Issue: Issue Winter 2007/2008

Hollywood's Cowboys

Two of the screen’s greatest cowboys – Gene Autry and most revered Western movie actor of the silent era, William S. Hart – have left behind handsome museums that remain a testament to their legacy, and their love of both the real West and its Hollywood cousin. 

Though he wasn’t the first screen cowboy – that honor goes to “Bronco Billy” Anderson William S. Hart brought authenticity to the western movie. In his films, the landscape and environment of the country was every bit as important an element as the cast and scenario.  This would become the genre of film that a long line of actors such as Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson, William “Hopalong Cassidy” Boyd, Tim McCoy, Gary Cooper, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood would bring to life.

 A fancy-dressed dude by the tough standards set by silent film star Hart, Gene Autry took full advantage of his background as a radio star, and pioneered the character of the singing cowboy creating a demand that led to careers for ridin’, ropin’, sixgun-wieldin’ baritones including Roy Rogers, Tex Ritter, Eddie Dean and Rex Allen. (Indeed, John Wayne made at least one film as government agent “Singin’ Sandy Saunders,” though his singing voice was dubbed by Bill Bradbury and the film – “Riders of Destiny” –remains an obscure footnote).

William S. Hart came to westerns from Broadway, where he was a successful actor with leading roles in “Ben-Hur” (where he played the villainous Messala), “The Squaw Man,” “Trail of the Lonesome Pine,” and a number of Shakespeare plays.

As a child, Hart’s father, an itinerate laborer, moved his family from New York (where Hart was born) to Oklahoma, the Indian Territories and the Dakotas. Having lived among settlers, young Bill developed a lifelong interest in cowboys and Indians – the real articles, whom he’d observed first hand. When he saw his first “western” movie, at a theater in Cleveland in 1911, Hart was distressed at the inauthenticity of the film’s costumes and characters. Hart, who had even learned to speak the Sioux language, planned to capture the West on his own terms.

His popularity increased rapidly, with Hart’s characters (generally bad guys gone good) and his insistence on showing the real West, and his honest, taciturn portrayals were something new and refreshing. His horse, Fritz, became as well known in its day as would Gene Autry’s “Champion,” and Roy Rogers’ “Trigger”.  In addition to acting, Hart occasionally produced, directed and wrote his own pictures. At the peak of his career, Hart was one of the top three motion picture stars in the country – alongside Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.  Though Hart had retired before the era of sound pictures, his last feature – 1925’s “Tumbleweeds,” set in the days of the Oklahoma land rush – is generally regarded as one of his best, and was rereleased many years later with a prologue spoken, onscreen, by Hart himself.

Following his retirement, Hart moved to his 265- acre ranch outside Los Angeles , where he built a 20-room mansion, costing approximately $100,000 at the time – more than $1 million in today’s dollars. He collected western-themed art and crafts, and entertained friends ranging from Hollywood stars to Amelia Earhart; and his activities included writing several short stories and novels – including one starring his beloved palomino, Fritz.

When he died in 1946, Hart willed the ranch to “the people of Los Angeles .” Today, it remains open to the public at no charge, with docent-led tours of the main house held several days per week.

Gene Autry was in many ways everything that Hart wasn’t: at 6’3”, Hart would have loomed over his predecessor; Autry had no background as an actor; and in all of his movies he was a good guy, named … “Gene Autry.” And while Hart never made a sound feature, Autry made his reputation as a singing cowboy, with numerous hit records in addition to his highly successful movies.