William S. Hart (1864–1946) had a face—craggy, world weary, and parched—made for the movies, and embodied the archetypal Western ethos of honest work, belief in a higher being, and a well-defined moral code. Born in Newburgh, New York, Hart began his training as a stage actor and worked on Broadway in roles as varied as Shakespearean leads and the original stage version of Ben Hur, in 1899. It wasn’t until much later, in his 40s, that he became a film actor, and he was soon starring in and directing films just as the motion picture phenomenon was transitioning from social curiosity to popular leisure activity.
The former stage actor jumped into his cowboy persona with gusto, adopting a hard-bitten, down-to-earth persona and donning durable work gear and a battered hat and boots. There were no fancy spurs and hand-tooled saddles for this cowboy, an unadorned philosophy that carried over to his characters as well—simple, conflicted men pushed to the limits of patience in a Wild West of saloons, prostitutes, a discontented Native population, a lack of respect for the Good Book, and no shortage of guns. Hart’s film career continued through 1925, when a personal scandal pushed him out of favor with audiences and fickle moviegoers turned to the glitzier—and certainly more artificial—cowboy Tom Mix, with his handsome face and pristine white hat.
Films in this program are drawn from MoMA’s collection and are silent with musical accompaniment. All films are from the U.S. and directed by William S. Hart, unless otherwise noted.
Organized by Anne Morra, Associate Curator, Department of Film.