William S. Hart: The Silent Cowboy

Before the age of alien motherships and bullet-time combat scenes, there was the age of the old Western. The heart pounding action in movies back then was all about train robberies, horse chases, and the suspense over who would get the first draw in a shootout in the center of town. Boots, jackets, a hat, and some straw hanging out the mouth was the cool look back then.

The silent-era of films produced many amazing talented stars. We had Buster Keaton with his unbelievable stunts and monotone face, and Charlie Chaplin with his timeless comedy. Though most films focused more on comedy, that wasn’t the only genre kicking back then. There was Harold Lloyd with his believable romance and daring stunts. And then there was the genre that took the American people by storm; the Old Wide West.

Who Was William S. Hart?

William S. HartWilliam Surrey Hart was a western star of the silent era. Portraying a handsome man in authentic costumes, William S. Hart was one of the more popular movie stars during the 1910’s and early 1920’s, and consistently ranked high in the popularity contests for male actors that were held by movie fan magazines.

Born in Newburgh, New York to parents Nicholas Hart (born in England) and Rosanna Hart (born in Ireland) on the 6th of December, 1864, William S. Hart had two brothers and four sisters. William lost his brothers at quite young ages, and grew up with a mostly female presence. He was also distantly related to Neal Hart, another wester star in the showbiz.

The Start Of His Career

William S. Hart began his acting career on the stage. In his 20’s at the time, Hart tried desperately to make a name for himself. Hart debuted on stage in 1888 under a company led by Daniel E. Bandmann, and joined another company – headed by Lawrence Barrett – the following year. He didn’t stick around long there either, and continued to tour the country trying hit it big. Around 1900, he even directed some shows at the Ashville Opera House in North Carolina.

Hart found some success in Broadway, where he was a Shakespearean actor. There he worked with Margaret Mather (a Canadian actress) among others. He appeared in the 1899 stage production of Ben-Hur. Hart lost his youngest sister in the year 1901, who died of typhoid fever, and it wasn’t until Hart was 49 that he entered the world of film.

This Town Ain’t Big Enough

Town Ain’t Big EnoughIn the year 1914 Hart played two supporting roles in two short films. Then, playing the lead in the film “The Bargain”, Hart struck gold. Hart’s enthusiasm for realism and authenticity mixed with his acting prowess resulted in a genuine wonder to watch. Hart starred in two-reel western shorts for produces Thomas Ince in 1915, and achieved even more fame as the movies were wildly successful and continued to be played in theatres for years afterwards.

Just a year after having started his film career, he was voted the biggest money making star in the United States by exhibitors. The following year saw the title go to him once more. Hart joined Famous Players-Lasky in 1917, which would later go on to merge into Paramount Pictures. Around this time Hart began riding a brown and white pinto which he named Fritz. Fritz, very much like his rider, would be the inspiration for many future movie horses.

Soon after having found his new calling Hart started working on feature-length films only. He continued to achieve much success with them, with features like “Square Deal Sanderson” and “The Toll Gate” being wholly popular. Hart also married a young actress by the name Winifred Westover. Though they had a child together, their marriage wouldn’t last long.

William S. Hart’s Decline

William S. Hart’s DeclineUnfortunately, there seems to always come a time when an actor simply loses touch with modern audiences. This started in the 1920’s for old Hart. The audiences were enraptured by other cowboys on screen; ones who wore less realistic and much flashier costumes and partook in faster action sequences not really caring for realism. Due to the new times and new demands from the public, Paramount Pictures fired Hart.

Hart tried to cling on to the old school way of doing things, and produced “Tumbleweeds” in the year 1925. A movie just as western as its name. Hart had poured his own money into “Tumbleweeds” but, even though the movie itself was stellar, it failed to impress at the box office. Hart blamed his production company – United Artists – and claimed they didn’t promote his film like it deserved to be. Hart sued United Artists, and won in 1940, years and years after the film’s release.

Retirement And Death

Retirement And DeathAfter “Tumbleweeds” didn’t take off, Hart decided to give up and retire. He retired to his ranch home in Newhall, California. Hart did appear on screen one more time; in a sound film released in 1939 which was a spoken prologue for a reissue of “Tumbleweeds”. Hart, aged 74, was also filmed at his ranch, where he fondly reminisced about the Old West and his golden years. Hart passed away on the 23rd of June in 1946 aged 81.


Though reading about bygone greats is always a treat, it is sometimes quite the somber experience as well. Poor Mr. Hart is an example of that; an actor that peaked and then fell while desperately trying to cling to what he thought precious in the world of film. At least he had a good run, and many folk today respect him and his work and very much enjoy rewatching his classics.