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February on Fire: Hell's Hinges (1916)

In the throes of winter, we lean closer to the hearth with this month's fire theme.



RODNEY BOWCOCK: William S. Hart was a near annual staple at Cinevent for many years, so it seems

surprising to me that this is the first time that we got around to reviewing one of his films. While Hart

had appeared in nearly two dozen films beforehand, it seems fitting that we selected what was arguably

his first blockbuster.


This is a simple story, that is somehow difficult to describe, centering on a morally corrupt pastor that has been located to the town of Hell’s Hinges where he is resented by most of the town-folk. One of these men, an affluent saloon owner (Alfred Hollingsworth), hatches a plan to corrupt him with alcohol and the resident sex worker, causing an immediate decent into alcoholic dementia. Hart stars as Blaze Tracy, a gunfighter that is swayed almost as quickly by the sincerity of the pastor’s sister, Faith (Clara Williams). As revenge for the townspeople burning down the makeshift church, Blaze burns down the town and takes Faith to start a new life.


SAMANTHA GLASSER: Hell’s Hinges is based on a real place called Place Center, Oklahoma.


Fire plays an important role in this movie. The film makers burned down a real church building, and subsequently the town, and the authenticity makes the scene more powerful. Hart’s character is called Blaze, another reference to fire, in his case internal.

 

RB: There is a lot of symbolism here.


The west has been romanticized since the heyday of settling it has ended, and as such, people forget that there was nothing glamorous about it at all. Many that moved west were genuinely terrible people running from the law and the towns that popped up were often filthy and lawless. This film captures that scuzziness well. A polished John Ford film, or even a Gene Autry B, this is not.


SG: Women were not safe in the west and though the frontier seemed to offer more freedom and possibility than established towns, in reality only the toughest most adaptable women survived. That is at play in this film. There are only two types of women in the town, the fallen saloon girls and the wives or children of the upright citizens of the town. There is no in between. Single women did not typically thrive in the west. This is part of the reason why I've never been drawn to westerns. There is no excitement in these stories for me, just misery.

 

The film runs less than an hour, which seems too short to properly develop the story, but Hell’s Hinges was made during the transition period between short films and feature length movies, and the primitive experimental qualities show through. It was an innovative movie that inspired film makers like John Ford who improved significantly upon the ideas presented here.


The story wouldn’t have legs if the characters had a sense of humor, but their deadly seriousness makes small things seem huge and turns mundane goings into high drama. For some, this will be appealing, but I had a hard time engaging in the pettiness.


RB: I assume that some of this is due to the primitive filmmaking and the relatively short run time (by today’s standards), but I’d also think that some of this is due to the miserably hard lives that the residents in a town like this would’ve lead, which in 1916 would’ve been more relatable to viewers.

 

SG: When this film was released, weekly church attendance and church membership was much higher than it is today. Therefore, I feel the need to clarify the sister’s motivations. Her extreme distress at her brother’s actions and fate are exacerbated by her belief that he can’t get into heaven if he doesn’t first repent for his sins. She believes that his soul is at risk of eternal condemnation.


RB: Again, I think this may be oversimplified even for the religious views that were prevalent at the

time. But in the context of the film and moving the film along, it works pretty well.

 

SG: Harvey Thew of Motion Picture News said, “Conviction is the key-note of the entire production, and the dramatic work presented is of the highest order.”

 

Variety said, “The story Is crammed full of action and the scenario offered by Gardner Sullivan is replete with interest, the real interest of the west, slightly exaggerated, but not to a point of ridiculous proportions,” and said Hart excelled, “in the close-ups where his facial expressions carry the story unaided.”


Moving Picture World’s reviewer felt that Hart should branch out from westerns, which he called “old-fashioned” and “outworn.”


RB: That Moving Picture World review is LITERALLY the only less than glowing review that I was able to

uncover. This was critically and commercially extremely successful.

 

SG: Hart directed a significant amount of the film but did not take credit, giving it to Charles Swickard. This was a common practice for him.

 

Writer C. Gardner Sullivan also collaborated with Hart on The Bargain and Tumbleweeds, which we will screen at the Picture Show on Saturday during the Picture Show in May.


John Gilbert can be spotted in the church burning scene holding the pastor up in the doorway. Hart noticed him in this scene and chose him for an important role in The Apostle of Vengeance. Producer Thomas Ince worried Gilbert wasn’t up to the task and that his failure would create offense and disloyalty in his mother Ida, who was an important member of the stock company. However, he made good and everyone benefitted from the chance taken.


RB: Jean Hersholt also appears in an uncredited role as a rowdy townsman.

 

SG: In 1916, WWI was raging. The studio sent a print of Hell’s Hinges to Soissons, France to run for the French and American soldiers in combat there. Before it could run, the town was captured by the German army, and the troops believed the print was destroyed or confiscated, until a few months later when it was uncovered from the rubble, somewhat dirty and damaged, but screen-able. I am fascinated by the story of the Armed Services Editions of popular books which were miniaturized and sent to soldiers overseas to help their morale. We need someone to uncover the story of films being sent to battle zones to bolster and entertain troops, which titles were chosen and why, and which had the biggest impact.


RB: Wikipedia tells us that the film was "rediscovered” after a 1994 Chicago screening and was then selected for preservation by the National Film Registry. However, that misses the fact that Cinevent screened the film way back in 1984. There is no question about the cultural significance of this film, and I cannot help but applaud that. However, in terms of entertainment value, it’s difficult for me to go above two and a half stars.


SG: I feel the same way. It was entertaining enough, but I likely won't revisit this film. I've dabbled in Hart's career and I have yet to be won over by him. 2.5 stars.

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