In his third-to-last film, William S. Hart (second from left, seated) plays the title character in "Wild Bill Hickok" (1923) from Famous Players-Lasky, distributed by Paramount-Artcraft.
It was filmed at the Lasky studio and on location in Victorville, which doubled for Dodge City.
Original publicity still No. 619-16, 8x10 inches, linen backed, from the (Vincent) Mercaldo Archive in New York.
Koszarski (1980:143) describes a different image of this same scene: "James Butler Hickok earned the nickname 'Wild Bill' by trouncing
Joe McCord and his bandit gang." Actor Leo Willis plays McCord.
"Wild Bill Hickok" was the tipping point that led to the end of Hart's moving-picture career. Only a fragment of the film survives, so we can't judge it first-hand, but according to Hart biographer Ronald L. Davis (2003:174-76), it presents a dime-novel view of Hickok that is divorced from reality. "The mistakes in the movie were glaring," Davis writes, "all the more annoying since they came from a man who had built his reputation on presenting the old West authentically."
It opened to mixed reviews. Josie Earp, wife of Hart's pal Wyatt Earp, who wanted the actor to portray him in picture because he'd been getting bad rap lately, told Hart she "saw it twice with several friends and each time the house was packed. When you appeared upon the screen the applause was wonderful." The Milwaukee Journal said: "Never has Bill Hart's trusty six-gun spoken so eloquently as in these scenes, nor the pinto pony performed more heroic service for his master."
The New York Times was far less kind: "Nobody connected with this picture seems to have the vaguest notion of the chief character. Wild Bill did not strut around with his chest out. Nor did he pose as a hero. ... Mr. Hart is enthusiastic about his shooting and his sobbing. It is sad enough to witness the tearful grief of a big man, but it is agony to sit through Mr. Hart's weeping and shaking."
Jesse Lasky at Paramount cut his losses. Audiences wanted an uplifting story that Hart didn't deliver. Hart was incensed. Lasky and Hart agreed one more picture would be his last for Paramount — "Singer Jim McKee," which, Davis writes, "may possibly be the worst film the cowboy star ever made" (pg. 180). The plot was incoherent, and Hart was too old to woo a damsel 30 years younger believably.
After that, no studio seemed willing to take the risk — except for United Artists, which Hart had previously rebuffed. It put its brand on one more Hart picture, his biggest production ever. But "Tumbleweeds" didn't live up to expectations at the box office, leaving Hart ride off into the history books and shelter himself on a hilltop in Newhall — far enough away from the noise of Hollywood but not too far if the studio bosses ever woke up and regretted the error of their ways.
About 'Wild Bill Hickcok.'
From Koszarski (1980:143):
Produced by Famous Players-Lasky; presented by Adolph Zukor; distributed by Paramount-Artcrarft; New York premiere November 18, 1923; released December 2, 1923; ©December 1, 1923; seven reels (6893 feet).
Directed by Clifford S. Smith; screenplay by J. G. Hawks from a story by William S. Hart; photographed by Dwight Warren and Arthur Reeves.
Print sources: MoMA; fragment included in The Saga of William S. Hart.
CAST: William S. Hart (Wild Bill Hickok); Ethel Grey Terry (Calamity Jane); Kathleen O'Connor (Elaine Hamilton); James Farley (Jack McQueen); Jack Gardner (Bat Masterson); Carl Gerard (Clayton Hamilton); William Dyer (Col. Horatio Higginbotham); Bertholde Sprotte (Bob Wright); Leo Willis (Joe McCord); Naida Carle (Fancy Kate); Herschel Mayall (A Gambler); Fritz (Paint).
SYNOPSIS: Wild Bill Hickok gets his name after a courageous fight which he makes against a gang of bandits who try to hold up the stage coach. Bill is told to move on from his Western shack by a gang ... — a threat which he accepts as a challenge. Hence the first big thrill of the picture shows Bill saving himself, his horse and his cabin by dynamic gun play... . [He] distinguishes himself to the extent of being commended by President Lincoln. A few authentic characters, such as ... "Bat" Masterson, Calamity Jane and others are introduced to help give the picture background. ... He goes to Dodge City, agrees to put away his guns, but finds the city so rough that it needs to be tamed. He rides to Custer to get permission to use his guns and comes back to fight the gang who are opposed to law and order... . The battle is spectacularly staged with Bill standing alone in the street spotlight and the gang firing at him from behind barrels... . His career is terminated because of blindness coming on, but when his arch-enemy remarks that Bill is losing his nerve, he has another chance for heroics, and in an amazingly swift battle of guns, he kills his opponent... .He comes off victorious, but is heartbroken when he finds that the girl for whom he has been fighting is married. He rides off on his horse, Paint, hoping for happier days. [Moving Picture World, December 1, 1923]
REVIEWS: There is nothing sensational or big about his initial picture, Wild Bill Hickok being at times interesting and exciting and again rather dull and tedious. The picture moves along at a good pace in the early reels, but after an anticlimax in which Bill shoots up the whole town, it drags badly to the finish... . The type of story gives Hart the sort of role and opportunities that brought him fame. Whether or not he still retains that position depends on how enthusiastically his return is greeted. [Wid's, November 25, 1923]
A real good, clean comeback of the star. We played this to fair business considering the extremely bad weather we are having in our locality. Some impossibilities in the picture but the average person will not detect them... . [F. M. Francis, Lincoln Theatre, Charleston, Illinois; in Moving Picture World, April 12, 1924]
About the Mercaldo Archives.
119-04 Liberty Avenue, Richmond Hill 19, New York
104-42 104th Street, Ozone Park 16, New York
Click to enlarge.
Vicent Mercaldo, an Italian immigrant, was an early-20th-century Western historian and painter who collected a large number of documents, photographs and other memorabilia, especially concerning William "Buffalo Bill" Cody. His paintings and documents are featured in several Cody biographies, and his collected photographs reside in the Buffalo Bill Center of the West and other museums. His original publicity photos of William S. Hart were acquired for SCVHistory.com in 2018.
Brooks Brothers Hobbyist
The New Yorker | August 20, 1955.
Did you know that the largest collection of Buffalo Billiana in private hands is in the private hands of Vincent Mercaldo, Brooks Brothers' head necktie cutter and patternmaker? We journeyed up to Mr. Mercaldo's apartment in Queens the other evening and found ourself in a living room containing a painting of William F. Cody on horseback, and another of Custer's last fight. Custer's hands were gloved, and each was holding a Colt revolver.
"I made a mistake there," said our host, who had painted both pictures. "A man can't shoot a revolver with gloves on. At least, Custer never did."
Mr. Mercaldo, a dark, intense man of 53 who was wearing tortoise-shell glasses and a blue and white polka-dot bow tie, began to collect memorabilia of Buffalo Bill and other Indian fighters long before he took to painting them.
"I was born in Marseille, of Italian parents," he said. "My father was a builder and architect. When I was 3, my mother became very sick, my father's fortune started shrinking, and my mother and I went to live with my grandfather in Naples while my father emigrated to the United States. One of my earliest recollections is Vesuvius in action in 1906, when I was 4."
Mr. Mercaldo and his mother came here to join his father three years later, and one of his earliest recollections of the United States is a poster in a store on Park Row advertising Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.
"It made a tremendous impression on me," he said, "and this was strengthened by my father's saying he had seen Buffalo Bill in Rome. I began to collect Buffalo Bill dime novels — 'Buffalo Bill's Boy Pard,' 'Buffalo Bill's Cannon Cache,' 'Buffalo Bill's Sioux Foes,' and so on — and cut the pictures out. Later, I collected Wild West Show cigarette cards, and by the time I was in grammar school in Brooklyn, I was collecting photographs of Buffalo Bill and woodcuts of him, many torn out of books. For a while, I had an after-school job weighing the contents of pushcarts for a junk dealer. The carts contained a lot of books, and my pay was permission to tear pictures out of them. I must have over 500 pictures of Buffalo Bill. 1 never met him, but when I was 18, three years after he died, I went to see the Pawnee Bill Wild West Show in Coney Island and met Pawnee Bill, an old Cody associate. He gave me some photos of himself and Bill. Fifty-one of my pictures were used in Jim Horan and Paul Sann's 'Pictorial History of the Wild West,' and 38 are being used in 'Buffalo Bill and the Wild West,' a pictorial biography by Henry Sell and Victor Weybright that the Oxford University Press is bringing out this fall."
Buffalo Bill's admirer took us to his study, which is full of Wild West Show posters photographs of dance-hall girls — Big Nose Kate, Crazy Horse Lil, Big Minnie Bignon — and boxes and boxes of B.B. pictures and Wild West programs.
"Here's Buffalo Bill signing a contract with Pawnee Bill to become partners," he said. "Here's Bill and Prince Ludwig of Bavaria in Munich in 1890. Here's the original of the only photograph showing Wild Bill Hickok, Texas Jack, and Cody together."
"How about the tie business?" we asked.
"Oh, I went to work for a tie manufacturer in Brooklyn when I was 14," he said, "and eventually became head cutter. The firm folded in 1948 and I went over to Brooks. We make ties to order for Alfred Vanderbilt and Clark Gable and so on, but I don't really like ties. What I like is Buffalo Bill. I believe that in the field of Buffalo Bill there's no individual that can top me. In some things I'm better than the Smithsonian or the Library of Congress."
Mr. Mercaldo, who has a son of 15, three married daughters and eight grandchildren, seven of them little girls, introduced us to his wife, who handed us a drink.
"I don't really like Buffalo Bill," she said.
LW3423: 9600 dpi jpeg from original photograph purchased 2018 by Leon Worden.