Santa Clarita Valley History In Pictures

53. Two-Gun Bill

William S. Hart stood on a knoll overlooking Newhall, a dark sombrero clenched tightly in his hands. A breeze caressed those familiar, craggy features, now deeply etched by time, and ruffled a shock of silvery hair.

It was 1939, and this veteran of some one hundred Western films was facing the cameras for the last time. In a rich, booming baritone voice charged with emotion, he said:

"My friends, I loved the art of making motion pictures. It is as the breath of life to me. ... The rush of the wind that cuts your face. The pounding hooves of the pursuing posse. Out there in front, a fallen tree trunk that spans a yawning chasm, and an old animal under you that takes it in the same low, ground-eating gallop. The harmless shots of the battled ones that remained behind. And then, the cloud of dust. ... Oh, the thrill of it all!"

The trail that brought William Surrey Hart to that windswept hilltop in Newhall began in Newburgh, New York around December 6, 1870.* The family moved to Wisconsin, then Minnesota, where the young Bill Hart grew up playing with Sioux Indians, working horses and herding cattle.

Stage-struck in 1891, his father packed him off to England to learn the craft of acting. Hart eventually starred in Shakespearean plays.

Returning to the United States he created the role of Messala in Ben-Hur, was Cash Hawkins in The Squaw Men, and became The Virginian.

Early in 1914 Bill Hart wandered into a movie house to view a Western "flick." He was appalled. "It was awful," he later recalled. "The sheriff was a sort of cross between a Wisconsin woodchopper and a Gloucester fisherman." He quickly got in touch with an old friend in Hollywood, Thomas Ince, and offered his services as a consultant. Producer Ince countered by hiring Hart at twenty-five dollars per week to be a villain in His Hour of Manhood. The thespian moved to Hollywood.

Hart was obsessed with the idea of complete authenticity as he remembered it from the northern plains of his boyhood. He wanted to document the cowboys, dusty streets, false-front buildings, blue-coated cavalrymen and Indians in flowing, feathered war bonnets.

It would seem that the public agreed, for in 1919, "Two-Gun Bill" was one of Hollywood's three biggest stars, the others being Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. Hart grossed four million dollars that year, drew sixty thousand people at a personal appearance, and even his horse, Fritz, had his own fan club, which included a prince of Morocco.

One of the finest examples of horsemanship ever put on celluloid occurred in Hart's last film, Tumbleweeds.

From the dust clouds kicked up by wagons dashing for free land in Oklahoma emerges the figure of a man on a horse. Across the prairie they gallop, sweeping through the landscape swift as a gale of wind. It could be Bellerophon riding Pegasus, but for the rider's Western attire.

Hart got into a quarrel with some of Hollywood's movie moguls, who retaliated by banning Tumbleweeds from major showings. His popularity was being eroded by newcomers such as Tom Mix, so he retired in 1925 to Newhall.

Back in February 1921, Hart had purchased the 254-acre Horseshoe Ranch from Babcock Smith. He used it as an outdoor movie set for the next four years, then began construction of a Spanish-style home high atop La Loma de los Vientos, or "Hill of the Winds." There he surrounded himself with a magnificent collection of Western art and antiques, including one hundred Navajo rugs, Sioux beadwork, an array of handguns and original Russell, Remington and Flagg paintings. The guest list over the years included Robert Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck, Will Rogers, Charlie Russell, Maurice Chevalier and Amelia Earhart. He wrote books, penned his autobiography and filmed that dramatic introduction to the reissue of his classic Tumbleweeds there.

There were several romances in Hart's life, including a torrid affair with Norma Talmadge. However, he married seventeen-year-old Winifred Westover in 1921. The stormy relationship lasted just long enough to produce a son, William Jr.

The hostess of the Horseshoe was Hart's sister, Mary Ellen, who died in 1943. William S. Hart himself died June 23, 1946, leaving his estate to the County of Los Angeles — an action that led to a sensational and long-running trial.

In a shrewd legal maneuver, Hart had left exactly one dollar to anyone who contested his will. A dollar eventually went to Winifred Westover, who claimed that she should get the Horseshoe Ranch because her divorce from Hart had never been finalized.

Another dollar went to William Jr., who went so far as to request that his father's brain be exhumed, in hopes that scientific testing would determine the elder Hart's sanity at the time of death. It didn't happen.

    * Hart was elusive about his true age, and so his year of birth has long been disputed. The Friends of William S. Hart Park hold an annual celebration on Hart's birthday based on a birth year of 1864.

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