William S. Hart was not always a western movie star. He first started acting on stage in New York City doing Shakespearean roles but he was most well-known for his portrayal of Messala in the original 1899 theatre production of “Ben Hur”.
William S. Hart was already 50 years old when he transitioned to silent films. His choice to work in Westerns was greatly influenced by his childhood memories of traveling the Old West with his father, Nicholas Hart, a machinist who dreamt of owning a grist mill.
Hart’s early interactions with various western characters and the native Sioux children influenced him to respect and admire the western frontier. He learned to ride horses, track, and hunt and learned the Sioux language.
While still acting on stage, William S. Hart happened to see a nickelodeon Western. He felt that the portrayal of the Old West was so inaccurate; he needed to make his own Westerns. With help from his friend, Thomas Ince, who owned a movie studio in Santa Monica, California, he relocated to the West Coast and starred in 70 feature silent Westerns from 1914 to 1925.
Hart’s films were realistic and gritty. They were accurate in their portrayal of a non-romantic west with dilapidated buildings, worn costumes, and dusty streets. He was the first to make the Epic Western. He is also credited with creating the iconic “Good bad guy” – a bad man who really isn’t and is good by the end of the movie. His beloved Pinto Pony, “Fritz” was the first Western horse star and led the way for Roy Roger’s “Trigger” and The Lone Ranger’s “Silver”.
When William S. Hart’s epic Western, “Tumbleweeds” was released in 1925, he decided to retire. A new style of cowboy with youthfulness and vigor was becoming fashionable; his name was Tom Mix.
Hart retired to Newhall, California where he had a 260 acre (1.1 km²) ranch and built a 10,000 foot (3048 meters) Spanish Colonial Revival mansion. His youngest sister, Mary Ellen would live there with him. In 1943, Mary Ellen passed away and William S. Hart would follow in 1946 at the age of 81. Hart bequeathed his estate and property to the County of Los Angeles. He has said, “When I was making pictures, the people gave me their nickels, dimes and quarters. When I am gone, I want them to have my home.”
I really appreciate how kind his gesture was to the public. Lex and I loved hiking and exploring the Nature Trail. Although the bunk house was closed, we could see how it was a comfortable guest house and game room.
We enjoyed walking the grounds of his home and seeing “Mary Ellen’s Tea House”. Who wouldn’t want a sanctuary like that to have some quiet moments? The guard tower built like a castle turret with the beautiful lettering of “La Loma de Los Vientos” (Hill of the Winds) seemed pretty fitting for such an amazing place.
After Hart died, Walt Disney donated a herd of American Bison to the park in 1962. To discourage inbreeding, other bison were introduced later and only a small portion of the bison is actually related to the original herd. They were so cute to see at a distance – the horns looked pretty sharp! I think William S. Hart would have enjoyed them very much.
Southern California has been the home of movie stars for over 100 years now. One of the most famous Western stars from the silent film era was William S. Hart. Originally a New York stage actor famous for leading roles in classic productions, as well as playing Messala in the original production of “Ben-Hur,” Hart made a sudden transition to films in 1913. While traveling with a stage production, he saw a Western film in a nickelodeon and was inspired to make Westerns by how terrible it was! Hart grew up traveling around the Old West and spent time with Sioux children learning the Sioux language and how to hunt and ride horses. Hart felt that with his knowledge, he could make authentic Westerns true to the Old West he remembered from his childhood.
From 1914 to 1925, Hart starred in approximately 70 feature films, many of them produced by his friend and former cast mate, Thomas Ince, who operated his own movie studio in Santa Monica. “Two Gun Bill” created an iconic character, a bad guy (outlaw, gamber, etc.) who has a heart of gold that puts him on a good honest path by the end of the film. The stories were gritty and realistic, forerunners of what would become the Epic Western. In 1917, his movies were some of the highest grossing in the industry. By the early 20’s, the flashy costume/flashy action westerns of Tom Mix became more fashionable. Hart made one last western, the epic “Tumbleweeds,” then retired in 1925. Until he passed away in 1946, he lived on his ranch in Newhall, which he bequeathed to the County of Los Angeles to be converted to a park and museum for the public.
Neek and I loved exploring the grounds of the William S. Hart Ranch, though at 260 acres, I doubt we covered even half that ground! “Mary Ellen’s Tea House,” where Hart’s youngest sister (who lived with him until she died in 1943) would spend quiet moments, really has a spectacular view of the surrounding valley and hillsides. It was from this view that I could see there were bison roaming around the property.
Fortunately, the area where the bison are located is fenced off, as they are wild animals with sharp horns! The original herd was donated by Walt Disney in 1962. They are such iconic symbols of the Old West, so they do seem to fit right in. It was a beautiful sunny day and they looked very peaceful just grazing away.
Heading down the Nature Trail, there were a number of other remarkable sights. We enjoyed seeing the guard tower with “La Loma de Los Vientos” (Hill of the Winds) written on it.
Near there, we saw a beautiful patio that we imagined must have been a wonderful place to have outdoor parties. Further along the path is the bunk house. It was closed to the public, but we could see how it fit into the Old West style there.
Surrounded by rustic beauty, there are so many places to enjoy at the William S. Hart Ranch even before you set foot inside the William S. Hart Museum, his phenomenal mansion. Be sure to check in next week – Neek and I will show you everything we saw inside!