Tuesday, May 17, 2011


In 1919 William S. Hart received an offer that should have been hard to refuse. Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D. W. Griffith wanted Hart to join their new "United Artists" venture, through which creative talent would control the distribution of their work. They considered Hart a peer. Like them, he was one of Hollywood's biggest box-office attractions. Like them, he was a living archetype. Hart was "the Good-Bad Man." He specialized in playing outlaws who reformed or otherwise redeemed themselves. He was Hollywood's first Western superstar of feature films, but he turned the United Artists down. He liked his arrangement with Paramount Pictures, which was about to be upgraded, and he was reluctant to risk his own money on the UA project, as the others expected him to do.

The Toll Gate announces itself as "by William S. Hart and Lambert Hillyer." Hart presumably wrote the story and the title cards, while Hillyer did the directing. Lambert Hillyer is best known now for directing two Universal horror films in 1936, Dracula's Daughter and The Invisible Ray, and the original Batman movie serial for Columbia pictures in 1943. None of these talking films suggest a great talent, and neither does The Toll Gate. The edition presented on an Image DVD is noteworthy mainly for a garish yellow tint in the final reel that was presumably meant to evoke the blinding light of the desert sun. It's nearly unwatchable, but it may not have been the director's fault. Hillyer's job, which he did frequently for Hart, was most likely to call action and let the star do his thing.

What was his thing? I've only seen one other Hart film, his 1925 swan song Tumbleweeds, so any judgment based on two films is still tentative. Hart released four features in 1920 alone, though he would soon slow down. His reputation, as reported in books, was for realism in locations, costuming, etc. Considering that he worked at the same time in which later "end of the West" movies were set, plausibility probably came easily to him. But what about Hart himself, apart from the "good-bad man" gimmick? I was ready to compare him with Randolph Scott, because Hart is about the same age here that Scott was in the mid-1950s, when he was about to begin his remarkable final run of westerns. It proves not to be a favorable comparison for Hart. Paradoxically, sound gives Scott the advantage of terseness. Hart writes his dialogue on title cards and in writing it often comes across as stagy or jokey. He writes in Western dialect, droppin' his gs and so forth, and the overall effect is sometimes literally cartoonish, as if the cards were the word balloons of a comic strip. As for the man himself, he lacks Scott's stoicism. Hart was a Shakespearean actor and created the role of Messala in the stage version of Ben-Hur. As a movie actor he knows better than to gesticulate, but he often mugs. He makes faces, rolls his eyes, and sometimes seems poised to burst into tears. That's not the impression a hard man of the West should want to make, but I think it was the impression Hart wanted to make, at least in this picture.

In The Toll Gate Hart plays a "bad-bad man" for most of the picture. Black Deering is the leader of a small army of bandits, and his sole redeeming quality, initially, is that he wants to retire, if only because the government is putting too much heat on the gang. He gets outvoted when Jordan, his lieutenant, proposes a cinch of a train-robbery as one more job. The job proves to be a set-up; Jordan has sent the gang after a military train with soldiers lying in wait for them. While most of the men are slaughtered, Deering is taken alive and has to be pulled off Jordan by the soldiers. But in the film's first bit of implausibility, some of the troops recognize Deering as a man who many years ago rode eighty miles to warn their fort of an imminent Apache attack. Never mind that he's since plundered the West as a criminal mastermind; that long-ago good deed earns Deering a break. It's not that much of a break, since it requires him to throw himself off the train while his hands and feet are tied, but at least the train had slowed down to go up a hill, and it still beats hanging.

After some undefined time passes, Deering has untied himself, "borrowed" a horse and set out to kill Jordan. He finds his enemy in a town where Jordan owns a cantina and is apparently the local vice baron. Putting on his outlaw mask, Deering wreaks havoc, burning down Jordan's cantina (the sheriff doesn't care) and a rival saloon (now he cares) and killing several of Jordan's Mexican goons. At the same time, his visit is profoundly humiliating for Deering. Initially applying for ranch work, he lies about knowing a local rancher and is laughed at when the rancher identifies himself. Realizing that his only hope for money is theft, Deering learns that "the road of the outlaw closes off all others."

William S. Hart in a characteristic two-gun pose, with an uncharacteristic mask.

After his night on the town, Deering is on the run from both Jordan's men and a posse. He's on foot after having to kill another "borrowed" horse when he stumbles upon a lone house by a lake, just in time to see a little boy fall into the water. Deering impulsively dives in to save the lad, who seems quite capable of swimming, and deliver him to an anxious mother (Anna Q. Nilsson). Her husband has abandoned her and the child, and with the posse approaching, Deering gets the idea, since they shouldn't know him unmasked, to pose as the husband and father of the house. The grateful woman agrees to cooperate, and the kid half-believes that Deering's his daddy anyway. He has to continue the imposture when the posse decides to sack out overnight at the house, but he hopes to make his escape in the middle of the night. He passes an open family Bible on the way out, and in a bit of bibliomancy reads the verse, "By their fruits ye shall know them." But at the same moment he sees that the woman's bookmark is a photograph of her and her husband -- Jordan. For one alarming moment Deering is consumed by cold fury. He enters the wife's room, and all he needs to do is remove his vest to tell us that he intends to rape the innocent woman. But she awakens just in time to tell him, "I'm still trusting you," and after that he can't do it. A title has told us that Deering has never met a good woman before, and the experience has changed him, though it was admittedly a close call.

A chastened Deering goes to the main room and admits his true identity to the posse. At the same time, word comes that for some reason Jordan's men are attacking another unit of the posse. Deering begs the men to let him ride with them and help out. Since his life is forfeit, anyway, why not let him die fighting or, as he puts it provocatively, "like a white man." The Toll Gate manages to be a racist film without actually disparaging other races because of its repeated rhetorical equation of "whiteness" with virtue. Deering is "white" to the posse because he stepped up and told the truth. He proves himself "white" again by aiding the posse, earning revenge on Jordan in the process. "I'm going to kill you for two reasons," he tells his enemy, "One you know and one you'll never know." That is, Jordan has to die not just for betraying Black Deering but for being a deadbeat dad. That means he gets strangled and thrown off a cliff.

The final pursuit of Jordan has taken our cast across the Mexican border. Once again, authority figures prove very forgiving of a notorious outlaw for one good deed. The posse leader tells Deering that he has no authority to take the outlaw back north to the U.S. Deering is a free man as long as he stays in Mexico. That's fine by him, but suddenly the ex-Mrs. Jordan wants to stay south of the border as well, to become Mrs. Deering. This cannot be; Mexico is no country for such a decent woman. In the climactic act of renunciation, Deering tells her to go back to "her people," earning him another round of "white" accolades from the posse. He rides off in the opposite direction from everyone else, through the metaphoric toll gate that exacts its price for his otherwise irredeemable past.

On this evidence, it's no surprise that Chaplin saw Hart as a peer and wanted him for a partner. They were playing the same game, or at least, on this occasion, Hart was playing Chaplin's game. That game is pathos, the defining emotional style of the silent era. Audiences of the 1910s and 1920s were capable of being moved by the drama of renunciation, and seemed to crave the emotional experience as performed by Chaplin and any number of others in his time. Maybe it was the realism of a pre-abundant age, but the critics, at least, considered pathos the actor's highest challenge. The Toll Gate is one of the era's boldest plays for pathos, given that Hart plays something closer to a monster than a tramp. His vendetta against Jordan does a lot of damage, albeit non-lethal, to innocent people, and if anything, Hart's point seems to be that Deering is irredeemable, that he has done too much wrong in his life to live among civilized people, if not quite enough to merit hanging. The pathos comes from Deering's all too brief taste of domesticity; he gets just enough to realize that he doesn't deserve it. In a way, Hart's pathos is more profound than Chaplin's, closer perhaps to Lon Chaney's, in that you could always imagine that the Tramp's wanderings might end or at least that someone might share his wanderings with him -- as finally happens in Modern Times. There's no such hope for Black Deering, but there's also the awful sense that his hopelessness is just. It's less like Randolph Scott and more like John Wayne at the end of The Searchers or Alan Ladd riding into the graveyard at the end of Shane. I don't mean to compare The Toll Gate as a whole to either film; it's not a great western or even that good a film. Its emotional power is much weaker now than it must have been for its original audiences, but watching it now could still be a powerful historical experience if you approach it with the right frame of mind -- or wear an eyeshade for the final reel.

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