5x7 glossy publicity still of Two-Gun Bill Hart in "The Toll Gate," 1920. Reprint.
One of Hart's most enduring films, "The Toll Gate" offers a slight twist on the typical Hart bad-guy-goes-good theme in that the bad guy (Hart as Black Deering) doesn't get the girl in the end because he can't escape his wayward past, no matter how much he might want to reform.
The tragic plot is hinted at in the title of Hart's original story, "By Their Fruits Ye Shall Know Them," which comes from the biblical passage (Matthew 7:15-20) that admonishes the reader to "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves."
Hart/Deering's nemesis is a fellow gang member who sells out his cohorts while masquerading as an upstanding citizen. Deering takes revenge and kills him, which is understandable, but Deering is still on the wrong side of the law, now doubly so.
Two wrongs don't make a right, and as Matthew teaches, "Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." No exceptions. Deering rides off into exile as the curtain falls.
Backstage, Fritz nearly drowned during the making of the picture when he slipped and fell underwater in a swift-moving river inside a cave. Fritz and his ghostwriter (Bill) tell the story in their 1922 book, "Told Under a White Oak Tree." Fritz sat out the next several pictures, recuperating at his Newhall ranch while Bill ran off and married one of his leading ladies.
Fritz would brush with death again in a stunt for Bill's penultimate picture, "Singer Jim McKee" (1924).
Is it any wonder Fritz was temperamental?
From Koszarski (1980:121):
Produced by the William S. Hart Company; distributed by Paramount-Artcraft; released April 25, 1920; ©April 1, 1920; six reels (5,590 feet).
Directed by Lambert Hillyer; screenplay by Lambert Hillyer and William S. Hart from the story "By Their Fruits Ye Shall Know Them" by William S. Hart; photographed by Joe August; art director, Thomas A. Brierley; edited by LeRoy Hunt; art titles by Harry Barndollar.
Cast: William S. Hart (Black Deering); Anna Q. Nilsson (Mary Brown); Jack Richardson (The Sheriff); Joseph Singleton (Tom Jordan); Richard Headrick (The Little Feller); Fritz (as himself).
Synopsis: The "Toll Gate" through which Black Deering passed into the life of an outlaw was one which shut him out of the natural joys of life. From that moment he plunders until he becomes the leader of a desperate band in the Southwest. Finding that the forces arrayed against him and his followers are bound to win in the end, he announces his belief that it is time to disband. Jordan, second in command, urges one more hold-up for the sake of getting funds, and the band is with him. They stop a train and begin an attack, only to find that they have been betrayed. They are shot down to a man by troops on the train. Deering discovers that Jordan has betrayed the band for a reward. He makes a vain attack on the scoundrel in the express car. Later he escapes, throwing himself out of the train while it is in motion. His one thought is revenge.
It is an exhausted outlaw who rides into a small town where Jordan has opened a cantina with the proceeds of his treachery. Deering is hungry, weak and without ammunition. In spite of these disadvantages, he burns Jordan's place to the ground, robs his enemy of funds and makes a clean getaway. He is followed by two posses, one of Mexicans under Jordan and another under a manly sheriff. Deering reaches a high bluff over the border and dives from it to rescue a child. It proves to be that of a lonely woman, Mary Brown. In return Mary protects him from the sheriff's men. Deering is tempted to revenge himself on her when he finds she is Jordan's wife, but his better nature prevails. He kills Jordan in a conflict, but escape from the sheriff is impossible. He sees that the lonely widow is provided for. Permitted to go, because he is over the border, he rides away into a new life, ready to meet what it may bring, a changed man but not a hopeless one. (Moving Picture World, May 1, 1920).
Reviews: This is Bill Hart's first picture by his own company and we'll say he's made a good start with a story written by himself and for himself with the cooperation of Lambert Hillyer, who directed ... the star is quoted in the papers distributed by the producer as saying "Toll Gate" is the best picture he ever produced. It is indeed a fine picture, but "best" is putting it a little too strong. The story is not quite as good as some he has had previously. The quality of production is first class and there are many artistic touches... (Wid's, April 25, 1920).
... It is the story of an outlaw without an attempt to gloss over his character. To the contrary, while it shows his better traits in sympathetic moments, it does not avoid the truth as to his bitter vindictiveness and small store of scruple ... Hart is supposed to be at home in the role of an outlaw, but his skill of portrayal is far from being merely a question of type. He represents the combined daring and cunning of the American fighting male. He not only looks the part, but he acts it with keen intelligence. There constantly shines in his eyes the combined pugnacity and caution of a true gunman of the West ... (Louis Reeves Harrison, Moving Picture World, May 1, 1920).