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S. Hart: The First King of the Cowboys

Tumbleweeds (1925 film)In the Thomas Ince and Bison stable of actors, several Indian actors, like William Eagelshirt, find attractive and worthwhile employment, but no Indian ever reaches stardom.  William S. Hart, a Ince actor is Broncho Billy's successor as the Number 1 cowboy star.  A native New Yorker, Hart's family moves to the Midwest when it is still the frontier.  After the Western has seen screen success, his wish is to make realistic Westerns.  As a stage actor, Hart has attained some success. 

In 1913, the 49-year-old actor renews his association with Thomas Ince, his roommate when they toured in a play.  In the first year, Ince puts Hart to work making a couple of features and a succession of two-reel movies.  The pictures are highly successful and Ince manages to keep this from Hart.  For both acting and directing, Ince pays him $125 a week.  Under personal contract to Ince, when Ince moves to Triangle and then to Famous Players - Lasky in 1917, he takes Hart with him.  With Famous Players - Lasky, Hart is paid $150,000 per picture and earns an equal to the pictures earnings.  (For the equivalent sum in the 2000s, multiply the figures by 12.)

Hart's screen role has a common ground with Broncho Billy, they both wear cowboy clothes.  In one of his best-known films, Hell's Hinges (1916), William S. Hart plays the Good Badman.  He is the cowboy who drifts outside the law and a woman's love, he fears is too good for him, reforms him.  Like Broncho Billy, he is ill at ease with women, where Billy shows a comic shyness, Hart presents stiffly rigid coldness.  If Hart owes to others, he expands and improves the Western.  To his roles, he produces a honest strength that, even viewed today, holds its power.  Hart is unmatched at communicating, just through the look on his face, be it, merciless hate of outlaws or unshakeable determination to hunt revenge.  Some critics believe that "among Westerners only Randolph Scott is ever to rival Hart in the ability to suggest a soul ennobled by suffering."

Now common in Westerns, Hart also emphasizes the hero as a loner.  He rarely has partners or family.  His Westerns introduces the subject of the frontier town torn between lawlessness and honest citizens building a community.  Today we see Hart's Victorian melodrama as stiff, but importantly, we see his movies making a point.  There is an honest plainness in his image.  Having lived in the West, he makes sure that he keeps an honest perspective.  An example is the frontier towns.  They are drab and lack refinement that the old pictures capture and are more true to life than we find in many Westerns.

Hart's career peaks around 1920 for the 56-year-old star.  The decline is swift; after 1921, he makes just three films.  Turnbleweeds, (1925) is his last film.  A new and very different hero has already replaced Hart as the Number 1 Western star.

More History

History of Western Films & TV
Western Stars
TV Westerns

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