William Surrey Hart was destined to be a cowboy. Known professionally as William S. Hart, he was born in 1864 in Newburgh, NY, into an environment of Victorian gentility. The Hart family soon moved to the Dakota Territory, where William lived until he was a teenager. Was this relocation the catalyst for his lifelong love of the West and all things rugged?
Hart came late to a career as an actor, beginning with an appearance in the 1899 stage version of Ben Hur. By the time Hart transitioned to the movies, it was 1907 and this time he was in the filmed production of Ben Hur, with Herman Rottger in the lead and Hart as Messala. The locations for this earliest Ben Hur film, produced by the Kalem Company, included the environs of Brooklyn and Manhattan Beach, which served as the setting for the celebrated chariot race.Hart’s film career began in earnest in 1914 and lasted through the late 1920s. In that time, he made more than 70 films, playing what were known as good bad men. Hart’s characters were flawed, conflicted, tempted, often drunk or owing money, but ultimately redeemed by a loving woman or the Bible. An important film in the Hart lexicon is 1917’s The Cold Deck, directed by Hart with a screenplay by J. G. Hawks. (A “cold deck” is a deck of cards that is intentionally stacked against a player.) Hart plays “On the Level” Leigh, a reformed gambler who moves from town to the country so his sister’s health will improve in the clean country air—and he will no longer be tempted to spend too much time and money at the local saloon. Also at the saloon is the conniving dancehall girl Coralie, who is in love with Leigh and intolerant of his concern for his sister. When Leigh chooses his sister, Alice, over Coralie, it sets her off to swear revenge. No one rejects Coralie’s affections!
Life in the country may be advantageous for Alice, but Leigh is unable to make a living as a farmer. If he could only win a card game at the saloon with a big purse, his cares would be over. The thought of one last game obsesses Leigh day and night. As luck, or perhaps misfortune, would have it, a big game comes to the local saloon and Leigh antes up. Coralie schemes to ruin Leigh with the fateful cold deck he is dealt. When he loses the game, Leigh is so desperate that he holds up a coach. During the robbery, a gunshot is fired and the stage driver is killed. “On the Level” Leigh returns to his moral sense of right and wrong, finds the real shooter, and turns him in; he also confesses to the sheriff about his own role in the crime. Because he is repentant and has confessed, Leigh is cleared of all charges and returns to his sister.
Hart aimed for a realism of appearance with his own roughhewn brand of cowboy. His outfits were not costumes, but rather genuine, rugged work clothes—what an authentic cowboy might wear on any given day. His dungarees and boots were dust-covered and worn. His face was lined and craggy, as if it had been baked under the Sonoran desert sun. Nipping at Hart’s spurs was the next movie cowboy sensation, Tom Mix, in his big white hat and stylish clothes. Hart and Mix were total opposites in cowboy brands, but with a fickle audience that wanted faster onscreen action, more exciting stunts, and undisputable escapism, Tom Mix soon eclipsed William S. Hart.
MoMA’s Department of Film has a very deep collection of works in which Hart stars and directs. These films are derived from original nitrate negatives that William S. Hart lent, and in some cases donated, to MoMA in the 1940s. You can see The Cold Deck on February 4 and 17 as part of the series Modern Matinees: A Pioneer Cowboy, an omnibus of Hart films running through February 26.