William S. Hart didn’t like Westerns when he first saw them. You might think this was because he was a Shakespearean actor of the New York stage. It wasn’t. It was because Hart had seen the genuine West, mingled with real cowboys, and he knew that the wild fantasy he saw on screen wasn’t authentic. Right there and then he hatched the idea to create a true Western entertainment for movies. For the rest of his career he made Westerns; directing and even writing some of his movies. He created his own wonderful Western monikers for his characters, designed his own foppish and yet authentic outfits.
Bill Hart was born in New York State in 1865, his father a grist miller from England. During his childhood his family actually spent time pioneering out West and Bill had much rich experience to draw on when he began his Western movie crusade. In his twenties he returned east to work on the stage, appearing in Shakespeare. He was so fond of the Bard of Avon that his friends joked that the middle initial of his name stood for “Shakespeare”. Hart was a popular stage actor, even playing Messala in Ben Hur.
For someone who enjoyed success as a classical actor, it came as something of a surprise when he switched to playing Western characters on stage. It was, however, equally a pleasure to Hart as it was to his audiences. He never turned back. Hart had a genuine love of the West – a place that was just as much geography as a state of mind. Even in Hart’s lifetime it was already a romantic ideal. He appeared in a stage adaptation of The Virginian.
William S. Hart said of Western movies made early on:
I saw a Western picture. It was awful! I talked with the manager of the theater and he told me it was one of the best Westerns he had ever had. None of the impossibilities or libels on the West meant anything to him – it was drawing the crowds. The fact that the sheriff was dressed and characterized as a sort of cross between a Wisconsin woodchopper and Gloucester fisherman was unknown to him. I did not seek to enlighten him. I was seeking information. In fact, I was so sure that I had made a big discovery that I was frightened he would read my mind and find it out.
Here were reproductions of the Old West being seriously presented to the public, in almost a burlesque manner – and they were successful. It made me tremble to think of it. I was an actor and I knew the West…. The opportunity I had been waiting for years to come was knocking at my door. Hundreds of ideas seemed to rush in from every direction. They assumed form. It was engendered – the dye was cast. Rise or fall, sink or swim, I had to bend every endeavor to get a chance to make Western motion pictures.
- William S Hart
Hart’s Westerns were far grittier than the ones that would follow; more intense and complex. His classical training came into play in the depth of character he sought. His endings were never a forgone conclusion – the good guy didn’t always get the girl. Hart was interested in showing the complexity of the human condition in his movies. His heroes often started off as villains and then found themselves fighting on the side of right. But then nothing about Hart and his career matches our conception of the natural progression of an actor’s career. He started making his Westerns with the New York Motion Company in 1914 when he was already 48 years old. Still at 6′ 2″, 180 lbs, and cool blue eyes with a piercing gaze he cut a dashing figure, especially in his romantic western garb. Audiences lapped it up.
Hart sported a number of authentic cowboy hats for his parts, as well as leather wrist-cuffs, fancy cumberbunds, hand-tooled boots, embroidered vests, long kerchiefs, and fringed gloves. He had glorious dime novel names for his characters like: Jack ‘O’ Diamonds, Shark Monroe, Frosty Blake, Truthful Tulliver, and Blue Blazes Rawden. He played cowboy, gambler, lawman, outlaw, and even Indians. He hired real Native Americans to appear in his movies when he could. His commitment to realism was often at odds with the formulaic, but Hart stuck to his guns.
He had the advantages of working with talented people, too many to mention for this article, but fell out with his biggest partner, old friend and head of the New York Motion Picture Co., Thomas H. Ince. What had been a lucrative and friendly arrangement between the two men ended in terrible acrimony when Hart learned Ince was skimming his profits.
As Hart aged he had to compete with the likes of Tom Mix; who’s more youthful exuberance and feats of horsemanship and rope tricks thrilled audiences. The two men were by no means antagonistic, even maintaining a friendship with celebrated lawman Wyatt Earp. According to Adela Rogers St. John (a journalist for Hearst) Hart got Mix and Wyatt to read Shakespeare. Hart and Wyatt enjoyed a voluminous correspondence and Wyatt was hopeful that Hart could correct some of the myths about him. Wyatt correctly guessed that it would be movies that would leave a more lasting impression on the public mind and hoped that Hart would be the mastermind of such an endeavor. Alas, it would not happen in Wyatt’s lifetime and not at the hand of William S. Hart. Perhaps it was Hart’s fading star that put paid to a possible collaboration. One can only speculate, with avid curiosity, what kind of movie Wyatt Earp would have made with Hart’s assistance. In 1923 Wyatt wrote to Hart:
“Many wrong impressions of the early days in Tombstone and myself have been created by writers who are not informed correctly, and this has caused me a concern I feel deeply.”
Hart’s success at the box office eventually faded, but his commitment to his work never did and his last film Tumbleweeds is also considered one of his best. It didn’t do well at the box office but it remains a sterling example of Hart’s work. It was made in 1925 when Hart was 60 years old. He retired to a ranch in California, dying in 1940.
Source: Inventing Wyatt Earp by Allen Barra.
Originally this piece was written in 2001 or 2002 and also used Hart’s own memoir for the piece.