Part Two: the Genre Grows

by Bill Monson

Thomas Edison was America’s greatest inventor. He was also a hard-nosed businessman and a monopolist. When his company’s success with The Great Train Robbery inspired movie competitors, he set up a trust to drive them out of business.

To avoid the agents of the Trust, the competitors moved from New York City to Chicago, then to Los Angeles, where the sunny weather and the nearness of the Mexico border soon made the City of Angels the movie capital of the world.

Among those making the trip to the Golden State were D. W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, Thomas Ince and Carl Laemmle. All made westerns, but the latter two turned them out with regularity. Laemmle founded Universal Studios, which began producing one- and two- reelers at a rapid rate. Stars like Harry Carey and Hoot Gibson were his answer to Broncho Billy Anderson. The great director John Ford got his start directing Carey westerns.

By contrast, Thomas Ince cared little for westerns. They were simply a means of profit to him so he could make "artistic" movies. Yet he was to produce The Covered Wagon (1923)– the first epic western feature and one which made the western both respected and permanently popular. (The next year, studio production of westerns tripled.) It was almost a stroke of luck when he also created the second great American western star.

Before he went into movies, Ince was a struggling young stage actor in New York City. There, he shared a room with another actor – William Surrey Hart – who was to become a successful Shakespearean actor, then a star as Messala in the stage version of Ben Hur. Hart, who grew up in Dakota near a Sioux reservation, later found great success in western-themed stage plays like The Squaw Man and The Virginian and was disgusted by the movies’ depiction of the Old West. While on tour in California, Hart approached Ince – now a successful film producer –with the idea of doing his own westerns.

Ince was reluctant. Hart was 44 years old, a bit long in the tooth for a western hero. Eventually, Ince gave in when Hart came up with a good story. To Ince’s surprise, Hart’s age proved no problem; and his austere, more realistic depiction of the West caught on with movie-goers.

Hart got his own production unit and began to direct and star in a series of two-reelers for Ince. When Broncho Billy Anderson left the movies in 1915, Hart was ready to replace him as America’s favorite western star. His somber, intense characters had greater depth; and his direction was more artistic. Like Anderson, he usually played a "good bad man" redeemed by a woman or child. Hart also introduced the idea of the hero’s horse being his partner; and Hart’s pinto Fritz became famous.

Hart moved from two-reelers to features with no loss in quality; and his Hell’s Hinges (1916) and The Tall Texan (1920) stand among the best silent films.

Today, Hart’s films seem overly sentimental and even a bit operatic, but in the late Teens and early Twenties, William S. Hart was king of the westerns. He refused to refine his style, however, and audiences eventually tired of his films. Tumbleweeds (1925) was his last.

An epic story about the land rush into the Cherokee Strip, it was successful enough that it was re-released with a spoken prologue by Hart and sound track music in 1939! But it was still good-bye for Hart and an era. Newer stars and creators would bring new versions of the West.

Next: Hoot Gibson