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William S. Hart
Projecting the
American West

By Ronald L. Davis

 

BOOK REVIEW

William S. Hart: Projecting the American West
By Ronald L. Davis

University of Oklahoma Press : Norman, Oklahoma : 2003
ISBN 0-8061-3558-1 : 288 pages : hardcover : $29.95

Reviewed by Carl Bennett
Stage actor turned Hollywood star, William S. Hart was for movie fans a cherished symbol of the romantic Old West. His silent westerns offered excitement, lessons in righteous behavior, and a nostalgic vision of the American frontier. This intriguing biography explores the personal and professional life of Hollywood’s prototypical cowboy hero.

Born in Newburgh, New York, Hart grew up in a Victorian atmosphere that gave rise to the rigid morality prevalent in many of his films. From 1914 to 1924, he appeared in or produced more than sixty movies, but it was not until he abandoned Shakespearean characters for stage roles in The Squaw Man and The Virginian that Hart truly assumed his western persona.

For the first time, readers are given insights into Hart’s somewhat lonely and tragic personal life, his quarrels with exploitive studios, and his association with such latter-day frontier legends as Charles M. Russell, Bat Masterson, and Wyatt Earp, who regarded him as a kindred spirit. Other highlights include excerpts from his previously unpublished letters to starlet Jane Novak, Hart’s one-time fiancée, as well as numerous photographs from studio and private collections.

Drawing on Hart’s papers, primary sources of the Motion Picture Academy, oral histories, and contemporary newspapers, this chronicle of Hart’s life is the first since his own starry-eyed autobiography – My Life East and West – appeared in 1929.

Ronald L. Davis is Professor Emeritus of History at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including Hollywood Beauty: Linda Darnell and the American Dream (1998), John Ford: Hollywood’s Old Master (1995), and Duke: The Life and Image of John Wayne (1998), all three published by the University of Oklahoma Press.

 
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