by HELEN GEIB
William S. Hart is a towering figure in the 1910’s feature era. His films were critically acclaimed and he rivaled Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford in popularity. Hart made westerns almost exclusively, pioneering the good badman character in western films. He worked within a narrow, but rich set of themes, exploring the meaning of goodness and moral strength through stories of personal redemption. Hart is the great moralist of American silent film. He was also a consummate entertainer, and his movies feature gunfights, fistfights, chases, showy stunts, barroom brawls and moments of wry humor.
Hell’s Hinges is probably Hart’s greatest film. It’s impossible to make that a definitive statement since many of his films have been lost, but it is the popular judgment (contemporaneously and now). Hell’s Hinges is a wonderful movie and I can well believe his best.
The themes, characters and setting of Hell’s Hinges are representative of Hart’s work. He stars as “Blaze” Tracy, a tough character proficient with guns and fists, but a man of innate, albeit long suppressed decency. The action unfolds in a place called Hell’s Hinges, a small, ramshackle, rough and tumble and decidedly unromanticized frontier town dominated by the saloon cum brothel cum gambling den. The few good folk of the town – as a title card puts it, a drop of water in a barrel of rum – send a request back east for a minister. The minister is a weak young man unsuited for his profession, but he is accompanied by his sister, an intelligent, devout and courageous woman. She is the catalyst for Blaze’s regeneration and his then inevitable confrontation with the town’s wild element.
There are a lot of interesting things about Hell’s Hinges and I respond to it a little bit differently each time I watch it. Last time what struck me most was how really remarkable the love story is. The heroine is an exceptional woman. Her strength of character and Christian devotion set her apart from her family and the townsfolk in the same way that Blaze stands out from the saloon crowd he is initially allied with. Meeting her works a profound spiritual transformation in him, and their relationship is a true partnership of equals.
Note: Hell’s Hinges is available on DVD in a restored, color-tinted print in the first Treasures From American Film Archives set released by the National Film Preservation Foundation.