W. S. Hart’s First Feature Film

The Bargain
R: Reginald Barker. B: William H. Clifford, Thomas H. Ince. K: Robert Newhard /
Joseph H. August. D: William S. Hart, J. Frank Burke, Clara Williams, J. Barney Sherry, Joseph J. Dowling. P: New York Motion Picture / Thomas H. Ince. USA 1914
Print: Library of Congress

“One hundred years ago today, Hart’s very first feature film opened for business. He had been making successful western shorts and features were the next logical step in his career. Stardom came immediately and Hart became one of the most popular figures in the still-young motion picture industry. This is the movie that started it all. (…) Hart’s westerns get praised for their realism but for all their dust, they are just as stylized as the more flamboyant cowboy pictures. In fact, Hart laid the groundwork for the modern antihero. (…) Ironically, the gritty look and antihero sensibilities — the very things that appeal to modern audiences — were deemed old-fashioned by the twenties. Grim and dark were out. Exuberance, humor and epic scenery were in. The sweep of John Ford’s epics, the jocular stunts of Tom Mix and, later, the clean-cut folk wisdom of Hopalong Cassidy; these were the pictures audiences of the twenties and thirties wanted and these were the pictures that stayed popular through the golden age. While there were patches of gloom during that time, westerns would not return to Hart’s 1910s level of darkness for nearly half a century. The Bargain opened for business on December 3, 1914 and it laid the groundwork for the Hart features to follow. The story followed the exploits of a stagecoach bandit who decides to go straight and gets nothing but trouble as a result. Hart rolls cigarettes one-handed, carries twin revolvers and generally behaves like the baddest hombre west of the Rio Grande. However, his grim persona is not yet fixed in place and so this is a lighter, happier Hart than viewers may be used to seeing. (For the record, Hart did do cheerier stuff later in his career but his most famous and most viewed films happen to be his darkest.)”
Fritzi Kramer
Movies Silently

An interesting controversy

“The Bargain is nothing more than an old-fashioned western. I cannot truthfully say that it is one inch above the average of such pictures. Its scenic background is superbly beautiful, but not more than that shown in many old single reels. Its plot follows the old familiar lines: the outlaw, finely enacted by William S. Hart, robs the stagecoach…..the outlaw escapes happily and something like six felonies go unpunished. It is said that pictures of this sort are still popular in certain sections of the country and that nickelodeons in many big cities still yearn for them. This may be true, but it still does not alter the fact that pictures of this sort have been in the past the most dangerous weapon in the hands of our enemies [the censors]. There can be no doubt whatsoever that a picture of this kind has a bad influence on youthful minds.”
Stephen Bush, Moving Picture World, December 5, 1914

“Old fashioned—– in 1914? Bad influence on youthful minds? Oh to time-transport him to 1969 and run him The Wild Bunch. Critics are indeed eternally clueless, they never get it right. Little did Mr. Bush (another sign of cluelessness perhaps?) realize was he was actually present at a very important beginning, the start of movie stardom for William S. Hart, and the rise of the Western feature film. (…) Hart had been playing western roles on the stage for years, including the lead role in The Virginian, following Dustin Farnum, an old friendly actor-rival of Harts who had created the role. Ince thought the lean and stoic actor, who also had an eye for credible western lore as well as a keen knowledge of western culture and history, would be perfect for pictures. (…) The Bargain is a terrific early western, more stylish than Demille (sic!) and Apfel’s The Squaw Man. Barker handles the whole milieu beautifully, and there’s some great shots of Stokes/Hart riding through a still tourist-unspoiled Grand Canyon. Even though so many of Hart’s well-repeated future themes are present, Hart has not cemented so many of his mannerisms yet, and his performance has a freshness it would never have again. You can easily see why Ince sold the film to Paramount to get wider distribution, especially on the tail of the successful Squaw Man as he held back the quickly produced second Hart feature, On the Night Stage, not releasing it though his own distributor, Mutual, until more than six months after it was made. Ince knew he had a new star on his hands.”
Richard M Roberts, May 31, 2009

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