William S. Hart “The Toll Gate”

September 1, 2008

If Tim McCoy is, as I’ve tried to make the case for before, Charles’ cinematic father, then William S. Hart is Grand-dad!

Starrett has stated in numerous interviews that, growing up, Two Gun Bill was his favorite cowboy hero.

Watching 1920’s “The Toll Gate”, I can see why.  He’s not only tall (like Charley), has a long face (like Charley), but he’s an Easterner too (born in Newburgh, New York, and working in NYC as a postal clerk.)  Interestingly, he is also a stage actor who made the move to Hollywood and film stardom.

In this film, and I understand in many others, he plays a villain – but a villain with a strict moral code.  Though the leader of the infamous outlaw gang “The Raiders”, he once rode 80 miles to warn a fort of an Apache attack.  He’s on the run from the law, but he risks capture to shoot his lame horse even though he knows the gunshot will bring his pursuers down on him.  The posse is closing in but he stops to save a drowning child, etc and ETC!

I wonder if Charley ever ruminated on this fact — that in his most famous role, he emulates his childhood hero — a good guy behind a black mask?

Interestingly, Hart started his film career at the age of 50, right around when Charley was ending his.

The differences: like Tim McCoy, Hart talks to his horse a lot.  Why didn’t CS do this?  Also, he packs two guns.

The best “line” in this silent film: “In my baby days they told me about a man named Judas — I reckon you’re him” over the image of the 3 crosses on the hill at Calvary.  Second best: “I’m going to kill you for two reasons.  One you know, and the second, you’ll never know.”

The film also has a big MORAL: “By thy fruit ye shall know them.”  That’s from the Bible.

Not a lot of morals in Durango Kid films.  Maybe “be good” is the general subtext there.

But Hart, for all his humility and goodness, is tough. In the end, he tosses down his guns and strangles a bad guy, then tosses his corpse off a cliff.

Charley tells Mario DeMarco a story about William Hart (in De Marco’s fine book “Gallant Defender, The Durango Kid”) in which Charles has taken his two boys to the rodeo in Saugus and is trying, poorly, to explain what is going on: “…Bill Hart finally leaned over and said ‘Do you mind if I take your boys over into my box here and explain things properly to them.’ I said that I didn’t mind.  So we had a great time…he was a wonderful person.”

“The Toll Gate” has a tear-jerking ending, where Hart, redeemed and free, nobly passes up the love of a good woman and her son.  We last see him, riding alone, into the sunset.

Of course, Charles would never ride alone.  He always had Durango.


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