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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Buffalo Bill's Defunct
by Donald Levit

With James Fenimore Cooper, Owen Wister and Zane Grey, William S. Hart did much to shape America’s legend, its picture of its male self: Raoul Walsh noted that, born in 1846 and making movies not long after frontier days, Hart was “stone-faced, steely-eyed, was law and order behind the hammers of his six guns . . . projecting the same cool, efficient authority of Tombstone’s renowned marshal.” However, by the 1920s the popularity of that biggest money-making star of 1915 was fast fading. That now he is “not well known anymore” is putting it mildly. The seven-week Museum of Modern Art “A Pioneer Cowboy” should restore some of the deserved luster, though the retrospective concludes with odd choice Hart-less The Texas Rangers, 1936, by King Vidor.

Like younger fellow Easterner John Ford, Hart loved the West. A respected Shakespearean stage actor in the U.K. and U.S. -- thus the story that his middle name was homage to the Bard, whereas it was actually Surrey -- and then in Western dramas on Broadway, already in his late forties he turned to moving pictures, working at Triangle Film Corporation with producer friend Thomas H. Ince. At first a two-reeler villain, he developed into, with Douglas Fairbanks, the biggest screen star here and abroad, acting and then directing and even writing and a hair’s breadth from joining Fairbanks, Pickford and Chaplin in the birth of United Artists.

His uncompromising insistence on gritty realism and accuracy, on drab workmanlike costumes and plainspun characters, on location landscapes to be made Monument Valley recognizable by Ford and Hawks, and, increasingly, on pithy moralizing and religiosity, began to weary audiences that switched allegiance to more glamorous, action-filled oaters and flashy stars and their horses. (The name of Hart’s pinto, Fritz, sounded suspicious in the wake of World War I.) But before Mix and Autry, Hoppy and Hoot, Roy and Lash, Brown, Jones, Duke and Clint, there was William S. Hart, a Knight, as an early title has it, of the Trails.

Equally indicative and blunt are His Hour of Manhood, The Scourge of the Desert, The Silent Stranger, Every Inch a Man, Breed of Men, Square Deal Sanderson. The Testing Block, O’Malley of the Mounted, Travelin’ On, among dozens.

To Ben Model’s or Donald Sosin’s improvisation piano and all drawn from the Museum’s own vaults, relying on iris-/circle-out’s and iris-/circle-in’s the crisply restored silent prints shine with Joe H. August cinematography and bonus surprises such as unobtrusive color tinting added from original written instructions accompanying the reels, e.g., yellowy for some interiors, bluish for nighttime exteriors. They refreshingly say their piece and get out in at the very most a shade over one hour.

The formula is as American as that of countless others. Shane may come to mind, or another infamous gunslinger, John Wayne’s Quirt Evans, reformed by spunky Quaker pacifist daughter Penelope Worth (sad, doomed Gail Russell) in generic title-candidate Angel and the Badman.

Hart directed, executive produced and starred in, for example, The Tiger Man among his ten features in 1918 alone. Equally Great Stone Face as Buster Keaton, his Tiger and outlaw followers embarrass Sheriff Sandy Martin (Charles K. French) and escape from the Calaboose into Tularosa desert, where, “40 miles from water, 40 miles from hell,” a small wagon train is stuck, dying of thirst and menaced by Apaches.

Reconnoitering, Tiger comes upon praying Ruth (Jane Novak), wife of deathly ill missionary minister Luke Ingram (Robert Lawrence). Cut from the same mold as fair heroines in other Hart films, she is virtuously intrigued by the craggily handsome manly bandit, who will save the entire party in exchange for her coming away with him. Cowards all, they rush to agree, prompting him to uncommon sarcasm, that they have bought their own lives by selling hers.

Not morally and physically deformed like baddies and some goodies in spaghetti Westerns, confronted with her piousness in his hidden lair the Tiger is unable to consummate any nefarious purposes he presumably entertained. In newfound Christian redemption, he returns the woman inviolate to recovered preaching Reverend Luke, into the bargain saving the church from unfriendly fancy-Dan gamblers, and surrenders to the law and through the barred window listens in awe to Ruth’s un-Christmas “Silent Night, Holy Night” to the congregation across the plaza.

Such “chiseled biblical morality” may have perished in the bloody muddy fields of the Great War, but two years later, in what most consider among his best, The Toll Gate is not all that different. His name giving rise to a number of today embarrassing dialect-spelling dialogue-title remarks about being white, about to retire desperado Black Derring is betrayed to U.S. soldiers aboard a train, by gang member Tom Jordan (Joseph Singleton). The troops scorn the venal Judas while dicing for cash instead of the biblical casting lots for the condemned man’s vesture, allowing the outlaw to escape. In Rincon town, the fugitive comes across his betrayer in his reward blood-money Jordan’s Casino. Pursued by a good decent sheriff (Jack Richardson) and Jordan’s henchmen, he rescues drowning “Little Feller” Brown (Richard Headrick) and finds refuge with the toddler’s grateful mother Mary (Anna Q. Nilsson), widowed or deserted in her settler’s cabin South of the Border.

“By their deeds ye shall know them” is the text hammered home in this exemplum. The open, frequent moralizing elicits titters nowadays. But the down-to-earth plots and lack of studio-set process-screen artificiality make the best of Hart -- there is much that is mediocre or less-than-good, as well -- better than an awful lot of cookie-cutter ‘thirties, ‘forties and ‘fifties cowboys-and-Indians stuff.

The “Old West” is dismissed as a place that never existed. Revisionist historians have focused on the ‘real’ West as a place of sexism, racism, pointless violence and the willful destruction of natural resources.” Yet, fact and/or fiction, Hart’s Wild West exerts an inexorable pull on the national, and international, psyche.

An astute business- and PR-man, nearing distribution-litigation involved in the end of his career in pictures, for his third-to-last Hart picked a subject close to him. In ignored rather than simply stretched historical fact, famous personal friends Wyatt Earp -- whose pallbearers in 1929 would include Hart and Mix -- and Bat Masterson were worked into the script he co-wrote with J.G. Hawks. Josephine Sarah Marcus Earp had written to ask him to portray and vindicate her husband because “during the past few years, many wrong impressions . . . have been created.”

However, Hart is instead titular Wild Bill Hickok, in which movie Earp (Bert Lindley) very briefly appears, as deputy to Dodge City Sheriff Bat Masterson (Jack Gardner), both highly controversial gunmen-or-murderers portrayed on-screen for the first time, the former for the only time during his life. They and Calamity Jane (Ethel Grey Terry) were to be revisioned seventy-two years later by Walter Hill in Wild Bill, though it had been John Sturges’ 1957 Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, from a Leon Uris script, that cemented the myth-legend, playing as fast and loose with places and people as the others.

The 1923 Hart and Hawks take centers on Hickok’s supposed retirement from violence between the gunfight at Red Creek Butte overland stage station and that of the Water Barrels, the now-unarmed hero keeping his promise to send money to the widow and children of Joe McCord (Leo Willis), a bandit whom he had killed and who first coined the “Wild Bill.” Tall and a bit of a dandy, he deals faro in Tom Sherman’s saloon, is fussed over by Calamity and, admitted woman-hater that he is, falls for tenderfoot Elaine (Kathleen O’Connor), stuck in town with frail Edgar Allan Poe-lookalike husband Clayton Hamilton (Carl Gerard); he remains in awe of and in love with her even after learning that the two Easterners are not the brother and sister he assumed.

Some quarter-hour is missing from this fifty-five-minute print made from Hart’s own 35mm nitrate copy, and that lost footage may have expanded the rôle of General George Armstrong Custer beyond a couple frames at Fort Dodge and thus somewhat shifted the focus. As is, Bart and his deputies need the hero to strap on his shooting irons to clean up the city against Jack McQueen (James Farley) and his roughnecks (and rescue Elaine from the oily cad’s unwelcome attentions and intentions).

Generous to the lady’s hapless mate, Wild Bill brings up “some poetry-man who said better to have loved and lost than never loved at all” and on Pinto rides off into the sunset, through the cemetery, blessed by his renounced wedded love.

In this little bit of fact and lot of fancy, Hart departs from his usual bad man turned good for a pure woman who belongs to another and so must be given up. His real life less than unblemished, this movie-myth Hickok is saintly from start to finish and even specifically paralleled with his hero Abraham Lincoln. Only misguided bargirl Fanny Kate (Naida Carle) reforms, and that with his kind help; everyone else is good or bad, no gradations in between.

At the star-coscripter-producer’s insistence, director Clifford S. Smith opens the film with a photogravure of the handsome, muttonchop-whiskered and longish-haired title character, followed by a still of the clean-shaved and short-haired actor and a printed disclaimer of any makeup attempt to have the two resemble one another and a thank-you for the audience’s accepting the actor as the lawman-gunman. This implies that, aside from this physical dissimilarity, the rest is true. That is hardly so. “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

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