Hart ImageWilliam Surrey Hart (1870-1946) was one of the cinema's first great Western stars. A successful Shakespearian actor who'd spent much of his youth in the American West, Hart was a popular figure on Broadway, where he starred in Ben Hur (1900), The Squaw Man (1905), and Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1912). Hart's film career began in 1914, and lasted through his retirement in 1925 at age 55.

After a couple of appearances in two-reel short films, Hart starred in his first feature, The Bargain (1914). Featturing scenes shot around the Grand Canyon badlands, this early feature film demonstrated the sort of realism and maturity that would establish Hart's reputation as one of the Western's most important pioneers. Soon, Hart was directing his films as well as starring in them and playing a major role in their script development. Between 1914 and 1925, Hart starred in a variety of films, including social melodramas such as The Cradle of Courage (1920) and The Whistle (1921), but it was in films about the West that Hart excelled. The dust and the heat of the American West are not often seen in Western movies, but in Hart's films the landscape and environment of the country is every bit as important an element as the cast and scenario.

Hart's film career began at a time when the Western genre was just emerging from its primitive origins in the New Jersey-filmed adventures starring starring Bronco Billy Anderson. The short films of Thomas Ince and D.W. Griffith had advanced the cinematic techniques available to the genre considerably, and when matched with Hart's personal interest in accuracy and detail, the filmmakers involved in creating Hart's Westerns produced feature films that were remarkably advanced for their day. Films such as Hell's Hinges (1916), and The Narrrow Trail(1917) show an impressive level of sophistication in editing and visual composition.

By the time of Hart's retirement, the realistic aspects of Western filmmaking he had championed were becoming less popular with the public in the face of the stunt and action based films of stars like Tom Mix. But Hart's legacy was established, and his films remain as a reminder of how one individual can elevate a previously unremarkable genre to high levels of artistic accomplishment.

William S. Hart Filmography.

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Copyright 1996 E.H. Larson.