HELL'S HINGES (Charles Swickard, 1916, USA, 64m, BW)
William S. Hart (uncredited)
Clifford Smith (uncredited)
Produced by Thomas H. Ince
Written by C. Gardner Sullivan
Starring William S. Hart
Music by Victor Schertzinger (uncredited)
Cinematography Joseph H. August
Distributed by Triangle Distributing Corporation
March 5, 1916
Country United States
Language Silent film
Hell's Hinges is a 1916 American Western silent film starring William S. Hart and Clara Williams. Directed by Charles Swickard, William S. Hart and Clifford Smith, and produced by Thomas H. Ince, the screenplay was written by C. Gardner Sullivan. Hell's Hinges has been selected for preservation in the National Film Registry, and is considered by some to be one of the finest silent Westerns.
Hell's Hinges tells the story of a weak-willed minister, Rev. Bob Henley (played by Standing), who comes to a wild and debauched frontier town with his sister, Faith (played by Williams). The owner of the saloon, Silk Miller (played by Hollingsworth), and his accomplices sense trouble and encourage the local rowdies to disrupt the attempts to evangelize the community. Hard-bitten gunman Blaze Tracy (played by Hart), the most dangerous man around, is, however, won over by the sincerity of Faith. He intervenes to expel the rowdies from the newly built church.
Silk adopts a new approach. He encourages the dance-hall girl, Dolly (played by Glaum), to seduce Rev. Henley. She gets him drunk, and he spends the night in her room. The following morning the whole town learns of his fall from grace. Blaze rides out to find a doctor for the now near-demented minister.
The disgraced minister, having rapidly descended into alcoholism, is goaded into helping the rowdy element to burn down the church. The church-goers try to defend the church, and a gunfight erupts in which the minister is killed and the church set ablaze. Blaze returns too late to stop the destruction. In revenge, Blaze kills Silk and burns down the whole town, beginning with the saloon. He and Faith leave to start a new life.
An early silent William S. Hart western that delivers a religious message about moral retribution. It pits the church against the saloon in a battle of good and evil for man's soul. The weak-willed Reverend Bob Henley (Jack Standing) became a pastor to please his mom, but doesn't have the calling. His superiors see that and remove him from an inner-city slum church, and send him to the prairie. He arrives with his strong-willed pretty sister Faith (Clara Williams) in the God forsaken town that's known as Hell's Hinges, a lawless gun-toting den of iniquity. The few respectable citizens are known as The Petticoat Brigade. One of them, Zeb Taylor, donates his barn to be the first church. At the first service, the evil saloon owner Silk Miller (Alfred Hollingsworth) has his rowdy dance hall crowd break into the service and start dancing.
Gunslinger Blaze Tracy (William S. Hart) fell in love with Faith at first sight, and pulls his guns on the dancers to force them to leave in order to impress Faith. Bob then conducts an uninspiring sermon. Silk, the next day, asks Bob to conduct a service for the dance hall girls, and on Silk's orders the sexy dance hall girl Dolly (Louise Glaum) lures Bob to her flat. They spend the night together and she gets him drunk so he's in no condition to conduct the morning service. Faith is embarrassed, but Blaze saves the day by asking for the town to give him another chance. The next day Silk lures Bob back to the saloon and gets him drunk again. Silk then persuades the frenzied mob to burn down the church, with Bob lighting the torch. The church goers try to protect the church, while the drunken Bob is killed trying to torch the place. Blaze returns and burns down the saloon and the rest of the town, leaving it as a blazing inferno. He then buries Bob and comforts the sobbing Faith. Blaze then maps out their future in another town over these hills, where they can get a fresh start together.
As far as his being darker or more “serious” than Gilbert M. Anderson, well, this movie reminded me a lot of “Broncho Billy’s Sentence” and “Naked Hands” at different points, but, I have to grant you that the apocalyptic ending outdoes anything I’ve seen from Anderson. Anderson’s movies are mostly shorts, as well, so there isn’t as much time for character development and plot complexity, although this movie has its share of shortcuts, such as the bad gunman instantly reforming upon sight of an innocent and pretty young woman.
As far as plot holes, my other big question is why the heck does Hart go riding off into the desert at the critical moment? There was (and is) no known medical cure for alcoholism and since the preacher is well enough to go out drinking the next night he had no other immediate medical needs. Hart would have done better to stay home and sit on him. The Intertitles are oddly poetic – the narration sometimes slips into purple prose that reminds me of Intolerance (“The eternal, unconquerable, white flame that shone over the blood-drenched Roman arena, and above the racks of the Inquisition”), while Hart’s dialog is brutally colloquial (“I’m shootin straight tonight and I’ plum willin to kill!”).
This movie was made by Thomas H. Ince’s New York Motion Picture Company, which in spite of its name was one of the first major studios working in what is today Hollywood. It has all of the benefits of the location and the company’s long experience with making Westerns. There’s some debate about the directing, but evidently it was shared between Hart and the credited director, Charles Swickard, with Ince present in the capacity we would today recognize as Producer – a division of labor that was pioneered at the New York Motion Picture Company.
The cinematography of Joseph H. August is impressive. I mentioned above how often he isolates Hart from the crowd, and he also sets up several shots with Hart walking toward the camera while some dramatic backdrop (like the burning church) emphasizes his mood. There’s also a nice use of color-tinting to suggest time and mood, and some creative camera angles. Hart himself pulls off some very nice horse-stunts during his dramatic ride back to the town, including a jump-mount and one part where the horse appears to tumble down a sandy cliffside, only to leap up and charge toward the camera after hitting bottom. In short, the movie makes excellent use of all the methods and tricks of cinema at this time, combined with a good (if at times contrived) story and a great star, making for a very satisfying view, as well as a historically important one.
It's a quintessential William S. Hart western as he portrays his usual 'good badman' character, which turns out better than most of his others (most of his early films were lost). It shows Hart going from a gun-slinger to someone finding redemption in love and in God. He even converses with the Man, asking him to make sure Faith is happy and chooses him to marry. It's codirected by Charles Swickard and Hart, and based on a story by C. Gardner Sullivan. Hart was immensely popular during this time period, and his fame rivaled silent greats Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford.
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