Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

On the Night Stage (Mutual Film, 1915)

 

An early Bill Hart oater

 

On the Night Stage was an early Western that William S Hart made with producer Thomas H Ince, about whom we were talking the other day (click the links for our essays on Hart and Ince). Only about a third of Ince’s films have survived but happily this is one of them.

 

Ince and Hart on the set of another (unidentified) picture – with Hart apparently dressed as a minister

 

In fact, though, Hart did not star in it. The cast was headed by well-known actor Robert Edeson, future Colonel Sapt in Metro’s The Prisoner of Zenda, who had already appeared in ten Ince films (this was the last). Second-billed was Rhea Mitchell as Belle, the fair maid everyone falls for, in her third picture with Hart, of seven, and ahead of Hart in the billing was also Herschel Mayall, an Ince regular, as Handsome Jack, the gambler rival for Belle’s hand – even though he doesn’t even appear till the fourth of the five reels. So Hart wasn’t yet the megastar.

 

Edeson headed the cast. You have to dig the hat.

 

Rhea was the saloon gal Belle who weds the sky pilot. Racy, huh?

 

The picture was directed by Reginald Barker, who did 50-odd pictures for Ince 1912 – 17 and who helmed three Hart Westerns, notably The Bargain. Ince himself contributed to the scenario, with his steadfast writer C Gardner Sullivan.

 

Reg at the helm

 

C Gardener wrote it with Ince

 

It’s interesting as an example of an Ince Western – he was making pretty well exclusively Civil War dramas and Westerns at this stage, at his new plant at Santa Ynez Canyon known as Inceville. Ince had roomed with Hart when they were impoverished actors in New York, and when Hart came out to California to appear in the stage version of The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, he visited Inceville, which he found very agreeable. “The very primitiveness of the whole life out there, the cowboys and the Indians, staggered me,” he said. “I loved it. The West was right there!” He and Ince began to make motion pictures together (though it would always be a slightly prickly relationship). They did some one- and two-reel shorts but On the Night Stage was only the second feature they made. It was a 5-reeler of just over an hour’s length.

 

The sky pilot with the outlaw Texas

 

In the first reel the actors present themselves as a curtain opens, bowing, then their evening dress transforms magically into their Western costumes, and we are ready to begin. We see the road agent Texas (Hart) tying a bandanna over his face and holding up the stage in a canyon. Now we see the stage rolling into Cheyenne and a “sky pilot” disembarks. This is Austin, a clergyman (Edeson). He takes a room in the hotel above a rowdy saloon.

 

Stashing his ill-gotten loot, Texas reckons that “It’s Mexico for me and Belle, and a weddin’”. But saloon gal Belle (Mitchell, of course) has other ideas. She is making up to the reverend. When Texas sees this, he is mighty jealous.

 

To be blunt, Hart was rather overacting. Later he would moderate his histrionics and become one of the more restrained silent movie actors but at this early stage he was definitely still playing to the gallery. He’s rough with Belle, and he drinks, not to mention holding up stages, so he’s clearly a bad guy, yet he is kind to his horse (Midnight, no sign of Fritz yet) so we are in the ‘good badman’ territory that Hart made his own.

 

There’s a big fistfight in the saloon and the parson takes off his coat and joins in on Texas’s side, so Texas now revises his opinion of the sky pilot and is ready to call him a friend.

 

 

Still, it’s love between the divine and the saloon gal and soon they are married. You see, she reads the bit in Matthew about lost sheep gone astray and such. Texas offers the padre his best saddle as a wedding present and the clergyman responds by telling him (on the title card) “Texas, you’re the whitest man I ever met.” Such is the effect on Texas that he determines to go straight. Like Belle, he will give up his wicked ways and tread the good old straight ‘n’ narrow.

 

A year later, Mrs Austin as she now is decides to visit an old friend in the neighboring town of Wichitaw (sic). Now this friend of Belle’s (Gladys Brockwell or Clara Williams, it isn’t clear) is a temptress, and she tries to get Belle to backslide into her old wicked ways. The gambler Handsome Jack (Mayall), who is clearly a cad (you can tell by the mustache) is more than willing to assist in this backsliding process and even tries to kiss Belle. But she is revolted. The title card simply says, “Revulsion.” Belle flees back to her upright husband.

 

 

But a cowboy (Shorty Hamilton) in the saloon tells Texas that he was over to Wichitaw the other day and saw Belle canoodling with Handsome Jack. Texas sees red. He still loves Belle, you see, platonically, of course, despite her nuptials. Jack writes a letter to Belle telling her he will be coming to Cheyenne on the night stage and they can resume where they left off, Texas gets to see this letter and so, yup, you guessed, he’s back to holding up stages. He takes Jack off the coach and makes him walk, all night. At dawn he tells the gambler to keep walkin’, and never come back, and he turns to leave but that lowdown gambler has a concealed weapon (not a derringer, unfortunately; Ince missed a trick there) and tries to shoot Texas in the back, the skunk. Naturally, it avails him naught, and the corpse of Handsome Jack lies spread out on the canyon floor.

 

Texas returns to Cheyenne, decently wishes the wedded couple every happiness, and takes solace in cuddling Midnight, for we know a cowboy and his horse shall never be parted. The End.

 

Well, well, all very satisfactory. I enjoyed it, I must say.

 

The picture quality these days is only so-so but it’s good enough to watch. The acting’s alright. Some of the pacing is a bit slow and there’s rather too much (silent) talking in the saloon but all in all On the Night Stage is distinctly watchable.

 

That august organ The Moving Picture World in its April 3, 1915 edition reckoned that “Robert Edeson will delight audiences, especially where he wipes up the floor of the dance hall with ‘Texas’ and his associates” – though he didn’t really – he was fighting on Texas’s side – but the critic was less flattering about Hart: “The type chosen for the role of ‘Texas’ is not exactly satisfactory. A more red-blooded, devil-may-care type might have made a stronger impression.” Clearly Hart wasn’t yet the big star he would become.

 

The picture was promoted as “A Mutual Masterpiece”.

 

 

Later it was rebranded as The Bandit and the Preacher by Hart’s own WH Productions and re-released with himself more prominently featured.

 

 

 

So long for now, e-pards. Back soon!

Oh, and Happy New Year.

 

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