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
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
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
, 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
.” 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.