In the Beginning; or, William S. Hart and the Western Cliché Genesis

William S. Hart bid adieu to the West and westerns as he loved them in the prologue of 1925’s Tumbleweeds, his last film, reissued in 1939.

He wore too much makeup (OK,unfair–all actors did in silent films), acted in a stilted manner (OK, OK, it goes with silent-film territory), and moralized about how little the westerns being made reflected the true West (which he’d seen through his friendship with real-life gunslingers like Wyatt Earp, and we know how factual that guy was).

But Hart was an epic silver-screen hero through and through, from his well-worn boots to the wide brim of his huge (and historically authentic) hat (more authentic than Tom Mix’s). His films began the language of the western, which subsequent actors and directors have riffed on, developed, and otherwise emulated.

Shakespearean dude actor turned grunge-western star, he produced, wrote, directed, and/or starred in nearly seventy films in eleven years in the late 1910s and early 1920s. His stories seem stagey now, but they were more authentic than the ones with the whippersnappers that came after him, with their flamboyant trick riding and romantic-lead looks and flashy nonauthentic cowboy duds (naming no names…OK, like Tom Mix).

Hart and his films jump-started more western clichés than anyone else.

  • Trigger, Champion, Silver… Meet Hart’s Fritz, the first silver-screen cowboy steed given a name.

  • Deadwood, Dodge City, Tombstone…they all had to get tamed, and so they were thanks to William S. Hart’s Hell’s Hinges (1916)

  • That straight-up cowboy stance in the saddle that John Wayne aced to perfection? Tom Mix… Kidding! William S. Hart. (check out any of the riding scenes after 1:14 in this part of Tumbleweeds)
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  • World-weary gunslinger with a strong moral code? Hello, Shane, you paying attention? Thank Hart, whose stoic looks had epic heartache behind them that could make any schoolmarm try and save him.

William S. Hart out-cowboyed most of the cowboys he idolized, through his granite jawed determination to be as Real West as he could. How strange it is then, that he is buried not in Wyoming or Los Angeles, where his ranch/museum is located but in Brooklyn, at Green-Wood Cemetery… What am I saying? It’s perfect! Roadtrip!!! Oh, hell. Have to finish the novel revisions first…

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