All of the films I’ve seen directed by and starring William S. Hart contain an element of Christianity, either directly (quoting of Psalms in the cards for “Toll Gate) or by heavy-handed allegory (everything else).  I’m not sure if Hart was a believer or if he just felt that this sort of sentiment belonged in his films.

In his Dartmouth class notes, Charles Starrett lists his religious affiliation as Episcopal.  I wonder if the Christian elements of Hart’s film helped to make him Charles’ favorite Western star.

Charles would have been eleven when “The Disciple” came out in 1915.  For the first time that I know of, Hart plays an actual man of God.  He’s Jim Houston and the card tells us he’s “The ‘Shootin’ Iron’ parson of the frontier, strong of jaw and good at prayin.'”

He rides into town with his wife, daughter and bible.  The good citizens have sent for a parson and Jim’s here to fill the job.  His first act is to save a man from a drunken lynch mob.  Doc Hardy, the saloon keeper, doesn’t like the sky pilot much, but he does like the look of his wife.

Hart made no sound films, except for the short introduction to the 1939 re-issue of 1925’s “Tumbleweeds.”  However, he was a trained and successful Broadway actor not afraid of the big, dramatic roles — he famously played Ben Hur on stage.  Even in silent dumb show, his sermons in this film are powerful and remind one of Barbara Stanwyck’s turn in Capra’s “Miracle Woman.”  I wish I could have heard them.

He also handles a gun well, even if old “Two-Gun Bill” is short by one.  He pulls it on a crowded bar and sends them to church.  “Are you goin’ to force me to preach to cripples?”

Jim Houston’s religious journey is a twisted path.  In short: he begins full of zeal, his wife splits with Doc Hardy, he tears it with God — “You and me is done”, he becomes a hermit in the hills, his young daughter falls ill — “You’ve struck me another blow from behind”, there’s a big storm, he falls on his knees — “God, I surrender, I surrender”, lightening takes out the roof of a nearby cabin where is wife is hiding, she seeks refuge and finds her sick child — “She must have a doctor”, there ain’t any in the county, but WAIT!  DOC Hardy!

This is Houston’s enemy, the guy who stole his wife and destroyed his faith.  Will he shoot him or ask him to save his daughter’s life?

A little of both.  He holds a gun on the guy and MAKES him save his daughter’s life.  Unlike the ending of a more typical WSH film like “Hell’s Hinges” where he gets righteously angry and burns the whole damn town down, here he forgives his wife AND Doc Hardy.

We then cut to a shot of the three crosses atop Golgatha and a card reading: “God moves in mysterious ways his wonders to perform.”

I guess he does.  It’s sort of boring, though.  Imagine a Clint Eastwood, or Charles Bronson, movie where Clint or Charley takes a pile of shit throughout the film and ends up forgiving his enemies.  It’s like that.

So, by that count, maybe this is the most Christian of Hart’s films.

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Painted on a wall in the Tujunga Wash in the San Fernando Valley, there is a mural entitled “The Great Wall of Los Angeles” designed by Judith Baca.  It follows the history of Los Angeles from Prehistoric times to the 1960s.

Guess who pops up in the section devoted to the early days of cinema?  Charles’ hero!

william-s-hart-great-wall-of-california-001

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.

Charles Starrett would have been 11 or 12 in 1915 when this Alaskan melodrama hit the theaters.

And he would have been 27 when he made “The Viking” set in New Foundland.  I wonder if he got a secret thrill making this third movie, knowing that he was following in his boyhood hero’s snow-covered tracks.

“The Darkening Trail” is, at first, a melodrama set among the social set.  A moneyed “cad” flees a pregnant lover to start over in Alaska, which the card describes as “the melting pot of the North”.

Hart (who directs as well) doesn’t even show up until nearly 20 minutes into the film.  He plays his usual rough jerk with a heart of gold.  He spots the cad for what he is and ultimately punishes him for it.

Hart’s range is so much more impressive than most of the cowboy stars (including Charley).  In this film, where he in essense plays a supporting role, he displays cruelty, honor, crazed mirth, stoic anger, sorrow and blood-thirsty intensity.

But fans of his work watch these movies for two things: to see him ride terrifically (here in a pouring rainstorm) and get mad vengeance (dispatching the cad at the death-bed of his wife.)

Charley does neither of these things very often or very well.

“Hell’s Hinges” is the greatest Clint Eastwood movie not starring Clint Eastwood!

In the form that Charles Starrett sent to the Dartmouth Alumni Records Office in 1956, for inclusion in the Alumni Directory, he lists under religion “Episcopal.”

Watching “Hell’s Hinges” starring and directed by Starrett’s boyhood celluloid hero, William S. Hart, one must wonder how deeply his religious sentiment ran as a child.

The film, released in 1916, is very religious in content and theme.  Like many of Hart’s roles, Blaze is a bad man who finds salvation.  Here it is a pretty straight path to God — he falls for the new Parson’s sister, she has a smile unlike any he’s ever seen, he defends the church from the mob, he becomes a member, and when the mob burns the church down, he burns the whole damn town down!

I like this guy.  He looks cool when he’s evil.  And heroic when he’s good.  I like the way he holds his guns, all hunched over like a coiled snake.  And he rides like a demon.

The religious stuff barely shows up in Starrett’s film (good v. bad maybe) but he didn’t have nearly the control over his pictures that Hard did.  I don’t know but I wonder how much the religous undertones were a part of Charles attraction to the guy.

More here.

William S. Hart’s final film was 1925’s “Tumbleweeds.”  In 1939, for it’s re-release, Hart appeared in his only sound footage for an 8 minute prelude to the film.  He introduced the film then announced his retirement from motion pictures.  It is sublime.

You can see this wonderful performance here.  The entire speech in fantastic, but the words to savor start at 4:15 and…they are…as if written by an angel…

After your heart starts again, behold below you, a humble transcription of the final few minutes of William S. Hart’s speech:

“My friends, I love the art of making motion pictures. It is as the breath of life to me. But through those hazardous feats of horsemanship that I love so well to do for you, I received many major injuries. That, coupled with the added years of life, preclude my again doing those things that I so gloried in doing. The rush of the wind that cuts your face, the pounding hoofs of the pursuing posse, out there in front a fallen tree trunk that spans a yawning canyon, the old animal under you that takes it in the same low ground-eating gallop, the harmless shots of the baffled ones that remain behind, and then, the clouds of dust, through which come the faint voice of the director (cupping hand to mouth) ‘okay, Bill, okay, glad you made it, great stuff, Bill, great stuff, and say, Bill, give ol’ Fritz a pat on the nose for me, will ya?’ Oh, the thrill of it all. You do give old Fritz a pat on the nose, and as your arm encircles his neck, the cloud of dust is no longer a cloud of dust but a beautiful golden haze, through which appears a long phantom herd of trailing cattle, at their head, a pinto pony (sob) a pinto pony with an empty saddle, and then a low, loved whinny, the whinny of a horse so fine that nothing seems to live between it and silence saying ‘say Boss, what you riding back there with the drag fer, why don’t you come on here and ride point with me? Can’t you see, Boss, can’t you see? The saddle is empty. The boys up ahead are calling. They’re waiting for you and me to help drive this last great round-up into eternity.’ Adios Amigos, God bless you all, each and every one.”

Amen.

In 1926, Charles Starrett would have been graduating from Dartmouth and beginning his training on the stage before heading out to Hollywood.

I hope he found time to catch “Tumbleweeds”, the last film by his childhood hero William S. Hart.

Statue featured at the Autry Museum

This is one of those films that’s semi-okay until the last half-hour – then it’s just great!  It’s a Landrush picture and Hart plays, from what I understand from my reading, a rare straight hero role.  He’s suffers though.  And he’s real good at that.

The incredible part of this film is the prologue which was shot for the 1939 re-release.  It features Hart, in his 70’s and dress in cowboy garb, delivering a soliloquy into the camera while standing on a bluff outside Newhall, California.  This has to be the most over-the-top histrionics I have ever seen outside out a Vincent Price flick.

Hart sets up the film with some hyperbolic descriptions (in a posh, Shakespearean voice that has little to do with his Newbourgh, New York upbringing).  The cruel fate of the rancher, the crying hue of the gathering herd, etc.  He lays it on thick and when you think that you can’t take it any more — get out some more hankies, fellas, cuz here comes the encore…

He bids a sad farewell to his audience.  He piles hyperbole upon hyperbole in describing the film-making process which he will miss — the cruel cut of wind in his face, the pounding hoofs of the beast below him, the cloud of dust circling him, the director shouting out “good work, Bill, and give ol’ Fritz a pat on the nose for me”, and pat him he does, as the cloud of dust turns to the shimmer of a thousand gold stars and through it he sees a line of cattle riding into the sky, and at the lead a pretty pony, (gasp) a pretty pony with an empty saddle calling his name…

Incredible.  I like!

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.