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The Silent Collection

By Tammy Stone

Featuring:
WILLIAM S. HART

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1920's William S. Hart Postcard1917 Kromo Gravure William S Hart Trading Card“My friends, I loved the art of making motion pictures.  It is as the breath of life to me…the rush of the wind that cuts your face, the pounding hooves of the pursuing posse, and then the clouds of dust!  Through the cloud of dust comes the faint voice of the director, 'Now, Bill, OK!  Glad you made it!  Great stuff, Bill, great stuff!” – William S. Hart 

William S. Hart was a true Renaissance man of the silent screen. He acted, produced and directed, and many attribute this man as the person who changed the Western film forever – and for the better. Always a popular form (cinema was only around for 19 years when young William joined the scene), the Western was kicked up a notch in terms of style, aesthetics and even philosophy through William’s visionary eyes. Of course, William also ensured posterity for himself by molding out of himself the first new hero of the Wild West.

William Surrey Hart is among the older of our silent stars, born in Newburgh, New York circa 1864. His family travel around a lot, most through the Midwest, which might have inspired the child’s imminent career. His father was looking for a stable job so that his family could stop moving around and so that he could find a place to build a mill, but this never happened while he was young. William, therefore, grew up amid the vast expanses of the West, cavorting with ranchers, Indians and cowboys – if this isn’t the stuff legends are made of, what is? William was a sensitive child, and developed a deep respect for these groups of people – he even learned some of the Sioux language, and retained much of what he gleaned from these cultures that were so unlike his own.

While still a teenager, the family moved back to New York, and here William achieved a sort of stability. His career inclinations, however, were anything but: he took immediately to the stage, and by the turn of the century he had already performed all over North America. Among his notable stage performances were roles in The Man in the Iron Mask and Ben Hur – the latter seems to be a common favourite for many of our silent stars! William, in fact, began his career-long fascination with Westerns on the stage when in 1905, he played the character “Cash” Hawkins in The Squaw Man. In a way, he was typecast from this point on, perhaps by choice. He found his calling, in any case.

It was 1914 when William decided to head out to California to make Westerns – atWilliam S Hart Tobacco Card this point, California was rapidly becoming the hub for filmmaking. It seems like he didn’t struggle to hard to carve his niche in the industry – he was already an accomplished actor, and certainly knew the West well. He fit right in, and started his career off acting as well as writing scripts, working primarily with Bison Films, which specialized in making Westerns with real stagecoaches and buffalo herds.

William Hart became known as “Two Gun Bill” – his vision included dramatically shifting the way Westerns were made and using more realistic locations and scenarios. It seemed to work, as he became more and more popular with audiences both as an actor and as director of this genre that has faded in appeal. Some of his string hits include: Grit (1915), The Conversion of Frosty Blake (1915), Breed of William S. Hart Every Girl's Paper SupplementMen, Hell's Hinges (1916), The Apostle of Vengeance (1916), The Square Deal Man (1917), The Desert Man (1917), The Gun Fighter (1917), The Narrow Trail (1917), The Tiger Man (1918), Blue Blazes Rawden (1918), Square Deal Sanderson (1919), and The Toll Gate (1920). William also made films in other genres, such as the social melodramas The Cradle of Courage (1920) and The Whistle (1921).

Two Gun Bill continued making films up to 1925, becoming to Westerns what Chaplin was to comedy and Fairbanks to drama. Unlike many stars, whose fame and appeal often fade by the time they finally decide to step out of the limelight, Bill’s last film is widely considered to be his masterpiece, and also one of the seminal films of the silent era. Tumbleweeds is set in 1889 and revolves around cowboy Dan Carver, who falls in love with a woman and wants to buy her a ranch, but is thwarted when he’s arrested as a Sooner he can no longer take part in the land rush. Tumbleweeds, unlike many of Hart’s earlier films, was more epic in scope, counter to the gritty, realistic style he aimed for in the past. But the times were changing, and with this film, he managed to both stay in the game and go William S. Hart 5-1/2 X 8-1/2 Magazine Premiumout with a bang – so to speak.

After 1925, William bought the Newhall, California property on which he had shot many of his films. He had an architect build him a palatial Spanish colonial-style mansion, where he resided until 1927: he called it La Loma de los Vientos. Until his death in 1946, he spent time collecting West-themed artifacts, writing more than a dozen novels and short stories, and his own autobiography, My Life East and West. He also hob-nobbed with other figures in the mythic world of the West, including C.C. Cristadoro, James Montgomery Flagg, Will Rogers and Wyatt Earp.

When William died, he left his estate to the county of Los Angeles, because he wanted to give back to the people what they had given to him; today, this property is called William S. Hart Park, home to a museum, hiking trails, picnic areas, an exhibit of farm machinery, and a campground for those who want to sling through William’s world for a night or two – at least in their imaginations. Most importantly, 110 acres of this property is set aside as a wilderness area, not to be encroached by development initiatives. Through William’s initiatives and desire that people should have the resources they need to understand his favourite aspect of Americana, the West lives on.
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Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Watch for her regular column on the greats of the Silent Screen in each issue of The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.  Tammy invites you to write her at stonetamar@hotmail.com with any questions or comments on her column.