William S. Hart: Projecting the American West|
by Ronald L. Davis
Post Your Opinion
|A Review of: William S. Hart: Projecting the American West
by James Roots
The first-ever American feature film was a Western called The Great
Train Robbery (1903). Although Westerns have been effectively dead
at the box-office for 30 years now, they dominated the American
cinema from the start, and established the archetypes of the filmed
story structure that persist today. Even the Matrix films are
Westerns in CGI garb.
Three men dominated the Western from its beginnings to nearly the
end of the silent era: Gilbert M. Anderson, Tom Mix, and William
S. Hart. The last of these is the worthy subject of a new book.
It was this unreality of Western films that provoked William S.
Hart to invade the cinema. A critically successful but penurious
stage actor who specialized in cowboy roles, Hart was outraged by
the often bizarre image of the West that was being perpetuated in
films up to the outbreak of World War One. He considered himself a
first-hand authority on the true West, and vowed to present it
accurately in the cinema.
A lack of surviving records has forced Ronald Davis to borrow
liberally from Hart's My Life East and West (1929), which he
unhelpfully derides as having been written "by a mind filled
with distortion," and from Diane Kaiser Koszarski's 1980
filmography. What Davis himself brings to the table is a few quotes
from new interviews with the likes of Harry Carey Jr., and some
extremely dull quotations from Hart's previously unknown love letters
to actress Jane Novak.
This is enough to make the book valuable, because it is a crime
that no full biography has ever been done of Hart before. It does
not, however, make the book particularly good or insightful.
It is quite obvious Davis greatly dislikes his subject, and worse,
is contemptuous of him as a person, if not as a film pioneer. In
the space of just five pages he slags Hart as being "idealistic,
puritanical, self-righteous, and distrustful of people" (p73),
"pompous, sanctimonious" (p75), "[reeking] of racism,
sexism, and macho swagger"(77), and "stuffy, mannered,
and constantly on'" (p78). He later sums up Hart's "cheerless
existence" as one of being "wedded to negativism"
(pp211, 215). A pot calling a kettle black, no?
And yet, if Davis had troubled to do some analysis of his own
research, he would have found ample justification for the less
attractive aspects of Hart's personality.
The actor's father was unable to stick to a job or a location for
more than a few months at a time, driven by the somewhat mundane
dream of owning his own mill. He was unable to achieve even that
modest ambition, a failure that profoundly affected Hart even as
his father's bold and righteous character set the mold for his
future screen character.
His mother was frequently seriously ill, leaving it to the essentially
unschooled son to go far off alone to support the family through a
variety of menial jobs. He did this for more than 30 years. There
was no chance to develop lasting relationships, which made it
impossible for Hart to form deep connections with anyone other than
his jealous and rather weird sister, with whom he lived for almost
all of his life.
Hart did not become an actor until 1888. He was twenty-five, and
subsequently, he spent twenty-six extremely hard years on the
theatrical road. He was an advanced fifty-one-year-old when he
finally got into films in 1914. (Davis loses track of his own
chronology here, claiming variously that Hart was 49 in 1913, 51
in 1916, and 53 in 1917.)
An immediate success on celluloid, he churned out nearly 70 films
in the short 11 years before he was forced into retirement by Sol
Zukor and the Schenk brothers, who deemed his metaphysical storylines
pass in the flapper era. Interestingly, those 70 films equal more
than 300 reels, roughly the same career totals as Anderson in his
11-year film life.
Hart effectively invented the adult Western, which is as much a
morality play as an action thriller. His "good bad-men",
like those of Clint Eastwood, came to grips with moral issues, made
deeply serious decisions, and underwent profound character
transformations as a consequence.
I know of no other Western star of any era whose films are so
suffused with mature religious agonies. Yet Davis fails to challenge
Hart's modest claim to be not a religious man, even as he records
the mother's remarkable determination to ensure Hart attended
fundamentalist churches during the worst of his hardscrabble and
Davis constantly derides and belittles Hart's claims to being a
true Westerner, yet his own evidence invariably supports Hart's
assertion. Most of Hart's boyhood was indeed spent in the frontier
areas, albeit in the agricultural rather than the ranch sectors.
Davis claims Hart knew little of the Sioux language, yet cites at
least four occasions upon which Hart's facility with the language
was publicly documented. Charles M. Russell, Jesse James Jr., Wyatt
Earp, Bat Masterson, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Will Rogers all counted
themselves among his best friends on the basis of his genuine
cowboyness: are we to believe he fooled these experts in real life
but not the city-slicker academic Ronald Davis, sixty years after
On page 182, Davis snorts that Hart "felt unjustifiably scorned,
beleaguered with trials and lawsuits, hounded by the government for
back taxes and his estranged wife for additional child support, and
confronted with disloyalty on all sides." Davis's diagnosis:
"[Hart's] nature was unforgiving; his self-pity eternal."
Considering that Davis had just spent several dozen pages substantiating
all of the truly unjustified scorn, the very real trials and lawsuits,
and the sickening disloyalty of an endless parade of Hollywood suits
from Thomas Ince to Joe and Nick Schenck, it seems impossible to
conclude that Hart had ample cause for bitterness. Davis would
make a lousy prosecutor.
Ironically, Hart's downfall came from his attempts to live his own
life by the ethics he so strenuously promoted in his films. His
unswerving loyalty to, and faith in, his friends made him a patsy
in the new cutthroat Hollywood business environment. When he spoke
up publicly in defense of his moral code, he was so devastatingly
parodied by the normally easy-going Buster Keaton (The Frozen North,
1922) that his career never recovered. He was ridiculed for his
habit of proposing to his leading ladies, but that was just his
courtly gentleman's code of honour blurring into his off-screen
life: a gentleman married the woman he kissed, and Hart had kissed
these ladies on-screen. Odd logic, to be sure, but by no means
unusual in Hollywood: it was a rare actor in the old days who didn't
marry at least one of his female co-stars.
Hart was no ogre. He fought almost alone, and at his own expense,
to stop unscrupulous studios from re-releasing stars' old films
under new titles to fool the public. He sold millions of dollars
of war bonds in addition to his personal subscription of $105,000,
including $16 million on the Fourth Liberty Loan tour in the eastern
states in 1918. He devoted years of his life to the SPCA and to
boys' clubs. It is a pity Davis chooses to gloss over these positive
points in his haste to lambaste Hart as a "self-absorbed and
pessimistic [man who] let rancor, prejudice, and self-pity triumph
over happier, more positive thinking."
A couple of Hart's key features, Tumbleweeds (1925) and The Toll
Gate (1920), have been released on DVD, and many of his other films
can be had from collectors on VHS. Hart never made a bad film-which
is utterly amazing, given his output.
Like his films, this book is essential to an appreciation of the
history of the American cinema, regardless of its weaknesses. Get
the book, seek out the films, and enjoy.