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Friday, 14 January 2011

Top Ten Western Actors - No 10 William S Hart

As a serious student of the western genre I have watched a lot of the silent westerns, the films from which the modern western evolved and I felt I had to start this list with one of the early icons of the western movie.  I did briefly consider Tom Mix but then, as good as he was, his westerns were far more formulaic than those of William S. Hart. And it was Hart who gave Hollywood its first truly classic westerns.

In many ways Hart's world weary cowboy anticipated the coming of stars like Gary Cooper, Randolph Scott and Henry Fonda. And although his westerns were highly romanticised the actor would never wear the star spangled costumes favoured by the likes of Tom Mix and insisted that his pictures had an authentic look. The actor was friends with real life western legends Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson and he would avidly listen to the tales the men told of the days in the Old West. Many of these stories, some no doubt exaggerated and others downright lies, would be worked into many of his motion pictures.

Before embarking on westerns Hart was a successful Shakespearean actor on Broadway who had worked with Margaret Mather and other stars, he appeared in the original 1899 stage production of Ben-Hur. Hart went on to become one of the first great stars of the motion picture western. Fascinated by the Old West, he acquired Billy the Kid's "six shooters". He entered films in 1914 where, after playing supporting roles in two short films, he achieved stardom as the lead in the feature The Bargain. Hart was particularly interested in making realistic western films. His films are noted for their authentic costumes and props, as well as Hart's extraordinary acting ability, honed on Shakespearean theatre stages in the United States and England, he brought a gravitas to his westerns that few could emulate.

Hart invented many of the devices that would become western clich├ęs - he always seemed to play the good bad man and John Wayne's breakthrough character, The Ringo Kid owed more than a little to William S. Hart. Indeed the way Wayne rode upright in the saddle is a direct copy of Hart's style. Strange then that Hart is not as well remembered as many of the other silent western stars.

Key westerns:
(All of these films have survived and are available on DVD. Though only on Region 1. The films are in the public domain and many can be found online - below we have the movie, Tumbleweeds. The film is complete on You Tube, but split over eight parts. The Archive has embedded the first part only.)

Tumbleweeds 1925

Wild Bill Hickock 1923

The Gunfighter 1917

Hell's Hinges  1916


Cullen Gallagher said...

William S Hart is one of my favorites!

Ron Scheer said...

Hart was there at the invention of the Hollywood western (after Broncho Billy Anderson). Although he was an advocate of authenticity, for me, his films tend to be a bit sentimental and melodramatic. His house here on the outskirts of LA is a wonderful museum of the period, furnished as he left it, with original Charles Russell paintings.

QUESTION: Where is it possible to buy silent westerns on DVD?