarce, and a reputation was hard to build. This perhaps exemplifies a collision between Bill's more rebellious self and his dutiful self. His father had left him with a Hell of a burden. He was a young man, after all, and he wanted to live! It may have been a slim chance for him to accomplish his thespian dreams, but the gamble was worth it to him. The pull he felt for the stage was one so strong that he could not deny it. The road he chose was rocky; they don't have the phrase "starving artist" for nothing. Somehow, Bill managed to get work with different acting companies and troupes, build up his resume, and also his reputation. Starting with Daniel E. Bandmann's theatrical company in 1888, he worked his way through classic and contemporary pieces portraying everything from Iago in Othello to Messala in Ben-Hur. He found that he liked the complicated, darker roles more than the typical, heroic ones. His reviews grew better with each performance, and by the time he started on The Squaw Man, he was a theater star. This show was a big hit and acted as a bit of foreshadowing. The audience responded best to Bill in a Western setting, and he himself would enjoy any role relating to the West above and beyond the others, if only because he got to demonstrate his first-hand knowledge of cowboys and Indians.

Filming at Inceville

Despite his success, Bill always struggled between jobs. Though he had managed to support and buy a house for himself, his mother, and Mary Ellen to live in, the long breaks between gigs was at times terrifying. Not unaccustomed to poverty, Bill didn't fear the meager lifestyle, but he was not a young man anymore and needed more stable income to protect himself and the women in his life. Fatefully, he saw his first Western film. A light-bulb went on over his head. This was it! He would make motion pictures about his favorite thing, if only to correct all of the obvious blunders and inaccuracies he noticed in the genre. Bill was picky. He considered himself an authority on the West, as brief as his adolescent experiences on the plains had been, and he was personally affronted when stories didn't add up, costuming was wrong, or behaviors were inconsistent with his personal experiences. He was on a mission, and when the Klaw & Erlanger Co. went to California on tour with "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine," Bill went with them and stayed to check out the growing film scene. Fortunately, he had what every actor in Hollywood needs: a hook-up. No sooner did he arrive than he discovered that his old friend Thomas Ince-- whom he had met while traveling with "Heart's Courageous" in 1903-- was running the California branch of The New York Motion Picture Company, known as "Inceville." Tom was against the idea of making more Westerns. Being a shrewd businessman, he saw the fading audience reaction and tried to persuade Bill to pursue other projects. But Bill was stubborn. He returned to New York briefly, but came back West by the spring, determined in his agenda. After making a couple of two-reelers, he tirelessly coerced his pal to let him star in a feature-length motion picture, which Hart had developed and expanded from an original short. Tom finally conceded, and The Bargain hit theaters in 1914. It was a smash success! Hollywood had its first cowboy star.

William S. Hart as a cowboy hero is far removed from the icons we recall better today. He possesses the boyish bashfulness of Gary Cooper but lacks his seduction. He possesses the tough love moral compass of John Wayne but lacks his more intimidating masculinity. Bill was more of an experiment, though he claimed to be as authentic as authentic can be. Over time, his reputation as a real cowboy became exaggerated by his own publicity stories and his friendships with men like Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson. There is disagreement about just how much of a "cowboy" he truly was. Some said he was an ace shot with a gun; others said that he couldn't hit a bull's-eye if it were inches away from him. Some recalled him as a great rider; others said that he was afraid of horses. In Bill's own estimation, as presented in his biography My Life East and West, he was a salt of the earth, true blue, prairie man, but this was probably more wishful thinking than fact. But, as embellished as his reputation may have been, his affection for the lifestyle he projected was never false. Hart's heart was the West. In the end, people bought him as a fact because he was real in his intention. He was no rhinestone cowboy; he was an every man. His stories of a conflicted, anti-hero turned good guy would speak to audiences who were both thirsty for Western nostalgia and looking for answers and direction in a topsy-turvy world. Bill's movies were moral lessons. He always found God. He always did the right thing. He always fell for the pure woman who taught him right from wrong. Parents wanted their children to go to Bill's matinees-- it was just as effective as sending them to church. And so, from Inceville to Triangle to Famous Players, Bill brought vivid and exciting stories to an America eager to witness a reproduction of their not so distant history: a day when saddle and spur were the order of the day, and rugged, rough, but conscionable men helped build the country into the more comfortable place of steam engines and flicker shows that they currently enjoyed.

Bill brings two swindlers to justice in Tumbleweeds.

Bill's career soared as he starred in The Aryan, Hell's Hinges, The Tiger Man, and The Toll Gate,  but his personal isolation remained. Middle-aged when he became a star, Bill was still a bachelor. After burying his mother, his sister Mary Ellen was his only consistent companion, and their loving but co-dependent relationship was comforting and suffocating to both of them. Bill found himself unable to open his heart to anyone, so set was he in his ways, and Mary Ellen was loathe to let him go. Because she acted as his business advisor in many respects, Bill took care of Mary Ellen, mostly because he had no one else. His affection in life was devoted entirely to animals, particularly to horses and dogs, and he would contribute to charities that practiced the prevention of cruelty to animals. He had an unfulfilled love affair with one time fiance Jane Novak, wed once for 6 months to Winifred Westover, (their lengthy divorce would drag on for several years), and allegedly fell in love with and proposed to nearly every leading lady he ever had. Yet, he remained a lonely man, cut off from the world and living only in his dreams and illusions of boyhood fantasy. He put all of his time, energy, and passion into his work, and his cowboy persona did not stop when the cameras ceased cranking. Harry Carey, Jr. would describe Bill as being always "on." The insecure youth seemingly had matured into an uncertain and thus affected man, who often read as phony to his contemporaries. The real Bill remained hidden behind a mask of his own creations. While friends like Harry Carey, Sr. and the light-hearted Will Rogers left their work on set, Bill didn't seem to know how to relax and unwind. His work, building his Western empire in celluloid, was his life. And he had many followers. Fan mail poured in, big names like artists James Montgomery Flagg and Charles M. Russell considered his friendship an honor, and soon his name was in the same ranks of fame as his heroes Doc Holliday and Buffalo Bill Cody. He was a living legend of his own creation.

But, times change. Soon, Bill found himself rejected by the very studio that he helped build-- despite his loyalty to the men in charge, like Adolph Zukor-- and saw his films losing money instead of gaining. His stubborn refusal to alter his style or stories hampered his career, while new hot shot film stars like Tom Mix started riding away with box office receipts. Bill felt abandoned, betrayed... and though he had often spoken of retirement, he didn't want to leave until he was ready. After a final break with Paramount, Bill made his swan song, Tumbleweeds via United Artists, but it failed to draw in the crowds he had hoped. It was  fairly well-received, and his fans still loved him, but with no studio backing its promotion, that ship sank as soon as it left the dock. With this, aside from a later cameo in Show People, Bill rode away from film forever. He spent his retirement writing his biography and books for boys, such as his Injun and Whitey series, and building his dream house-- "La Loma de los Vientos"-- in Newhall, CA where he had at first operated out of a small ranch. He entertained guests like Maurice Chevalier and Pola Negri, showed his old films, rode his trusty horse Fritz, and made occasional personal appearances. When Mary Ellen was bedridden and then restricted to a wheel chair after a car accident, her dependence on Bill only grew. He grew increasingly despondent, melancholy, and perhaps even bitter about an unfulfilled dream: a castle in the sky that never became a home. He had had success, but not a life of depth that true love could provide. He died a lonely man in June 23, 1946 leaving behind one son, William S. Hart, Jr, and a legacy that could not be surpassed but was indeed expanded upon by a new generation of filmmakers.

Bill and Fritz-- who was a small Pinto Pony, but strong as an ox.

It is a tragedy when someone so worth remembering and honoring is so easily forgotten. While his steadfast fans remained true during his lifetime-- begging him to return to the screen-- the generations that followed would be less familiar with his work, which had acted as the foundation for the entire Western film genre. Acting in, writing, and in effect directing many of his own pictures, Bill was able to define what honor, manhood, and the freedom of open country represented to him, and in turn these things became the representations that America would hold onto and cherish as their own truth. Of course, particularly in film, it is often the integrity of the subject matter that is more beneficial than its authenticity. Bill may not have been the cowboy archetype that he pretended to be, but he presented to his fans an idea that was as necessary as their life's blood. We need heroes, we need sinners, and we need saints, to sometimes paint our realities in broader strokes and inspire us to dream, to have faith, to fight. We chose Bill as one of our favorite idols at a time when a fast-moving and fast-approaching future made us want to look back at a simpler era that was no less complicated by man's eternal struggles. This is a time that is every time. But in the early part of the twentieth-century, our leader wore a large hat, two guns, and a stone face. He delivered us from evil again and again and rode off into the sunset, leaving us only in his warmth. He gave us respect for ourselves, our land, our triumphs, and made us feel safe. A world where William S. Hart was in the saddle was a world that need not fret. Bill would protect us. Let us do him the same honor.


  1. thanks Meredith for taking on Bill Hart and the Western genre. I learned so much about him and cannot to read more. Maybe there's a little something in this month's blog about one of my faves the unsung cowboy hero Ken Maynard? Thanks )

    1. Yay, glad you enjoyed. I haven't gotten around to Ken yet, I know! Hopefully one of these days :)