William S. Hart “The Bargain”

October 22, 2008

The film starts with a neat trick.  William S. Hart is elegant in a tuxedo with slick hair.  He bows and slowly transforms into a rough tough cowboy.

Imagine the same dissolve trick for Charles’ career in 1935.  From dapper dandy to western hero.

Twenty years earlier, in 1915 when Charles was 11 years old, he might have caught this film on a rare trip from his exile on a South China farm to the big city of Boston.

His childhood movie idol, William S. Hart, was starring in his first feature.  Making his own transformation from denizen of Broadway to the star of Tom Ince’s western films.

Hart has a great name in his first major role.  He’s “Jim Stokes, the two gun man.”  This appears to be his full name.  That’s the way it’s written in the telegraph to the stagecoach warning them that he’s in their territory.  It’s on his wanted poster after he robs said stage.  Sometimes folks call him “Jim Stokes, the bandit”, like when the posse is looking for him.  “He’s a two gun man and I need help”, says the sheriff when he catches up with Jim at the border.

Since this is a William S. Hart film, it’s a tale of sin and redemption.  And sacrifice.  Lots and lots of sacrifice.

Poor Charles Starrett.  For all his time in a white hat, he never got to play as remotely a heroic role as this one.

There’s a telling moment in this film that, I think, helps explain why.  Jim needs to commit one last robbery to set things straight.  To do so, he needs a mask.  We see him take a bandanna from his pocket.  He presses it against a wooden post.  He opens a knife and cuts a pair of eye-holes.

Contrast this moment with Steve riding behind a rock, any rock, anywhere, and emerging seconds later riding a different horse, wearing a different outfit and a freshly pressed silk mask.

When it’s that easy, it’s just not that heroic.

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