William S. Hart: Projecting the American West

by Ronald L. Davis
ISBN: 0806135581

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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 itinerant upbringing.
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 his death?
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.

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