A landmark Western movie
William S Hart was one of the first ‘movie stars’ as we understand the term and he was the screen cowboy - he was to his era what John Wayne was to ours.
Wm S Hart, Western hero
This was curious in a way. Hart was born in the East (Newburgh, NY) and grew up in New York City. He was a professional stage actor, not a cowboy. Apart from a short trip in the 1870s, Hart did not experience the ‘cowboy and Indian’ West until he first began to make Western movies at the age of forty-nine.
But he was noticed as a cowboy in a minor part in the stage version of The Squaw Man and then made it big with the lead in The Virginian on Broadway. Suddenly, he was an ‘authentic’ Westerner and he even asserted, untruthfully and rather ungratefully, that Wister’s work was “at variance with cowboy life as I knew it.”
But he made a conscious effort, consulting Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson and other survivors of the ‘real’ West, and insisting on ‘authentic’ Western costumes (i.e. scruffy and utilitarian rather than glamorous or showy).
The plots of Hart’s movies (and they were often his movies in the sense that he frequently directed, wrote and produced the pictures as well as acting the lead in them) were pure dime novel-West, and he established a ‘type’: he was almost always a tough badman redeemed through the love of a good woman. The villains were usually “racially low” types such as half-breeds and Mexicans.
He started making one- and two-reeler silent Westerns in 1914, often working with Thomas H Ince, and by 1916 he had already starred in 22 short films. But Hart was greatly influenced by DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation in the fall of 1915 and he strove to produce Westerns in the same epic-historical style.
Hart's first great picture
The first fruit of this new ‘grand’ Hart was Hell’s Hinges in 1916. It was another Thomas Ince production but now ran to 53 minutes and had a large cast, a big set (which was burned down in the final reel to create a Hellish inferno or a sort of Western Sodom or Gomorrah) and it was really quite ambitious in scope. It cost over $30,000, more than four times as much as any previous Hart Western. Fortunately for us it survives - the majority of Hart pictures did not - and is available on DVD, and more than watchable today.
Of course the basic story is the same: Hart is Blaze Tracey (a name redolent both of fire and blazing a trail). He is a tough hombre who has strayed from the path of righteousness (he drinks, smokes and plays cards) and he is redeemed by a beautiful and good woman (Clara Williams). But there’s quite a clever plot development as the heroine’s brother, a young clergyman (Jack Standing), who has come out West with her, then slides into sin and depravity in parallel with Hart’s climb to goodness and decency. The heroine is named Faith, and Blaze seeks faith just as his lover’s brother loses his.
The young parson strays from the straight and narrow
Visually, the film is sophisticated, with the longshot crowd scenes and panoramic wide angles especially being handled with skill and artistry. The cinematography was by Joseph August, who was later to do the great Tumbleweeds and also work with John Ford.
It’s a high-octane drama rather than a traditional Western. Yes, there are very Western scènes - in the saloon, for example, as Blaze holds the gamblers and drinkers at gunpoint - but a lot of the movie isn’t like that. It’s more about clergy and upright lay folk coping with the wages of sin. As such, it has a Victorian air about it and the captions seem to us now very stilted and pious, not to say pompous, though they are, I think, occasionally poetic.
Blaze holds off the saloon reprobates
The New York Herald of the day said:
'Hell's Hinges,' one of those traditional places on the frontier of the Wild West, 'where there ain't no Ten Commandments and a man can get a thirst,' was pictured in the most lurid manner.
Well, you could call it lurid. It all looks a bit tame by today’s standards of course. But there’s certainly a clear - not to say heavy-handed - moral message and it is also true that the principal actors - Hart himself, Standing as the weak-willed reverend and Clara Williams as his sister, Hart’s love - are all really quite restrained for the period. They limit their silent-movie melodramatic hamming and come across as, well, almost subtle.
I also liked the saloon owner Silk Miller (Alfred Hollingsworth) in his black frock coat and small goatee (a classic bad guy). The intertitle cards describe him as having “the oily craftiness of the Mexican.” Hollingsworth did play up the pantomime villain a bit but I was secretly on his side.
Silk Miller is the roguish saloon owner. Hart is also smiling (most unusual).
Is it me or does he look slightly Tommy Lee Jones-ish?
No sign of Fritz, though. Hart’s horse is a handsome bay.
Actually, in 1924 a real town came to a similar fate when Cromwell, Oklahoma was burned to the ground by person or persons unknown in response to the murder of the famous lawman Bill Tilghman. But that’s another story.
At the end Blaze and Faith abandon the burned-out town and set off for California – another future convention of the Western movie. California represented another, further frontier, once the original one has proved either too corrupt or too civilized.
Hell’s Hinges is, in a way, a visual representation of Roosevelt, Remington and Wister’s racialist school of Anglo-Saxon Western hero proving his manhood and clearing away the trash of society by resorting to violence. Hart’s next two films, The Aryan and The Patriot, later the same year, made this even more explicit.
Blaze is meditative as the corrupt town burns
Still, it’s an important landmark in the history of the Western and it’s also a quality film that deserves to be seen. Mi raccomando.