Two Ince/Hart shorts
Although William S Hart was anxious to do ‘serious’ multi-reel feature Westerns when he started making films with Thomas H Ince (click the links for our essays on Hart and Ince), he was more or less obliged to do a series of two-reel shorts. In fact in 1915 there were fifteen shorts to only two features.
Many of these silent movies have sadly not survived but we’ll look today at a couple that have, Bad Buck of Santa Ynez, released in May 1915, and The Ruse (July).
Santa Ynez Canyon was where Ince’s new studios, known as Inceville, were growing up, a plant which had everything needed to make Western motion pictures. So they were able to film in on the metaphorical doorstep.
Like many of these movies, this one was directed by Hart himself and written by Ince, this time from a story by JG Hawks. The cameraman is not listed but it may have been Joseph H August, who worked a lot with Hart and went on to be a key cinematographer for John Ford.
It’s a classic ‘badman redeemed’ Hart picture. That was his standard character and plot. There is nothing Bad Buck likes better than making a fool of the local sheriff (Bob Kortman, usually an Ince villain, who would later be Magua in the 1932 Last of the Mohicans), and we see Buck in the saloon forcing the lawman to drink with him at gunpoint – because he “ain’t perticular” who he drinks with. It leads to gunplay and Bad Buck is obliged to skedaddle.
But we have seen in the opening scene a prospector (unnamed actor, who looks like Gabby Hayes) and his wife (Fanny Midgley, who was in 48 of Ince’s films!) and child (Thelma Salter) in a wagon, and the prospector has a bad fever and expires, leaving the frail females defenseless. On the run from the sheriff, Bad Buck comes up to the weeping pair and despite himself, because he knows the posse is after him, tarries to bury the late prospector. Buck may be a badman but he does the decent thing, naturally.
Actually, he takes the woman and little girl back to his shack and tells them they can stay as long as they like. You sense nuptials in the air – he has certainly taken a shine to the bairn. But of course the posse is hot on his trail.
Unfortunately the little girl is bitten by a rattler. Bad Buck tries to suck the poison out and gallops (on Fritz) to get a doctor, but to do that he has to go back through town, and one posse member wings him with a lucky shot as he is doing so. Well, he grabs the doc and they rush back. The medic saves the child but it’s too late for the gallant Buck, who there expires. Ince was on record as saying he preferred happy endings because that’s what the public wanted; well, they didn’t get it this time.
It’s rather a melodrama, to be honest, and most of the acting is not exactly restrained, shall we say, but it zooms along and Bill Hart does his thing. Quite satisfactory. It’s available on a Blu-ray along with the restored 5-reeler Wolf Lowry, which we reviewed the other day – click the link for that.
The Ruse is actually more of a crime melodrama than a Western. Apart from an opening scene in a Western saloon, in which “reformed gunfighter” Bat Peters (Hart) helps an old drunk who is being bullied by a bar room lout (Shorty Hamilton is one of the cowboys), all the rest of the action takes place in an urban setting, Chicago, with a smarmy crook, Folsom (John Davidson, who was still acting in the early 1960s; this was one of six pictures he did for Ince) and his thuggish henchmen (one of whom is habitual Ince heavy Bob Kortman, the sheriff above) trying to swindle Bat out of his mine claim.
Not only is Folsom a crook, he is also pressing his most unwelcome attentions on his young stenographer Miss Dawson (Clara Williams, nine pictures with Hart, including the big features The Bargain and Hell’s Hinges) and when this fair assistant overhears her boss’s wicked plot, he kidnaps her and has her held against her will by a foul old harridan (Gertude Claire, 71 pictures with Ince, nine of them with Hart).
The lowdown scheme continues when one of the henchmen, dressed up as a Westerner to get Bat’s confidence but actually “bogus”, gets our hero into a rigged card game to cheat him out of the money Folsom has just paid him for his mine. But Bat gets wise to it and pulls a six-gun on them. Then all hell breaks loose as this game is in the same (squalid) house in which Miss Dawson is imprisoned, and a rescue is called for, obviously, and the cops arrive and so all’s well that ends well, phew, the bad guys are arrested and Miss Dawson agrees to return to “the country” with Bat, The End.
Like Bad Buck, this one is definitely on the melodramatic side, and, as I said, barely a Western at all, but that was the style then, and so few of these films have survived that it is our bounden duty to watch ones like Bad Buck and The Ruse, which have.