William S. Hart
William Surrey Hart on December 6, 1864 in Newburgh, New York
Died June 23, 1946 (age 81) in Newhall, California
Surrey Hart was born in Newburgh, New York; to James Howard Hart
(1829 – 1902) and Katherine Diédricht Hart (1833 – 1909). William
had 2 brothers and 4 sisters. His father was of Irish
ancestry, and his mother was of German heritage.
In his twenties, Hart began his acting
career on stage and would not consider acting in movies until he
was 49 years of age.
He toured and traveled extensively while trying
to make a name for himself as an actor, and for a time coached
shows at the Asheville Opera House around year 1900. His family
had moved to Asheville but after his youngest sister Lotta died of
typhoid fever they all left together for Brooklyn until William
went back on tour.
A successful Shakespearean actor on Broadway
who had worked with Margaret Mather and other stars, he appeared
in the original 1899 stage production of Ben-Hur.
Hart went on to become one of the first great
stars of the motion picture western. Fascinated by the Old West,
he acquired Billy the Kid's "six shooters" and was a friend of
legendary lawmen Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson. He entered films in
1914 where, after playing supporting roles in two short films, he
achieved stardom as the lead in the feature The Bargain.
Hart was particularly interested in making
realistic western films. His films are noted for their authentic
costumes and props, as well as Hart's extraordinary acting
ability, honed on Shakespearean theater stages in the United
States and England.
Beginning in 1915, Hart starred in his own
series of two-reel western short subjects for producer Thomas Ince,
which were so popular that they were supplanted by a series of
feature films. Many of Hart's early films continued to play in
theaters, under new titles, for another decade. In 1917 Hart
accepted a lucrative offer from Adolph Zukor to join Famous
Players-Lasky, which merged into Paramount Pictures.
In the films Hart began to ride a brown and
white pinto he called Fritz. Fritz was the forerunner of later
famous movie horses known by their own name ie horses like Tom
Mix's Tony, Roy Rogers's Trigger and Clayton Moore's Silver. Hart
was now making feature films exclusively, and films like Square
Deal Sanderson and The Toll Gate were popular with fans. Hart
married young Hollywood actress Winifred Westover. Although their
marriage was short-lived, they had one child, William S. Hart,
By the early 1920s, however, Hart's brand of
gritty, rugged westerns with drab costumes and moralistic themes
gradually fell out of fashion. The public became attracted by a
new kind of movie cowboy, epitomized by Tom Mix, who wore flashier
costumes and was faster with the action. Paramount dropped Hart,
who then made one last bid for his kind of western. He produced
Tumbleweeds (1925) with his own money, arranging to release it
independently through United Artists. The film turned out well,
with an epic land-rush sequence, but did only fair business at the
box office. Hart was angered by United Artists' failure to promote
his film properly and sued United Artists. The legal proceedings
dragged on for years, and the courts finally ruled in Hart's
favor, in 1940.
Tumbleweeds, Hart retired to his Newhall,
California, ranch home, “La Loma de los Vientos,” which was
designed by architect Arthur R. Kelly. In 1939 he appeared in his
only sound film, a spoken prologue for a reissue of Tumbleweeds.
The 75-year-old Hart, filmed on location at his Newhall ranch,
reflects on the Old West and recalls his silent-movie days fondly.
The speech turned out to be William S. Hart's farewell to the
screen, and it's a fitting valedictory. Most prints and video
versions of Tumbleweeds circulating today include Hart's speech.
Hart died on June 23, 1946, in Newhall,
California at the age of 81. He was buried in Green-Wood Cemetery
Plot: Section 191, Lot 29116 in Brooklyn, New York.
Hart, My Life East and West, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company,
David W. Menefee, The First Male Stars: Men of the
Silent Era, Albany: Bear Manor Media, 2007.
Silent Stars, 1999 (chapter on William S. Hart and Tom Mix)
Ronald L. Davis, William S. Hart: Projecting the American West,
University of Oklahoma Press, 2003.