Of Theodore Roberts’ performance as Devil Judd Tolliver, leader of a clan of hillbilly moonshiners in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, W. Stephen Bush in The Moving Picture World wrote “His characterization of the old mountaineer was the finest piece of acting seen on any screen in many a month.” The New York Times concurred wholeheartedly, saying “…Roberts, in the role of the elder Tolliver, gave another of the fine character studies with which he is enriching moving-picture productions.” All of which seems to add up to a general consensus that Roberts was the season’s Best Supporting Actor, though I find his grim work here as the heavy far less robust than his more lighthearted romps in other Demille flicks. Roberts just wasn’t any fun at all when toiling to seem serious and taciturn. Charlotte Walker, star of this big screen version, had risen to fame in the 1906 stage adaptation of John Fox Jr.’s story, opposite William S. Hart in the part Roberts would essay onscreen. So given such six degrees of separation, it seems fitting somehow to hand the Supporting Oscar over to Jack Standing, who himself supported Hart in Hell’s Hinges, with an audacious turn as a hypocritical frontier minister who falls from grace.
Standing is Robert Henley, a weak-willed Eastern preacher assigned to a parish in the wild Western town of Hell’s Hinges. Eager to oust him, the local saloon owner Silk Miller (Alfred Hollingsworth) sends town trollop Dolly (Louise Glaum) to seduce Henley from his calling and expose him as a hypocrite in front of his flock. Plied with liquor and cigars he succumbs to Dolly’s charms and joins the howling mob in burning down his own church, only to meet with swift and sure retribution from the almighty.
Standing’s fallen minister is a peculiar character to come across in a Western of this vintage. Perhaps his closest genre equivalent would be the disgraced, alcoholic Doc Holiday in movies about Tombstone. Predating as it does even Lillian Gish’s major adaptation of The Scarlet Letter by many years, the screen has rarely offered such a daringly profane depiction of the clergy than Standing’s “selfish youth totally unfit for (the) profession.” Indeed, this may be one of the most scathing depictions of a corrupt preacher to be found in all silent cinema, even worse than Paul Robeson’s in Body and Soul. And likely it would have run into similar censorship troubles if released in the wake of the Hays Code, whose draconian bylaws helped transform the preacher into a reformer for the first screen adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s Rain. As William K. Everson states, “To regard Hell’s Hinges as merely a western is a mistake, for it more resembles The Atonement of Gosta Berling” (91 The Western) and this is largely due to the force of Standing’s performance as the defrocked minister. His faltering, spineless, undisciplined, mother-dominated character – prime fodder for any self-respecting vamp worth her salt – is a great part, the type that an actor like Charles Ray made a career specializing in. In fact, Ray would have been an ideal fit for it, having played a similar character in an earlier William S. Hart short called The Conversion of Frosty Blake, which dealt with much the same theme. But dark, somber looking Standing makes the most of his big break, going for broke as this cleric wavering on the brink of damnation.
Given the pelt tellingly tacked to the wall behind him as he ministers to the needs of the saloon girls, this wolf in sheep’s clothing seems set to prey on little lost lambs, the proverbial false prophet the bible warned the devout to be wary of, lest he lead them into temptation. Star Hart often played opposite characters of the cloth, such as Robert Edeson in On the Night Stage, George Nichols in The Silent Man, Ray himself in the aformentioned The Conversion of Frosty Blake, and as Hart had withThe Sheriff in The Bargain and Doc Hardy in The Disciple, to give two examples, again expands his good bad man’s innate dramatic arc by physically manifesting it in the form of another person. Rather than simply showing us how good his bad man could be, for purposes of contrast in Hell’s Hinges we’re also given an object demonstration of how bad a good man can be, courtesy of Standing. Unusually, this Western begins in the East with the newly ordained reverend descanting from his pulpit at the Slums Mission of St. John’s. Opinion concerning precisely where this man of God stands in the Lord’s estimation is visually conveyed in this opening scene, as Henley delivers his sermon from a basement set in the bowls of the earth, closer to the devil’s own domain, the legs of pedestrians on ground level above moving back and forth past the window behind him. Even before being formally introduced, we’ve been subliminally coerced to look down on him. The temptations besetting Henley are likewise etched as we watch the good parson, tone deaf to what he’s really saying, take ‘an actor’s delight in swaying his audience.’ While Standing, the actor playing him, does the exact same, reveling in his shameless role. Standing is at his best in these scenes where he takes perverse pleasure in driving the female churchgoers into a frenzy with his exhilarating orations. Making their hearts flutter from afar, he uses emphatic gestures, bringing arms, fingers, eyebrows into one fluidly expressive, singular whole in a manner that implies raciness rather than the religious text he’s spouting. We don’t need titles to translate the subject of his Sunday sermon because the idea is apparent from his lascivious display and the reactions of his breathless, enthralled acolytes. With the adage ‘God is Love,’ emblazoned in large type behind him, he intends practicing what he preaches. Taking a decidedly ungodly interest in his female sect, coaxing them to forget themselves by confusing religious rapture with sexual ecstasy, much as Burt Lancaster would do as Elmer Gantry many years later, this lech makes it clear it’s not their spiritual comfort he’s really after. Encouraging these idolaters to worship him, a tin horn version of the golden calf, his reverend is far more gratified by the sighs and adulation than any thought that he’s doing God’s work. Henley appears to have gotten into religion for the same reason other men want to be rock stars. With flashing eyes and quickening breath, the prospect of establishing a mission out West takes on the form of a hacienda in his daydreams. Stocked with becoming Spanish señoritas in mantillas and colorful shawls, to whom he can play patron saint, he more resembles the proprietor of a personal harem. All too susceptible to the sins of the flesh, his licentious appetites seem to spring directly from the horned beast, at a time holy men were regarded as spiritually and physically chaste.
Since we’re shown their sexual basis, understandably Henley’s powers of persuasion don’t work so well on men like Blaze, and the parson tastes bitter defeat when his hollow words fail to move the gunman to stand at service’s end, and accept Christ. Devoid of the unquestioning faith of a true believer, Henley’s words come across as false and deceitful, despite his fiery readings. Having a more instinctual feel for scripture than he can muster, it’s his sister Faith who radiates the simple virtues her brother cannot in his higher calling, her pristine white dress visually conveying the very idea by contrasting with his man in black preacher’s garb. While Henley espouses fire and brimstone inspired by the Old Testament God of wrath and fury, it’s Faith, her heartfelt words of compassion speaking for the New Testament God of unconditional love, who reaches Blaze, touching his soul. Incapable of leading a horse to water, the town hasn’t a prayer of deliverance under Henley’s spiritual hand, allowing the insidious hint of sulpher to begin seeping in more strongly. When they’d whispered among themselves the “fear that Robert is not… equal to the trials and tribulations of city work,” the diocese counseled that the best place for him was out of harm’s way, “…on the prairies where the people live simply and close to God.” But they couldn’t have been more misguided. By trying to shelter the suspect parson, they instead unwittingly sent him directly into the lion’s den, where even a strong man would’ve crumble. Like Christ, who wandered out into the desert to face his last temptation, Henley is confronted by his own here on the wild frontier. His assignment to the aptly named Hell’s Hinges, where Satan beckons, is his baptism by fire, a Job-like test of faith that he fails miserably. With precious little prodding he eagerly succumbs to a perpetual state of original sin, proving how much weaker the flesh is when the spirit isn’t even willing. He’s of such little faith that at his first serious tribulation he devolves into a quivering, depraved, alcoholic shell of his former self. Unequal to the task of remaining resolute and standing firm in the face of sinfulness, he’s instead consumed by the fires of perdition.
Readily forging his devil’s bargain with bar owner Silk, Henley has the audacity to shoot Blaze a dirty look that tells him he doesn’t think the former gunslinger good enough to court his sister when he escorts her home from church. And this despite Henley himself openly consorting with the worst man in the territory. Playing off his weaknesses, Silk suggests he come down to the saloon and hold service for his dance hall girls, practically inviting him to his cathouse. But then, such a prospect is just what Henley, who avidly accepts, always imagined his appointment would be, affording the opportunity to again hold a female flock under his sway.
With Blaze having thrown Silk over, proving too strong to succumb to the lures of the Devil, he turns his attention to easier prey, the foolish new parson proving the perfect patsy, putty in his hand. Susceptible to all manner of enticements, it’s Silk who orchestrates the repressed reverend’s downfall, offering up all the wicked worldly pleasures he can dream of if only he’ll renounce his faith. Practically panting to be led astray by a luscious lollipop like Dolly, it takes this soiled dove to show Henley what an amateur he is at the art of seduction. Flattering his masculine ego, she easily turns the sexual tables on this silver-tongued psalm singer by twisting him around her finger as easily as he always had his female supplicants. Dolly even anticipates Mae West, inviting Henley to come up to her room sometime, to the knowing guffaws of the onlookers. Soon he’ll be performing the walk of shame, tiptoeing out of the house to keep their clandestine rendezvous as if he were a naughty teenager breaking curfew, the moonlight from outside streaming in, making interesting patterns suggestive of prison bars on the checkered tablecloth. His forlorn and abandoned church looms in the distance as Henley sneaks out of the house, the flashcard fittingly placed against an illustration of an angel weeping over man’s fall. The supple lure of female flesh keeping his mind constantly clouded with indiscreet thoughts, when Henley drops a cigarette on the wooden floor as Dolly twines her arms around his neck, we fear a flash fire will suddenly rear up to consume them both in the midst of their inflamed lust.
Effortlessly vamping him, Dolly claims to be celebrating her birthday so she can ply him with drink, having the teetotaler repeatedly toast her health. And Standing’s interpretation of his character’s first taste of liquor, choking, becoming instantly giddy then catatonically staring off into space, proves as amusingly memorable as Woody Allen’s would be in Play it Again, Sam. He responds to the alcoholic spirits loony toon fashion, his legs going akimbo, facial muscles sagging, succumbing to the shakes and teetering on the verge of delirium tremens as each shot hits the spot. Standing makes for a great drunk as the actor goes for broke, his wicked preacher so bad he’s good. Though far past the age of consent, Henley’s like a little boy corrupted by the pool hall atmosphere, imbibing liquor and smoking for the first time, indulging in all the forbidden vices deemed taboo heretofore. And once he gets his first taste of the sinful life, he can’t get enough, becoming a glutton for punishment, his depraved, debauched wild man in no condition to serve as any sort of spiritual paragon. Like Adam in the garden, sometimes all it takes is one bite. This weakling whose mission in life was to uplift others, sinks lower than the low. Taking no further pride in his appearance, with his unsteady gait and vestless shirt sleeves, by film’s end his image has been thoroughly tarnished. Pulled down off his pulpit, he now behaves like a drug addict in need of a fix. The depths to which Henley’s sunk becomes painfully apparent when, insensible, he pushes out of his way the beloved sister standing between him and the clutch of drink, definitively turning his back on Faith. As Henley bellies up to the bar, tippling the fire water down with glazed, glossy eyes, it becomes clear that throwing alcohol on the fire in this fashion is simply fanning the flames.
Despite his original intention to convert non-believers, the saloon element instead baptizes their new convert with another shot of whiskey. The church having taken away Blaze, the worst among them, the saloon pilfers the most upstanding pillar of the community by corrupting the parson, making him over in their own image. Lifting a passage from the bible, Satan quoting scripture to suit his purpose, they consider this an eye for an eye. Just as Blaze replaces Henley in the church pulpit, Henley replaces Blaze in the bar, doing all of Silk’s dirty work for him, even taking a symbolic ‘blazing’ torch in hand, as though it had been lighted in the pits of Hades, to stamp out religion once and for all by burning down his own church. He wants to obliterate from conscience this constant reminder of his former life and present degradation. No longer fighting on the side of the angels Henley, with his pyrrhic, pyromaniac’s victory, desecrates the house of the lord that faith built.
Scion of an eminent British acting dynasty, Jack Standing was the son of theatrical luminary Herbert Standing and the brother of Wyndham, Percy, Herbert Jr. (father of Joan Standing), and Guy Standing (father of Kay Hammond), most of whom enjoyed varying degrees of success as leading men throughout the teens and into the twenties. As his online biography states, Standing was asked to play quite everything from passionate lovers to villains or old men, though his predilection was for character parts. In 1915, he told the Moving Picture World magazine, “Spare me from being a one-type actor!” Having played Broadway in musicals and joined Biograph in 1909, Standing appeared in shorts for a plethora of companies including Selig and Lubin, with whom he signed in 1911. Though never a major draw of the first magnitude, Standing frequently appeared in Westerns, oftentimes as the cowboy hero, but he’d never again make one with Hart. So if ever there was a one trick pony of an Oscar-worthy performance, this is it. The actor’s promising career would be tragically cut short when he died of pneumonia at the age of 31, just three years after appearing in this film. But with Hell’s Hinges forever sealing his place in screen history, Standing’s been memorialized in amber by at least this one performance, for which he went all out. And that’s a kinder fate than allotted many fading silent stars whose careers stretched far into talkies.