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Supreme Competence and Moral Probity

In at the Beginning of the Western Film Genre

In at the Beginning of the Western Film Genre

There were cowboy films before William S. Hart. As early as 1903, there was Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery, which was filmed in the wilds of New Jersey. Then there were the films of Broncho Billy Anderson who was the first film western star—those his films were also shot back East and were redolent of New Jersey.

No, it was William S. Hart who really got the ball rolling back in 1914 when he teamed up with Producer Thomas H. Ince to produce a series of oaters at Santa Ynez Canyon just a few miles from where I live. (John Ford got started around 1917 with Harry Carey, Sr. in Straight Shootin’, but Hart quickly became the better known of the two stars.)

The Hart hero was almost always a loner, half-civilized if at all, but radiating an awakening sense of moral probity. While he was in the process of making his decision, God help any bad guys who tried to do him in in the meantime.

A Still from Travelin’ On: Hart with Monkey

A Still from Travelin’ On: Hart with Monkey

This was certainly true of Travelin’ On (1922), which I saw this morning at Cinecon. He is simply J.B., an illiterate loner who rides into a crude Arizona town run by Dandy Dan McGee, a saloon keeper who runs all the vices from his Palace of Chance. When a preacher, his wife and daughter pull into town in their wagon, they witness a fight between two toughs, which the preacher tries to stop. Some time later, Hart rides into town and runs afoul of Gila, one of McGee’s cronies, whom he makes short work of.

Both McGee and J.B. fall in love with the preacher’s wife. When Hart sees McGee make a move on her, he threatens to kill him the next time he sees him. Of course, he does, but not before he takes the rap for a stage robbery committed by, of all people, the preacher—and then he rides off alone, after saving the preacher from being justly hanged for his crime.

I never seem to tire of seeing Hart’s films. I visit his ranch in Newhall once or twice a year and see to some extent how his character was formed. He married a younger star named Winifred Westover and had a son named William S. Hart Jr. (whom I knew). He never remarried and lived on his ranch with his sister until his death in 1948.

It was around the time this film was made that Hart was upstaged by other Western stars, most notably Tom Mix. Mix was good, but there was something about Hart that was unique.