Saturday, 13 September 2014

William S. Hart burning down the house - Hell's Hinges (1916)

"No actor before the screen has been able to give as sincere and true a touch to the Westerner as Hart. He rides in a manner indigenous to the soil, he shoots with the real knack and he acts with that sense of artistry that hides the acting."    New York Press (1916)

I’m not sure what experience the Post’s correspondent had in order to form this opinion but from my long years of Saturday TV westerns, Hart does appear more authentic than I might have expected: the ten gallon hat for a start along with leather wrist bands (very sensible with all that lassoing) and gaudy shirts... they had to be real.

William S. Hart
Hart was indeed a dedicated student of the era and was a personal friend of Wyatt Earp (only 17 years older…) who owned Billy the Kid’s genuine six-shooters. Born in the civil war years, Hart was already 51 when he made this film and a veteran actor with a serious classical stage background having played on Broadway as well as Shaftsbury Avenue. This skill is much in evidence throughout this film and his instinct that screen acting required toned down expression although I’m sure the mighty landscapes and frenetic action took the edge of any over emoting.

He was already in that late mid-period stage that John Wayne struggled with: still a believable man of action but perhaps less so a romantic lead. Which might explain his almost chaste fascination with Clara Williams’ character Faith. He looks like a man who has seen trouble and travelled long and hard to find some more – Blaze Tracy isn’t the name of a man who has been taking life easy after all.

Hart is the core of this dynamic film which has something of the vengeful force reproduced by Clint Eastwood in High Plains Drifter but so many westerns to come would have been influenced by Hell’s Hinges. This is the West wild in tooth and claw, in which the moral compass has not just been lost but crushed by a stampede of settlers. Some folk want order and religion whilst others just want the good times force and will power can bring. It’s a primal western and westerns are just about as primal a genre as cinema has… hold on to your hats and leave your guns at the door.

Charles Swickard directs with real pace and the film has a raw intensity clearly influenced by Griffith’s narrative invention but also with a stylized focus of its own. Blaze is a wild creature who won’t be entirely civilised by the coming of Christianity although he’s big on an eye for an eye. To paraphrase Alan Moore: westerns are revenge fantasies for the impotent – might with right on its side.

Jack Standing and Clara Williams
All begins way out east where young Reverend Robert Henley (Jack Standing) holds forth in front of his congregation in chapel. But not all of his audience is held rapt, his sister Faith (Clara Williams) looks worried as she sees his performance exceed his belief: he relishes the acting and not the actions. His superiors look to find him a placement somewhere less… demanding, and come up with a small town out West: surely they must be so sorely in need of the Good Word that Robert will finally find his feet in less urbane sophisticated climes…

Faith – who hasn’t lost hers - insists on accompanying him to help him settle in… they travel hopefully across magnificent valleys and then arrive amidst a dusty gun battle: the clue’s in the name, they’ve come to Hell’s Hinges.

Silk and Blaze in happier times...
The two dominant figures in town are slick, Silk Miller (Alfred Hollingsworth) a professional gambler and runner of the local saloon and all that goes with it. Against him is alpha cow-hand, Blaze Tracy (Hart) – a force of nature not naturally favouring neither good nor bad: just survival of the fastest.

Neither men want to see the town get organised by organised religion and both fully expect the new arrivals to fall flat on their faces. Silk aims to speed this up by arranging for a party to crash the first sermon at the town’s makeshift church. Reverend Henley collapses under the pressure but his sister’s made of sterner stuff and starts singing… the sound is enough to sooth the savage breasts of drunken townsfolk and to stop Blaze in his tracks.

Faith sings and the townsfolk listen
Thus the immovable object makes the force stop and think… there is hope in this town. But, even as the townsfolk start building a new church, Silk is playing the Reverend… he tells him that the dancers in his saloon would appreciate a sermon and, like a fool he goes off to try: well, why not, as the showgirl said to the reverend…

He catches the eye of one Dolly (Louise Glaum: the woman who put the amps in vamps even before Theda arrived!) who Silk has lined up to lead him down the – darkened – garden path.  Dolly and Robert have such a good time that he drunkenly sleeps through Sunday morning… there’s no one to christen the new church.

Louise Glaum turns on the charm
Things head downhill… all the way to Hell in a hand-cart to be exact.

Mild spoilers:  There is now open war between the Gamblers and the God-fearers and Blaze must decide on the role he must play. The film builds to a spectacular physical crescendo as tragedy leads to vengeance and a balancing of the burning books as Blaze sets his destiny…

In Hell
There are moments when Hell’s Hinges feels almost modern: it's so stripped down in its attempt at authenticity. The Western template was being set but this is also a representation of how things actually were just a few decades before - this was living memory and Hart’s meticulous research influenced the film’s direction as well as his performance.

There’s great support from Alfred Hollingsworth as the unlikeable rogue and Louise Glaum as the tart without much of a heart. She's the antithesis of Clara Williams’ Faith who manages to bring subtlety to what could so easily have been one-note purity. But it’s Hart that draws the eye throughout, a man of gentle strength who looks to find redemption. He knows a good thing when he finally sees it…

There are also blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos from Jean Hersholt as a rowdy townsman and John Gilbert as a rowdy cowboy – not too sure how you’d spot the difference.

Hell’s Hinges is available in a really good quality print as part of the Nation Film Preservation Council's, Treasures Volume 1 collection. That essential set is currently out of print but there are copies available from Amazon: better hurry though as it’s getting pricey, but you’ve probably already got it, right?


  1. Love this film very much! Greetings from Switzerland :-)

    1. It has surprising force and William S Hart is such a good performer!

      Hope all is well. Best wishes.