Westerns Then and Now

Harry Carey Jr and John Wayne in The Searchers (1956)

The Westerns have been with us since the very beginning of motion pictures: The Great Train Robbery (1903) by Edwin S. Porter was shot in the un-Western-like setting of New Jersey. Within little more than a decade, William S. Hart was turning out reasonably good Westerns which he shot at Inceville, near Santa Ynez Canyon. And in 1917, John Ford did his first oater starring Harry Carey Sr, Straight Shooting. The remainder of the silent period saw a number of stars, including Tom Mix and Hoot Gibson, with Hart and Carey continuing their careers.

It was in 1939 with John Ford’s Stagecoach that the first great sound period for the Western began. Until his death in 1979, the Western was almost synonymous with The Duke. But there was also Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine (1946), with Victor Mature as Doc Holliday.

Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine (1946)

The real glory days of the Western came in the 1950s. Not only was John Ford still active, but there were great series directed by Budd Boetticher (Decision at Sundown, 1957) and starring Randolph Scott and by Anthony Mann starring Jimmy Stewart (Bend in the River, 1q952).

The great period of the Film Western was illuminated by the bit of dialog from Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962):

Ransom Stoddard: You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?
Maxwell Scott:  No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

Beginning in the 1970s, Hollywood lost sight of the legend. The Westerns were being demythologized by new filmmakers up from television. There were few real heroes, and a lot of scruffy, violent guys with beards. I suppose that Clint Eastwood was the new Western hero paradigm. Although I enjoyed his films, they were not up to the standard set by William S. Hart, John Ford, Sam Peckinpah, Budd Boetticher, and Anthony Mann.

 

Tea with Mary Ellen

William S. Hart, Silent Star of Westerns

William S. Hart, Silent Star of Westerns

Martine and I usually visit the William S. Hart house in Newhall at least twice a year. It is operated by the Los Angeles Natural History Museum and receives numerous visitors, most of whom have little idea of who Hart was. I have seen many of his silent Westerns, such as Hell’s Hinges (1916), Blue Blazes Rawden (1918), and Tumbleweeds (1925).

Moreover, I knew his son William S. Hart, Jr., who taught classes in real estate at Cal State Northridge. I spoke as an expert in demographic data for site location to his classes several times in the early 1980s.

For a three month period in 1922, William S. Hart, Sr. was married to Hollywood actress Winifred Westover. During this time, William, Jr. was conceived. Several years later their divorce was finalized.

William, Sr., lived out the rest of his life at La Loma de los Vientos, his hilltop house in Newhall, with his sister Mary Ellen, who had to move about in a wheelchair. She assisted her brother in writing and publishing a series of novels with Western themes.

The Door to Mary Ellen’s Little Tea House

The Door to Mary Ellen’s Little Tea House

Mary Ellen’s brother never married again. They lived together until 1943, when Mary Ellen died. William followed her three years later. They are both buried in Green Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.

There was a strain of loneliness in the family. Once, when Bill Hart, Jr., offered me a ride after lecturing to one of his classes, he told me he married a single mother with a child and suggested I do so as well as a means of staving off isolation. Bill died in 2004.

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Boxing Day at the Hart

The William S. Hart House in Newhall, CA

The William S. Hart Ranch House and Museum in Newhall, CA

In the United Kingdom, the day after Christmas is celebrated as Boxing Day. It has nothing whatever to do with pugilism; rather, it commemorates the day that servants and tradesmen received a “Christmas Box”—fortunately, not on their ears—from their employers, by way of a gift.

As today was not a working day for me, Martine and I decided to visit the William S. Hart Ranch and Museum in Newhall. On the way, we decided to try Brett’s Deli in North Hills, but the place was so mobbed at we just wrinkled our noses and shook our heads, proceeding instead to Maria’s Italian Deli in Newhall, where we had a good lunch.

Why do I keep returning to the Hart Ranch? This must easily have been our seventh or eighth visit. Each time, we take the quarter mile trail up the hill for free tour of the house given by a docent. On the way down, we look at the herd of bison donated by the Walt Disney Company to the ranch in 1962. I guess there was something about the silent cowboy star that appeals to me. I still watch his movies. Today, in the old ranch house at the foot of La Loma de los Vientos, the Hill of the Winds, the name of Hart’s property, I viewed the last half of Hell’s Hinges (1916), in which the cowboy star wreaks horrible vengeance on an evil town which kills the preacher with whose sister Hart has fallen in love. Hart was the first big cowboy star.

During the 1980s, I was personally acquainted with the actor’s son, William S. Hart, Jr. He taught real estate at Cal State Northridge (CSUN), and he invited me several times to give a guest lecture on my specialty, the use of census and other government data for site research. (At one time, I was an expert on the subject.)

It was a cold and windy day at La Loma de los Vientos, but not unseasonable. Newhall is near the canyons attached to the transverse mountain ranges that have been the epicenter for so many earthquakes in recent years. They are also a racecourse of the winds originating in the Mojave Desert and blowing the smog out to sea.

 

 

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.

 

“All That Moveth, Doth in Change Delight”

William S. Hart (1864-1946)

William S. Hart (1864-1946)

Today Martine and I went to the William S. Hart Ranch and Museum in Newhall. Around this time of year, the docents and other volunteers make the place all Christmassy. With the Grier Musser Museum yesterday, a visit to the Hart Museum today made it a real holiday weekend.

As I was watching a video of Hart’s Hell Hinges (1916) in the Ranch House, a somber thought came to me. Hart’s career lasted only about twelve years, from 1915 to 1927. How many people alive today remember him, have seen his films, or even know who he is? Hollywood does not even make Westerns more than once in a Blue Moon. The lovely house on a hill in Newhall, which Hart called La Loma de los Vientos (“The Hill of the Winds”), may fall into ruin because it commemorates the life of a silent movie star who is all but forgotten.

At the same time, I am reading Marcel Proust’s final volume of In Search of Lost Time series, Finding Time Again. In this book, Marcel finds his world has all but disappeared with the start of the First World War. At one point Marcel the narrator muses:

In short, fashionable society had become disenchanted with M. de Charlus, not because it had seen through, but because it had never begun to penetrate his uncommon intellectual worth. People thought him ‘pre-war,’ old-fashioned, because the very people who are least capable of assessing merit are the ones who, in order to classify people, are quickest to follow the dictates of fashion. They have not exhausted, nor even skimmed the surface of the men of merit in one generation, and suddenly they have to condemn them all en bloc, because now there is a new generation, with its new label, which they will not understand any better than the last.

As I watch Marcel working his way through a Paris, lit by floodlights, zeppelins, bi-plane fighters, and a young generation in charge that has seemingly sprouted out of nowhere. In the same way, I marvel at all the young people crossing the busy street while checking their e-mail or texting to their buds.

I should know better. Edmund Spenser said it all half a millennium ago when he wrote about mutability:

Mutability

When I bethink me on that speech whilere,
Of Mutability, and well it weigh:
Me seems,that though she all unworthy were
Of the Heav’ns Rule; yet very sooth to say,
In all things else she bears the greatest sway.
Which makes me loathe this state of life so tickle,
And love of things so vain to cast away;
Whose flow’ring pride, so fading and so fickle,
Short Time shall soon cut down with his consuming sickle.

Then gin I think on that which Nature said.
Of that same time when no more Change shall be,
But steadfast rest of all things firmly stayed
Upon the pillars of Eternity,
That is contrare to Mutability:
For, all that moveth, doth in Change delight:
But thence-forth all shall rest eternally
With Him that is the God of Sabbaoth hight:
O that great Sabbaoth God, grant me that Sabbaoth’s sight.

As the year 2013 winds to a close, think for a moment of all the changes that sweeping your world away. I wouldn’t worry excessively about it, because the same winds of change will likewise sweep the fashions of the newest generation away. All the Ugg Boots, Jeggings, Razor Scooters, Smart Phones, and Google Glasses will go the way of suspenders, cowcatchers on locomotives, transistor radios, and pogo sticks. Right now, all these things are in the ascendent—but they won’t be for long.