William S. Hart: Thespian of the Old West

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Today is the birthday of the great stage and screen star William S. Hart (1864-1946). Hart is best remembered today as the pre-eminent star of movie westerns during the silent era. But he was more than that. Many or most of the old time western stars same into their line as actual wranglers, rodeo performers and stunt men. Hart, on the other hand, was an old time thespian through and through, one of the old time barnstorming troupers, playing melodrama and Shakespeare with touring and regional stock companies and on Broadway for years. Among his early Broadway parts was Messala in the original stage adaptation of Ben Hur in 1899.

But the west increasingly became his abiding interest, even while he was still on stage, starring in the 1905 Broadway production of The Squaw Man (later made into a seminal feature by Cecil B. DeMille with Dustin Farnum in Hart’s part) , as well as his last Broadway gig, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1912).

In 1914, he broke into films, where he reigned supreme for the better part of a decade in the sagebrush genre, until his brand of gritty realism was superseded by the flashier, showier stylings of Tom Mix. His last round-up as star was Tumbleweeds in 1925.

But Hart didn’t leave us entirely bereft of his talent for vocal histrionics. In 1939, he recorded a spoken word introduction for a re-issue of Tumbleweeds in which he talked…and talked…and talked…and talked. It’s almost like he felt the need to get out a few decades worth of pent-up talking out on this one, last occasion. I’m glad he did.

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