Assessing the year’s best performances in his Photoplay column ‘Shadow Stage,’ critic Julian Johnson raved “You have not seen on any silversheet a single piece of acting surpassing Wilfred Lucas’s impersonation of the persecuted book-keeper in Acquitted.” According to film historian Anthony Slide in his The Kindergarten of the Movies, Acquitted “brought Lucas into national prominence as a major silent star of the teens,” describing him as “not a typical silent leading man, but rather a character actor playing leading roles” – your ideal Oscar candidate. In fact Lucas’ turn as an honest accountant ostracized after being acquitted of murder, sounds strongly suggestive of the proverbial Emil Jannings part, perhaps anticipating The Way of All Flesh. But whether Lucas’ work was on a comparable level is impossible to say for certain since Acquitted is no longer available for appraisal. At the time however, Louis Reeves Harrison in Moving Picture World felt his performance to be “the interpretation of an artist rather than that of an actor,” while Photoplay, “hailing Wilfred Lucas’ work as the best male performance of the year,” went further, declaring that with it he had become “the peer of any contemporary actor on any sort of stage.” As noted on IMDb.com, this “lead role won him outstanding player awards from several movie magazines,” so certainly an acting Oscar would have been racked up among the other assorted accolades.
Having earned a reputation for himself in light and grand opera and on Broadway, Lucas had been a rotating member of D.W. Griffith’s stock company since 1908 when he became, according to Linda Arvidson’s biography When the Movies Were Young, “the first real grand actor, democratic enough to work in … movies.” Divvying his time in the spotlight with directing and screenwriting, Lucas remained with Griffith under the Fine Arts banner at Triangle, so it’s unfortunate to have to write off his “most important film” sight unseen. But regardless of how good Wilfred Lucas was, I wouldn’t have awarded him the Oscar for 1915-16, since this was the year another Triangle player, William S. Hart gave his seminal Western performance in Hell’s Hinges, if under the aegis of Tom Ince’s Kay-Bee brand.
Hart rode to fame playing his trademark ‘good bad man’ – disreputable cowboys, outlaws and assorted frontier types –and along with Sessue Hayakawa in The Cheat and Charles Ray in The Coward, established the morally ambivalent anti-hero as a staple in American cinema. While his acting was shaded by a romanticized nostalgia for the past and a penchant for melodrama instilled in him through his long apprenticeship on the stage, Hart transcended the standing Victorian tenets of dramaturgy, shooting old-fashioned notions of cut and dried morality all to hell. The trailblazing star broke new ground on screen by playing more complicated characters, subversive in a black and white movie era dominated by heroes and villains who were purely good or pure evil. Living by their own standards and values in a dissolute Wild West where there were no moral absolutes, Hart’s good bad men existed in more muted, recognizably human shades of grey. Film historian William K. Everson points out, “Hart frequently cast himself as a near-evangelistic Westerner, but his motives arose more from codes of honor and behavior than from religious roots.” Quite often the star was found in the guise of a gun-toting man of the cloth who could be pretty bad, as in The Disciple,The Apostle of Vengeance and Travelin’ On, or even diabolic figures with names like Satan McAllister and Devil Bateese, who still possessed a redeeming streak of goodness. Here in Hell’s Hinges, his conflicted Blaze Tracy is described as embodying “the best and worst of the early West.” And in playing this hired gun who experiences a change of heart when confronted by the sister of the new minister he’s supposed to run out of town, the star perfectly defined his signature persona. Moreover, by casting opposite himself Jack Standing in the secondary role of the reverend, Hart was able to externally project the contrasting natures at war within man, paralleling his Blaze’s religious conversion with the minister’s simultaneous moral disintegration. Stoic, understated Hart, never a demonstrative actor, is hard pressed not to let Standing overshadow him in the flashier role, since Blaze’s character changes are much quieter and more internalized. But even their acting styles, Hart underplaying while Standing goes over the top, tend to make for fascinating contrast, increasing the tension between the two. Though his very name – Blaze – is suggestive of hell fire, rather than Hart’s hard drinking, man-killing, two-fisted gunman, the real satanic figure here is represented by the Mephistophelian saloon keeper “Silk” Miller, a dapper devil in human form. With his mustache stroked to fine, pitchfork points above the devilish suggestion of a goatee, one could spot him as Satan personified a mile away. It’s Silk who has Blaze in the palm of his hand at film’s beginning, as his hired gun and strong arm man, the titles remarking on the resemblance between “The two most dangerous men in the territory, widely different in every characteristic, but agreed on one point: that neither LAW NOR RELIGION shall ever come to “Hell’s Hinges.” Tickled by the prospect of intimidating people, Blaze throws his head back at the bar, pealing with laughter about being a nervous wreck over the newcomer’s imminent arrival “Yes, my hands tremblin’ so I’m scared I’ll shake him out of his boots… I reckon it’s a sin to shoot a parson, so I’ll just naturally scare him to death.” Hart’s cowboys cast the mold for the strong, silent type, so one isn’t accustomed to seeing the stern, granite faced actor broken up over a joke, especially his own.
Though occasionally Hart’s good bad man characters change their wicked ways for the sake of mothers (Blue Blazes Rawden, The Cradle of Courage) or even children (Bad Buck of Santa Ynez, The Square Deal Man, The Whistle), more often than not they sought spiritual redemption through the love of a pure and innocent young woman. Such is the case with his pseudo-Satanic Blaze, who finds himself reformed, as Hart’s characters invariably were, under the influence of the minister’s sister. And in a great scene for Hart, Faith serves to temper his Blaze’s fury as he swaggers forth to confront the parson, gingerly taking totes on his rolled cigar. Love at first sight laying him flat, in one of his best moments Hart excellently draws the character’s wavering uncertainty. Reacting as if ice cold water had suddenly been thrown on him, his doused Blaze backs down, shamed for having behaved so badly, his intended show of strength petering out with a whimper. To the horror of aghast onlookers, he ever so slowly doffs his hat in deference to the presence of a lady, as if under the power of some outside force. Then strolling off in the face of the collective shock, his original objective thoroughly thwarted, he leaves behind the erroneous impression of just having intended to welcome the newcomers all along. More startled than anyone by his uncharacteristic good deed, Blaze can’t comprehend what’s come over him. Muttering an expletive and shaking his head in disbelief, he throws in his hat, disgusted with himself. The movies of Hart’s producer Tom Ince were known for focusing on ‘soul struggles’ such as this, in which individual characters were forced to wrestle with their own consciences to a psychological degree unusual for those times, when action was generally propelled along by melodramatic happenstance.
His goodness percolating just beneath the surface, Blaze doesn’t find God in the bible, as translated through the forked tongue of hypocrite Henley, but rather through his sister’s unquestioning belief, literally finding Faith. As he tells unbeliever Silk, “When women like her say there’s a God, there is one, and he sure must be worth trailin’ with.” It’s Faith’s religious convictions which make it possible to affect the conversion in Blaze her ordained brother cannot. There’s an internalized war between good and evil raging within the conflicted cowboy, testing his fortitude and moral fiber. Faith and Silk Miller sit as angel and devil on each shoulder, in a tug of war to claim his soul.
In a moving moment, Hart slowly rises to his feet, symbolically ascending in the general direction of heaven, as his bad man gets some old-time religion. This spiritual conversion is beautifully lit, with only half of Hart’s face illuminated by the soft light streaming into the parsonage. That the other half is left in shadow is indicative of his good bad man’s still deeply divided state. The masterly lighting will again catch his face in half shadow later, when he proudly looks out the window onto the finished church at night. While the hypocritical reverend makes a false show of his piety before all, Blaze sits at home alone, making a more honest effort to embrace the holy word. Diligently studying the Good Book while habitually drinking and smoking, he perfectly encapsulates the struggle of being torn between extremes. Hart was known as the ‘two-gun man’ for the characteristic habit he adopted of crouching low behind a pistol brandished in each hand, but in instances like these, the name could just as easily denote his good bad man’s dualistic nature. Coming across the passage about ‘ask and ye shall receive,’ he addresses the Lord man to man, “God, If you mean what you say here. I’m askin’ for her.” While Henley is distracted by sins of the flesh, Blaze’s chaste, spiritually pure romance with his sister is blossoming apace in innocent fashion. He even escorts Faith from the church raising, like Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine, with his chivalrous request “I’d admire to walk home with you, ma’am.”
Introduced on horseback he rides tall in the saddle, towering over his boisterous companions, making it clear that as bad as Blaze is, he still stands head and shoulders above the common rut. Hart’s loner characters always seemed natural born leaders of men, so when Blaze falls to his knees in prayer, the entire congregation follows suit. Dependent on him for spiritual guidance, in Henley’s incapacitated state, the church needs just such a strong, implacable leader to stand firm in the face of persecution. So Blaze takes the bull by the horns, seizing the reigns of spiritual leadership by taking charge of the minister’s flock following their shepherd’s fall, replacing the parson both in the pulpit and in Faith’s affections. As Diane Kaiser Koszarski succinctly described the star’s long, equine countenance in The Complete Films of William S. Hart, “its hard planes evoke both the wild wolf and the Puritan forefather.” And indeed Hart looks as though he should have been the one delivering sermons and parables of loaves and fishes all along. He may be referring to herds and cattle instead of flocks and sheep in his ‘Arizona Frank’ allegory, but the message comes through loud and clear that Henley is a bum steer.
While there’s no organized law in Hell’s Hinges Blaze, being the best bad man in town by dint of his skill with a gun, likewise assumes the task of maintaining some semblance of order. Acting on his own volition, answerable only to a higher power, he’s the only man with the cachet to stare down the raucous carousers when they intrude upon Henley’s service, forcing them at gunpoint to show some respect and behave themselves. It’s only his past with a gun and willingness to resort to violence that keeps the saloon occupants in check, slow cooking their simmering fury. As long as Blaze is there, manning the wall, a tenuous peace is imposed between the town’s divided factions. Serving as antecedent for the protagonists in many later Westerns, Hart’s Blaze is the proverbial gunslinger from America’s mythic, pre-civilized frontier past, a man killer who is at an age where he feels the flames of hell hot on his heels, moral retribution for the wicked life he’s led. But if Blaze weren’t as dangerous as he is, with a bloody legacy as a gunfighter who shoots first and asks questions later, he wouldn’t be able to protect the defenseless churchgoers as well as he does, becoming their champion, a knight in shining armor. Yet, as with those later Western figures, his violent prone nature is considered unworthy of the emerging civilization he can’t fit into. Instead of being left to wander between the winds however, consigned to fade into obscurity, because he’s converted, proven capable of laying his savage past to rest, Blaze is instead rewarded by God with the woman he’s prayed for. The inexorable coming of civilization to the wild western plains and the challenges it posed to Harts cowboy character to adjust and adapt to it would also prove the fitting theme of his great silent swan song Tumbleweeds.
Like his reformed bandit forced to commit one more stagecoach robbery in defense of the heroine’s honor in the earlier On the Night Stage, or his reformed outlaw forced to commit one more holdup to recover money gambled away by the dishonest marshal in The Bargain, Hart’s characters were frequently forced to do bad things for good reasons, before they could be seen as thoroughly cleansed of sin. As with these initial, star making appearances, in Hell’s Hinges he is again forced by extenuating circumstances to renege on his new covenant, backsliding into his former ways, if with good cause. Here he burns down an entire town for the best of all possible reasons and with the Lord’s full blessing, proving His instrument on earth, a tool of providence. In Hart movies women represent man’s better half, so by the time Blaze’s finer nature, stoked by Faith, blazes up at the end, it’s more a sign of the flickering Holy Spirit than the sizzling pit. When fire leaps into those cold, iron eyes it just makes him appear apostolic.
Having made the mistake of abandoning his helpless flock, Blaze must race back to town for final reckoning and Hart, who was pushing fifty when he first entered films, displays a remarkable degree of athletic horsemanship. Though he despised running inserts and trick stunts, the star could still demonstrate some mighty fancy riding when the occasion warranted. In a gesture more reminiscent of Douglas Fairbanks for instance, Hart takes a flying leap from a small incline into his saddle, then topples down a sand dune without his trusty steed once losing its mount. Riding herd, he might be all four Horsemen of the Apocalypse rolled into one. True to his name, the fire is intended as a physical manifestation of Blaze himself, allowing him to extinguish his flaming fury by cleaning up this town beyond all hope of salvation. Consigning it to the ash heap proves cathartic for the character, the fire quenching the last vestiges of evil remaining in him. Hell hath no fury like Hart when he’s fuming and, burning with righteous indignation, the incensed actor works up a head of steam as fire rages around him. He’s framed in such a way that it appears as if plumes of smoke were coming out his ears, epitomizing Blaze’s roiling emotional state, his own inner volcano which is about to blow its top. His red-hot temper having reached its boiling point, he’s seeing red, the flame-tinged film stock dyed and toned to subliminally match his mindset.
Hart is astonishing in these final scenes of complete annihilation, looking about him in almost stunned astonishment at what he’s wrought. With steely reserve he turns as a precisely timed explosion rings him with fire, this “sudden burst of flame creating a halo effect behind his head seeming almost to identify him as an agent of divine vengeance” (91 The Western). Set to loose the fateful lightning from His terrible, swift sword, Hart’s Blaze strides through the holocaust untouched, raining down a wrathful God’s fiery fury upon the town, anarchically razing it to the ground like some avenging archangel. As the finger of the Almighty, Blaze proves more adept at commanding the hellish fire than even the satanic Silk. But when he looks back to give the engulfed town one last parting glance, we’d be forgiven for fearing the sentinel like silent actor in danger of turning to a pillar of salt, a permanent rock in monument valley.
Succeeding pioneer Bronco Billy Anderson, Hart became the first big cowboy star of silent features and one of the genre’s most enduring icons. He was as important to the history of the Western and its development as John Wayne would be, not only serving to define the conventions of the genre as we know it today, but leaving an indelible impression on the history of cinema itself. Though Hart spent his early years knocking around the frontier, he was born, ironically enough, in New York and was already a seasoned, theatrically trained Shakespearean actor when he came to films. Having appeared as Messala in the original Broadway production of Ben-Hur, prior to ever stepping before the camera Hart had even fashioned a Western veneer similar to the one he’d bring to movies while barnstorming in venerables like The Squaw Man and The Virginian.
Entering films in 1914 under Tom Ince, Hart cut his teeth on several shorts before betting the ranch on his lavish first feature The Bargain, which established him as one of filmdom’s brightest new stars, his popularity helping revitalize the flagging genre. The movie was considered important enough to be distributed through the prestigious Paramount, Ince delaying release of Hart’s On the Night Stage, until he could fully cash in on his new star’s celebrity status. Hart was still riding high in 1915-16 when he made Hell’s Hinges, his most “representative” film according to Jeanine Basinger in Silent Stars, “and along with Tumbleweeds and The Toll Gate (the one) that is most revived today.” Which is fortunate since Hart’s Oscar-worthy performance shows him to his best advantage. Given its darkly zealous religious tone, “which was never again so pronounced” in Hart (The Western 91), Hell’s Hinges was the most psychologically complex material the star was ever handed.