A landmark Western movie
We’ve been looking recently at the career of William S Hart, prototype Western star (click the link to read more about him) and some of his early movies, such as The Bargain and Knight of the Trail.
Well, in the fall of 1915 Hart saw and was greatly influenced by DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, and he decided that he wanted to produce Westerns in the same epic-historical style.
The first fruit of this new ‘grand’ Hart was Hell’s Hinges, released in March 1916. It was another Thomas Ince production but a five-reeler, with a runtime of 64 minutes. It 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/Gomorrah – I’m sure Eastwood had seen this before he made High Plains Drifter) 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, is available on DVD, and is 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, none other than the co-star of his first feature, The Bargain). 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.
It’s interesting how the rather puritan Hart in a 1916 moralistic tale could show a clergyman getting drunk and spending the night with a saloon girl. This was pre-Hays Code, of course, and Prohibition didn’t come in until 1920.
A typical title card will give you a flavor: badman Blaze tells Faith, “I reckon God ain’t wantin’ me much, ma’am, but when I look at you, I feel I’ve been ridin’ the wrong trail.” Ince’s favorite writer C Gardner Sullivan wrote the story and the texts. According to David Menefee in an article about the movie on the Library of Congress site (the movie is kept there), “Gardner’s tailor-made tales were largely responsible for Hart becoming one of the biggest stars of the 1910s.” Well, maybe.
Visually, the film is sophisticated, with longshot crowd scenes and panoramic wide angles especially being handled with skill and artistry. There’s also an extended panning shot which follows the stagecoach traveling in the hills. The company went out to Lake Arrowhead in the San Bernadino National Forest to find appropriate locations. Menefee says, “Because of Hart’s personal familiarity with the real West, the town of Hell’s Hinges looks remarkably like paintings by renowned Western artists, such as Charles Marion Russell, Thomas Moran, and Frederick [sic] Remington.” Sepia, blue and red tinting are used to convey the atmosphere of different scenes, which is curious and innovative. The cinematography was by the great Joseph H August, a later Oscar-nominee, who was to do the epic Tumbleweeds for Hart in 1925 and also work with John Ford at Fox. There is, in addition, some quite advanced cross-cutting typical of Ince which enhances the narrative flow.
It’s a high-octane drama rather than a traditional Western. Yes, there are very Western scenes – 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 stilted and pious, not to say pompous, though they are, I think, occasionally poetic.
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, Athos in The Three Musketeers the same year) 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.” Hart villains were frequently half-breeds or Mexicans. Hollingsworth did play up the pantomime villain a bit but I was secretly on his side.
Hart’s beloved pinto Fritz only makes a brief appearance, though.
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 Theodore Roosevelt, Frederic Remington and Owen Wister’s racialist school of Anglo-Saxon Western hero, ‘nature’s aristocrat’, proving his manhood and clearing away the racially low trash of society by resorting to violence. Two of Hart’s films later the same year, The Aryan and The Patriot, made this even more explicit. We gloss over that.
The film was received very well and was a major success, playing for many years afterwards. Even while it was being shot a reporter in Moving Picture World wrote, “It is said that Hell’s Hinges, the coming Triangle release in which Hart is starred as a Western character, will prove a revelation of dramatic strength.” On its release, Variety said, “The panoramic scenes are well-taken, particularly the scene shown at the minister’s arrival at Hell’s Hinges. Hart in the stellar role is himself at all times, blending action with genuine character work and excelling in the close-ups, where his facial expressions carry the story unaided. The religious reference is nicely guarded, and the supporting cast acquit themselves admirably. It’s a corking feature. . .”
Hell’s Hinges is an important landmark in the history of the Western and it’s also a quality film that deserves to be seen.
We’ll leave Bill Hart there for a while. We’ll come back another day to discuss other Westerns of his that still exist. But from tomorrow, on to other things!