William S Hart’s first feature Western
The other day we were discussing the career of one of the big early stars of the Western genre, William S Hart (click the link for that). Hart’s very first feature was made with the great pioneer of cinema Thomas H Ince – Ince is actually credited on screen as ‘director’ but in fact he was really the producer, and co-writer, and the day-by-day directing was done by Reginald Barker, who had made his directorial debut in 1912 with On the Warpath, an Art Accord Western, and was highly thought of by Ince.
The picture is a major one, a seven-reeler clocking in at 70 minutes. It was shot around Williams, Arizona and Hart persuaded Ince to let him go up to the Grand Canyon to shoot quite a few scenes there. Certainly the settings are impressive, and DP Robert Newhard (his first Western; he would become a Hart/Ince regular) and, uncredited, the great Joseph H August did a great job. August had in fact begun as a wrangler at Inceville, the studios Ince built, and switched to cameraman duties in 1912. After years working with Hart August would move to Fox and shoot film for John Ford (though not on Westerns).
Ince had at first tried to dissuade Hart from making a feature Western. He said they were a glut on the market and cited the low box-office receipts of “a fine film” he had made with John Ford’s elder brother Francis, Custer’s Last Fight (1912). But Hart was very keen to do one, and in fact it was a hit. The picture was immediately bought by Famous Players (which is why the current print has Paramount on the title screen). Many of Hart’s Westerns have not survived but fortunately this one has; it is in the Library of Congress, and in fact has been restored. This means that the version we see today is very watchable. And it repays the effort, too, for it’s a quality film and quite a landmark in the early history of our noble genre.
The plot is one that would become a Hart standard: the badman redeemed by the love of a good woman. Hart is ‘Two-Gun’ Jim Stokes, stage robber. In the opening scenes he holds up the Overland, using Black Bart’s trick of hiding rifles and hats in the brush by the side of the road to fool the passengers and crew into thinking that he has accomplices when in fact he is working alone. The ploy works and he gets away with the swag, but is wounded and his horse killed, and reduced to staggering on foot through the Badlands. This part is pretty hammy, with Hart overacting wildly, but that was the norm then, and to be fair for most of the film Hart is quite restrained.
An old prospector (J Barney Sherry, who would be Robert E Lee in a 1924 Fox picture under Cecil B DeMille’s brother William) finds Jim and takes him back to his cabin where his daughter Nell (Clara Williams, the future Mrs Reginald Barker) naturally falls in love with the bandit – who has pretended he was attacked by Indians. Ms Williams was 26 then, and Hart 50, so it’s not entirely convincing as a youthful romance but Hart looked quite young(ish) and just about gets away with it. Clara would often co-star with Hart, most notably in Hell’s Hinges (1915).
A circuit-rider preacher conveniently arrives, the colorful Reverend Joshua Wilkes (Joseph J Dowling) with a large umbrella and riding on a mule, and so the couple are duly wed.
All these actors, by the way, are introduced to us in the first reel, starting with Hart, in full evening dress which cleverly, with 1914 trick photography, morphs into their Western costumes.
Jim decides to go straight and return the loot to the express office, and duly wraps up a parcel and rides into town to mail it. But he is recognized there as the robber, and obliged to flee, making for the Mexican border.
The sheriff back in Arizona (second-billed and absurdly over-made-up J Frank Burke, who would also reappear in Hell’s Hinges, and two other Hart Westerns besides) pursues him to the border town of El Tempo, captures Jim and recovers the stolen money, but then, the rogue, loses it all at the (crooked) gambling tables in a (rather good) saloon. It is now that Jim seals the titular bargain: he will recover the money and save the sheriff’s honor if he be allowed to ride off into the sunset with his lady-love. To see if he does so, you will have to watch the movie yourself – though you may guess.
There’s quite sophisticated intercutting going on here, and even some flashbacks, carrying the narrative along, and we sense the work of Ince. This is a well-made film and it’s fascinating to see what huge strides had already been made since early pictures such as The Great Train Robbery (1903) and The Bank Robbery (1908) – click the links to read about those. The Bargain looks really quite ‘modern’.
Hart says in his autobiography, My Life East and West (1929) that Ince had a story for a two-reeler that Hart himself doubled in length, and the chief writer, C Gardner Sullivan, pronounced it “splendid”. Credited as writers, though, are Ince and William H Clifford, who wrote 14 silent Westerns between 1913 and 1921.
Hart said, “What an exquisite pleasure it was to work in The Bargain! I rode five horses in the picture, but the principal one was Midnight, a superb coal-black animal that weighed about twelve hundred pounds.” He adds, “We did skyline rides along the tops of ridges so fast that the camera man could not hold us, ho matter how he placed his ‘set-up’.” He tried to buy the horse but failed, saying he later heard the poor beast was “working a plow in Oklahoma.”
If you are at all interested in early Westerns, do try to see The Bargain if you can. You won’t be disappointed.
More Hart Westerns to be reviewed soon – keep coming back!