Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Reel Cowboys of Western Cinema
A Century of Silver Screen Heroes on Horseback

By Gary Eugene Brown

For those of us who grew up in the 30s, 40s and 50s, cowboy movie stars were often heroes we wanted to emulate...at least us boys. Sure, Babe Ruth, Charles Lindbergh, Jack Dempsey and Sammy Baugh were worthy role models (minus certain off field antics). However, there was something special about those knights on horseback who rode across the screen on their trusty steeds to save the rancher's daughter from a steely eyed banker with foreclosure papers in his vest pocket or to halt a range war between the nesters and the cattlemen.

This is the first installment of a continuing series in which I will share a little background on who those western leading men were (in chronological order) in an attempt to keep their memories alive. Since there were over 100 leading men in cowboy movies from Broncho Billy Anderson to Jeff Bridges, who starred in B Oaters to A Westerns, the list had to be pared down considerably. As such, the following thirty stalwarts are those who, in my opinion, made a major contribution to the genre and/or had an interesting tale to tell. As a disclaimer, if your hero is not one of those featured, don't hold it against the kind folks at High Noon's Smoke Signals. I even had to exclude some of my own favorites.

Photos of William S HartWILLIAM S HART

William Surrey Hart was born in Newburgh, NY in 1864. His biography My Life East and West, begins when he was a small boy in Oswego, IL, where his father ran a flower mill along the Fox River. Bill later accompanied his father on his travels among the Plains Indians in the Dakota Territory where his dad taught them how to establish flower mills. This gave the youngster an opportunity to learn firsthand about the culture of the Lakota and to walk the boardwalks of cattle towns where cowboys reigned. Bill returned to the east coast where he became a world class Race Walker. However, his career interest was to become an actor. He had an opportunity to star in the original production of Ben Hur and a countless number of Shakespearean plays. The first attempts at making westerns by people who did not know their subject matter was appalling to Bill Hart. After all he had been among the real cowboys in Kansas' cow towns. He once remarked after seeing a two reel, so-called western, that the film actor who portrayed the Sheriff looked more like a cross between a "Wisconsin woodchopper and a Gloucester fisherman." This prompted Bill to call his former roommate Thomas Ince, who was making motion pictures in the new town of Hollywood, and plead with him to allow him to make westerns.  In turn, Bill Hart went to the West Coast in 1914 and began making 2 reel films (approx. 20 min.) for Thomas Ince and The New York Motion Picture Company. He soon progressed to making 5 and 7 reel films and eventually became a director with his own production company.

William S Hart went on to become the first major western cinema star and made over 60 films between 1914 and 1925. At the height of his career, he was as popular as the royalty of Tinsel town which included Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford as King and Queen and Charley Chaplain as the Court Jester. Bill's films were serious attempts to portray the West the way it really was at least in Bill's opinion. He was not as flamboyant as Tom Mix and kept his private life to himself. The story lines of his films often began with Bill being a two gun outlaw, who had a mother, sister or pretty school marm who prayed for him to change his evil ways and by the end of the fourth reel; he had turned over a new leaf and began to seek redemption. Bill Hart was also credited with being the first cowboy star to give costar billing to his horse Fritz, a 13 hand Tobiano Paint. His home is the same as it was when he died in 1946. The Santa Clarita, CA museum/historic home which contain a great collection of western art, is open to the public, as Bill deeded the 200 acre ranch to the County of Los Angeles.

The most notable films of his storied career that have survived that are available on DVD/Video are: Hells Hinges; which evidently influenced Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter; The Toll Gate and Tumbleweeds. The latter film, a first class A production, released in 1925, caused a financial burden for Bill who bucked the studio system by distributing his own movie. William Fox and others, controlled the production, distribution and showing of films in their own theaters. The film was rereleased in the late 30s with a prologue added by Hart. This was the first time the public had an opportunity to hear the former Shakespearean actor turned cowboy hero speak. He told the story of Tumbleweeds - The Oklahoma Land Rush and then closed with an emotional, final adieu to his many fans that had spent their nickels to watch his movies as children and now were adults with children of their own. He shared from the heart how much he enjoyed the making of western films..."Oh, the thrill of it all!" and then took off his Montana peaked, sombrero and closed with "Adios Amigos, God bless you all, each and every one." He bowed, turned and walked off into eternity.

For further information: William S Hart, Projecting the American West, written by Ronald L. Davis, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK, 2003

You Tube has the 8 minute moving prologue: "William S Hart, Farewell to the Screen"