America’s first movie cowboy-hero was not Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, or even Tom Mix: Meet William S. Hart, the forerunner of them all!
Linda and I attended our ninth consecutive Santa Clarita (California) Cowboy Festival last weekend. In past years, this was held at Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch where countless western movies were filmed over past decades. This year, the cowboy-inspired music and poetry extravaganza relocated to William S. Hart Park, in the nearby downtown of Newhall. Both Gene Autry and William S. Hart are very well-known in these-here parts, as they say. Linda and I knew a lot about Gene Autry, but almost nothing of the shadowy historical figure, William S. Hart.
Our visit on Sunday morning to the Hart “mansion” located on a hilltop perch within the park bearing his name certainly filled our knowledge gap! Linda wished to forego some of the musical feast which is non-stop at the cowboy festival in order to visit Hart’s home. We arrived early at the mansion after a bracing quarter-mile hike up a winding road. Perusing the hilltop environs of the house, I knew we were in for a fine experience when the doors were opened to the public.
The mansion was built by Hart in 1926. He lived there with his sister until his death in 1946. He bequeathed this house, along with his considerable fortune and land-holdings to the County of Los Angeles as repayment to the people who, through the years, spent their hard-earned nickels and dimes to see his movies. Hart was well aware that those nickels and dimes made him the successful and wealthy movie pioneer that he became.
William S. Hart made his first western movie at the ripe age of forty-nine! Prior to that, he was a classical Shakespearean stage actor with roots on the east coast. His theatrical engagements took him far and wide across this nation, but he always harbored a special fascination with the wild-west and its famous characters. He was appalled at the cheesy sets, costumes, and acting of the early, silent cowboy films coming from Hollywood, and he determined he could do better. And he did do better, serving as actor, producer, director, and occasional screenplay writer.
Hart’s cowboy characters reflected his own moralistic attitudes. The docent at the house, who shared his extensive knowledge of Hart with my wife and I, spoke of Hart’s distaste for Hollywood’s portrayal of Indians as mere savages and for the cruelty exhibited toward animals “used” during filming. Shooting animals for the sake of sport repulsed him. His good friend, Will Rogers was the opposite of Hart in many ways. To goad his good friend, Rogers once presented him with a very large Kodiak bearskin rug (complete with head), and asked sardonically what he was going to do with it! Hart, both a respecter of animal life and a pragmatist, reasoned that the bear was already dead and there was nothing he could do about it except to display the remains of its former majesty on his living room floor!
Another Hart anecdote from our tour docent involved the famous aviatrix, Amelia Earhart. Soon after moving in to his newly constructed home in 1926, the peace and tranquility of his hilltop haven was severely disturbed by a lone, private aircraft which suddenly appeared one day, and leisurely circled his home for some period of time. With his anger building over this pesky “aluminum fly” circling round and round overhead, he noted the requisite “tail number” of the aircraft and went to the Newhall sheriff to register his complaint. Three days later came a knock on his front door. Hart was startled to be face-to-face with Amelia Earhart who had come to apologize for her transgression! They soon became good friends.
Hart was also friends with the great western artist, Charles Russell, as well as the frontier legends, Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson. Early in Hart’s career, he had obtained the pistols which belonged to that most famous of outlaws, Billy the Kid. An interesting letter from Charles Russell is displayed. Russell invites Hart to come see him if his travels bring him “near his campfire.” In rather clumsy syntax, Russell confesses how ill-at-ease he feels expressing himself with pen and paper. He “writes” using his artist’s tools; indeed, the letter is peppered with little vignette jewels from the artist’s fine hand.
Hart made dozens of films from 1914 until his last movie, Tumbleweeds, in 1925. His only sound film was a 1935 reissue of Tumbleweeds which featured a spoken prologue by Hart. Retired from film by 1926, Hart spent the final years until his death in 1946 writing books with a western theme. The newer, flashier breed of movie cowboy successors had, by the early nineteen twenties, replaced Hart and the darker, more serious western dramas pioneered by him.
Careers (and lives) are typically short-lived in Hollywood. That was true of Hart’s movie career, as well, but his presence and the innovations he brought to western film-making earned him a justly deserved star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. For a time, his star burned very brightly.
Visiting his home, one sees the reflection of a life which valued tradition over trendy, sensible over excessive, contemplative over ostentatious. For me, the visit and our introduction to William S. Hart was a pleasant, fascinating experience. If you are ever “near his campfire” in Newhall, California, be sure to pay him a visit.