William S. Hart The Original Screen Cowboy!
William Surrey Hart (December 6, 1864 – June 23, 1946)
Hart was born in Newburgh, New York, to Nicholas Hart (1834-1895) and Rosanna Hart (1839–1909). William had 2 brothers, who died very young, and 4 sisters. His father was born in England, and his mother was born in Ireland. He began his acting career on stage in his 20s, and in film when he was 49, which coincided with the beginning of film’s transition from curiosity to commercial art form. He toured and traveled extensively while trying to make a name for himself as an actor. Hart appeared in the original 1899 stage production of Ben-Hur.
Hart went on to become one of the first great stars of the motion picture western. Fascinated by the Old West, he acquired Billy the Kid’s “six shooters” and was a friend of legendary lawmen Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson. He entered films in 1914 where, after playing supporting roles in two short films, he achieved stardom as the lead in the feature The Bargain. Hart was particularly interested in making realistic western films. His films are noted for their authentic costumes and props, as well as Hart’s extraordinary acting ability, honed on Shakespearean theater stages in the United States and England.
Beginning in 1915, Hart starred in his own series of two-reel western short subjects for producer Thomas Ince, which were so popular that they were supplanted by a series of feature films. Many of Hart’s early films continued to play in theaters, under new titles, for another decade. In 1915 and 1916 exhibitors voted him the biggest money making star in the US.
In the films Hart began to ride a brown and white pinto he called Fritz. Fritz was the forerunner of later famous movie horses known by their own name, e.g., horses like Tom Mix’s Tony, Roy Rogers’s Trigger and Clayton Moore’s Silver. Hart was now making feature films exclusively, and films like Square Deal Sanderson and The Toll Gate were popular with fans. Hart married young Hollywood actress Winifred Westover. Although their marriage was short-lived, they had one child, William S. Hart, Jr. (1922 – 2004)
By the early 1920s, however, Hart’s brand of gritty, rugged westerns with drab costumes and moralistic themes gradually fell out of fashion. The public became attracted by a new kind of movie cowboy, epitomized by Tom Mix, who wore flashier costumes and was faster with the action. Paramount dropped Hart, who then made one last bid for his kind of western. He produced Tumbleweeds (1925) with his own money, arranging to release it independently through United Artists. The film turned out well, with an epic land-rush sequence, but did only fair business at the box office. Hart was angered by United Artists’ failure to promote his film properly and sued United Artists. The legal proceedings dragged on for years, and the courts finally ruled in Hart’s favor, in 1940.
The 75 Year old Hart gave an 8 minute emotional introduction to the re- release of his movie Tumbleweeds in 1939
“The story of ‘Tumbleweeds’ marks one of the greatest epochs of our American history. It tells of the opening of the Cherokee Strip in the year 1889. Twelve hundred square miles of Cherokee Indian lands, on one front, over two hundred miles long, were thrown open by our government to those seeking good earth upon which they might make their homes.”
He tells the story of Tumbleweeds and then ends with touching a message to his loyal viewers.
“My friends, I love the art of making motion pictures. It is as the breath of life to me. But through those harzardous feats of horsemanship that I love so well to do for you, I received many major injuries. That, coupled with the added years of life, preclude my again doing those things that I so gloried in doing. The rush of the wind that cuts your face, the pounding hoofs of the pursuing posse, out there in front a fallen tree trunk that spans a yawning canyon, the old animal under you that takes it in the same low ground-eating gallop, the harmless shots of the baffled ones that remain behind, and then, the clouds of dust, through which come the faint voice of the director (cupping hand to mouth) ‘okay, Bill, okay, glad you made it, great stuff, Bill, great stuff, and say, Bill, give ol’ Fritz a pat on the nose for me, will ya?’ Oh, the thrill of it all. You do give old Fritz a pat on the nose, and as your arm encircles his neck, the cloud of dust is no longer a cloud of dust but a beautiful golden haze, through which appears a long phantom herd of trailing cattle, at their head, a pinto pony (sob) a pinto pony with an empty saddle, and then a low, loved whinny, the whinny of a horse so fine that nothing seems to live between it and silence saying ‘say Boss, what you riding back there with the drag fer, why don’t you come on here and ride point with me? Can’t you see, Boss, can’t you see? The saddle is empty. The boys up ahead are calling. They’re waiting for you and me to help drive this last great round-up into eternity.’ Adios Amigos, God bless you all, each and every one.”
To watch some of William S Harts western movies
online www.westernstv.com and type William S Hart in the search box!
On Roku, Apple TV or similar device go to YouTube and search for the westernsontheweb channel https://www.youtube.com/user/westernsontheweb