This silent co-directed by Charles Swickard, William S. Hart and Clifford Smith features really the first Western movie superstar: the laconic William S. Hart himself. Born in New York in the same year that Abraham Lincoln was shot, Hart grew up in the Midwest when it still held on to what was left of the "real Old West". Hart went on the stage and made a hit in a 1905 production of "THE SQUAW MAN" and soon ended up in Hollywood usually playing his patented "good-badman" (Edward Buscombe, THE OXFORD HISTORY OF WORLD CINEMA, 1997) -- I guess something like the male equivalent of the "whore with the heart of gold"??? Anyway, in 1913 Thomas Ince snapped up the actor to appear in many Westerns shot at his legendary Santa Ynez, California studio known as "Inceville" where Hart headlined a lot of oaters (both two-reelers and features) for two years. Both Ince and Hart moved to Triangle Films in 1915 where, a year later, they made "HELL'S HINGES"; which was quite the box-office winner.
The story goes. . . Reverand Robert Henley (Jack Standing) is a parson whose faith is rather wishy-washy; in fact he's being sent west by his church superiors to a small prairie town in order to keep Henley away from the "temptations of the big city". Henley's pious sister Faith (Claire Williams) goes with him to "help him settle in". Unfortunately, the town which the Henleys are sent to is nicknamed "Hell's Hinges" because it's one of the most wicked towns in the west! Now, here we have the well-known Western trope of the wicked Western town civilised usually by a "good" woman from the East. And if that was the story here, this would be a rather forgettable movie. However, HELL'S HINGES turns that already hackneyed plot on its ear. Rev. Henley and his sister succeed in building a church in town despite local boss Silk Miller (Alfred Hollingsworth) hiring cynical gunman "Blaze" Tracy (William S. Hart) to run them out of town. During their first church meeting, the rowdy townspeople bust in and turn the services into a hootenanny. "Blaze" arrives and, upon seeing the oh-so-good Faith Henley, is quickly converted to Christianity and becomes her defender. "I reckon God ain't wantin' me much, ma'am," says "Blaze", "but when I look at you, I feel I've been ridin' the wrong trail." The weak-willed charlatan preacher Bob Henley is shortly corrupted by whiskey at Silk Miller's saloon doled out by town prostitute (Louise Glaum) and is soon helping the naughty townspeople burn down his own church while "Blaze" Tracy is out of town. Somehow during the kerfuffle Henley is shot and killed. When "Blaze" finally rides into town and sees Faith cowering over her murdered brother while the church burns to the ground, he is filled with righteous rage and heads over to Silk Miller's saloon where he corrals all the wicked townsfolk inside and set it on fire -- refusing to let any of them leave! The film ends with a great deal of Old Testament wrath all around and the town levelled by the "sparks that fall like missiles of hate" quoted at the beginning of this post. The entire film, actually, is surprisingly grim and downbeat for a Western where the sinful town actually defeats the moral, religious Easterners this time around. There is a small ray of hope tacked onto the film's ending but all in all the entire tone of the film is quite surprisingly gritty.
***HELL'S HINGES (at least the print I saw) moves along at quite a clip and is under an hour in length; this probably ensures there aren't any "draggy" bits where the movie slows to a crawl. Everything happens in an economical, plot-driven fashion and the movie hurtles towards it's dark climax before you know it. The usual melodramatic "silent film-style" of acting is also missing; everyone in the film follows a more natural, less stylized acting style probably signaled by the quiet, stoic acting of Hart himself. This is a film I wouldn't mind seeing remade but the perfect star for it would be Clint Eastwood and he should've remade it about 20 years ago. Even though William S. Hart didn't become a star until he was around 50 years of age, Eastwood today is still rather too old for the part now. There is something of the feel of Eastwood's own "UNFORGIVEN" about this film and I wonder if ole Clint has seen "HELL'S HINGES". All in all, though not a spectacularly great film, HELL'S HINGES is a solid Western which is quite interesting in its deviations from typical Western tropes of the time (and long after as well); and at it's 53 minute running time should be seen by those interested in early cinema or Westerns as a genre. This, in fact, is quite easy to do since I watched the entire film on youtube and here's the link:
click here to watch HELL'S HINGES on youtube
Go check it out.