William S. Hart was once the biggest bankable star in movies. Starring in a series of 2 reelers at first, he gained fame as being the first great cowboy star, paving the way for the likes of untold actors throughout the decades who would attempt to continue on the tradition of the cowboy. Of course Hart took things to more levels than most of the big screen cowboys…..not only acting, but writing, directing and producing his films as well. Watching his films today provides insight for me into how the movie going public became to be attached to the concept of the western and what it meant back in the 1910’s to see these movies. Hart’s fantastic early cowboy masterpiece, Hell’s Hinges, just might be his greatest film and a great introduction to this era’s concept of the western.
Hell’s Hinges was apparently directed by Charles Zwicker, with uncredited directing credits going to Hart, and Clifford Smith. It’s about a minister named Rev. Bob Henley (Jack Standing) who moves out west to a lawless town with his sister Faith (Clara Williams) in order to help reform the town. In actuality, the Reverend has daydreams thinking about all the dance hall girls he’s going to meet. Once they get to town, the saloonkeeper hires a gunman named Blaze Tracy (Hart) to get rid of the minister. However, in a reversal of fortune, Blaze becomes reformed, as he falls in love with Faith and in turn finds salvation, while Rev. Henley becomes a heathen, falling prey to a local dancing girl, getting drunk, and generally losing all control of himself..... to the point he’s ready to burn down the church! Blaze must stand up for Faith and his newfound salvation by attempting to stave off complete disaster at the hands of the town rabble who are ravenous for sin and destruction.
Hart’s brand of western tends to be tinged heavily with moral implications and a general goodness of humanity on display from his character. Even though he plays a “bad guy” here, he’s clearly the good guy. This positioning can also be seen in The Bargain, another fantastic Hart western from this era. Even though his cowboy hat tends to look a bit like a park ranger hat, I forgive him because he’s got this amazing sequence near the end of Hell's Hinges as he stands in the midst of the church’s doorway, while the entire church behind him is engulfed in flames. It’s a flamboyant, movie star type moment, the hot flames burning all around him while he maintains his cool. It’s without a doubt one of the great bits of action sequence from this era. That’s not to mention the sequences around that moment involving the crowd that has gone out of the control. Recalling Griffith to a degree, the framing of the confusion and the collective insanity of the ravenous crowd is fantastic and remarkably well edited to allow for the action to unfold coherently and with continuity....which is more than I can say for many films released these days.
Hell’s Hinges balances on a precipice between extreme moralism and gleeful abandon and it succeeds for how well it blends the two. It’s remarkable how open the film is to portraying a ribald sense of humor, as we see the Reverend’s day dreams of dancing girls, how he relishes the idea of giving a sermon to these women once he gets the opportunity, and how he is so quickly charmed by a cute woman who throws him the classic line of “Can’t I see you alone sometime, so I can learn more about your work?” Additionally, the conflict between reform and gunfighting, and between religion and sin is played out as effective as in any film I've ever seen. But in Hart’s world, it’s the cowboy, the gunfighter amongst all the heathens and the destructive fire that ironically becomes the savior….while the reverend falls away at the slightest temptation. Though Hart would go on later to make what many consider is his masterpiece, Tumbleweeds (1925), there’s an economy of storyline, a quick wit, and sense for action that is really irresistible in Hell’s Hinges.