Friday, September 10, 2010

First westerns: Thomas Ince and William S. Hart

It's Friday again, and I'm taking a break from the "literary" direction this blog has taken to look at early western movies. A while ago I wrote here about the first cowboy star, Broncho Billy Anderson. Today's post is about a director and actor who followed close behind. By the way, credit for all this goes to film historian Jon Tuska whose The Filming of the West covers this subject in depth.

Thomas Ince, 1922
Thomas Ince. When he came to Los Angeles from New York in 1911, Thomas Ince (1882-1924) was a 29-year-old actor and aspiring filmmaker. He was hired on by the Bison Life Motion Picture company to make one-reeler westerns. G. M. Anderson had already begun his successful Broncho Billy franchise, but Ince took western movie production to the next level.

The Miller Brothers’ 101 Ranch Wild West show was wintering in Venice, California, when he arrived. Ince hired them, and in one stroke had himself an entire stock company. Next he acquired an acreage in the Santa Monica Mountains for shooting pictures.

Miller Bros. 101 Ranch Wild West Show, 1913 (click for more)
Production expanded to the making of two-reelers, the first of them War on the Plains (1912). In Ince’s hands, the scope of the western expanded as well. He wanted to portray the drama of westward expansion and in particular its impact on the native populations. He had an empathy for what he saw as the tragedy of the red man. It was an attitude he shared with William S. Hart, a fellow actor Ince had known in New York.

Production quickly expanded in 1912 to the making of three-reelers, Custer’s Last Stand and another Indian saga, The Invaders. By this time, Ince had turned over most of the production to others and was saving only the editing for himself. Which, of course, didn’t stop him from giving himself credits for direction and screenplay when a film was released.

Ince joined Kay-Bee Pictures, which produced some 256 films during the years 1912-1918. Below is one of their westerns, Past Redemption (1913), co-written by Thomas Ince and William Clifford and directed by Burton King. It features Ann Little as the feisty daughter of a saloon owner who is put out of business by the local temperance league. She decides to mend her wild ways, but to no avail.

Notice the use of Indians in some scenes and the dust and excitement in a fight scene shot from a very high angle. A chase on horseback is also well done.
A writer at calls it a 30-minute film, but this version is only ten minutes, and the abruptness of scene changes suggest that it may have been cut from a longer original. [If the video won't play, give the slide bar under the pic a little nudge to get it going.]

William S. Hart, c1917
William S. Hart. In 1914 actor William S. Hart (1864-1946) comes into the picture, joining Ince’s company to make westerns of his own. By this time, the market was already becoming glutted with westerns, and Ince had lost interest in them. But he let Hart make two two-reelers, On the Night Stage and The Bargain. Both did well at the box office, and at the age of forty Hart began a career as a cowboy actor in the movies.

Hart is often given credit for bringing a depth of new realism to the western. But film historian Jon Tuska argues that Hart’s western setting is little more than a backdrop for a morality drama. A typical Hart film is about the reformation of a good-hearted bad man and the evils of drink and loose women. All of which reflects the growing public sentiment against alcohol that would lead to Prohibition by the end of the decade.

The Toll-Gate (1920) is an example. Hart plays a train robber who takes refuge in the isolated cabin of a widow (Anna Q. Nilsson) and her young son. Sweetly innocent and trusting, she hides him from the law, not knowing he is a guilty man. Remorse overwhelms him, and he decides to reform his ways – venturing onward to meet his reward at some time in the future life. There’s also a villain, who meets a well deserved end at the hands of our good-bad hero. Contemporary reviews were mixed but are interesting to read for their take on all this.

Hart’s career lasted for hardly more than a decade. His last film Tumbleweeds (1925) was a farewell to the screen. Set in the Cherokee Strip at the start of the Oklahoma land rush in 1889, it’s a saga-size western. Hart plays a cowboy who falls in love and is confronted with obstacles as he tries to start a ranch. It’s re-release version after the introduction of sound has a lugubrious introduction by Hart who seems eternally saddened by the passing of the West.

Source: Jon Tuska, The Filming of the West, New York: Doubleday, 1976.

Further reading: A lot more on William S. Hart at Laurie’s Wild West
 Picture credits:
1) Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West Show, 1913,
2) DVD cover, Tumbleweeds,
3) All other photos from

Coming up: More on Eugene Manlove Rhodes


  1. The 10 minute clip from Past Redemption was interesting because so often women were delegated to small roles in B-westerns. They usually were in the film to look pretty or just to be menaced by the villain. But in Past Redemption the girl is a strong character who dominates the story.

    I like William Hart because he is not the typical young and handsome cowboy dressed in clean and neat looking clothes. Like Harry Carey, Hart looks real and not like some kid's dream of how a cowboy should look. The singing cowboys especially are hard to believe because they are just too handsome, clean, and good.

  2. Walker, "Perils of Pauline" and similar serials were breaking the stereotype for women at the time. I haven't done a study of this, so I don't know for sure what happened then. All the B-westerns I can think of are male dominated. When sound introduced the opportunity for singing cowboys, Hollywood reinvented the West.

    Charles, I'm guessing Bison and Life were at one time two different companies. The industry was so volatile at the beginning; there were lots of start-ups followed by merger after merger.

  3. I put both Ince and Hart in my novel, Masterson, and had a great time doing it. Tuska's material was valuable.