The Cradle of Courage (1920) A Silent Film Review

William S. Hart trades his Stetson for a blue policeman’s hat in this gangland drama. Hart is a safecracker-turned-cop who finds himself at odds with his larcenous family and targeted by a former business partner. But, as we all know, Hart is not someone to be trifled with.

I left my Hart in San Francisco


Available on DVD.

William S. Hart is justly famous for his stern, reverential westerns but he did branch out into other genres once in a while. The Cradle of Courage was his take on the emerging crime genre. Hart plays “Square” Kelly, the best safe-cracker in San Francisco. He is drafted for the Great War and achieves the rank of sergeant. He also befriends Jack Riley (George Williams), an amiable young fellow from a  family that bleeds policeman blue.

Jack and Kelly arrive back home and look for their families on the crowded dock. No one is there to greet Kelly but Jack calls him over to meet his father, a lieutenant in the San Francisco police force. Kelly and Lt. Riley are well-acquainted with one another due to Kelly’s particular…profession. Lt. Riley tells Kelly that he willing to overlook his past since he was a good friend to Jack when they were overseas.

Kelly heads home to see his mother and brother. Ma Kelly (Gertrude Claire, who was a mere 12 years older than her “son”) is a sort of prototypical Hollywood Ma Barker, a grumpy old thing who loves her sons and hates cops with equal passion. Square Kelly is the apple of his mother’s eye; she brags about his larcenous skills the way other mothers brag about their children becoming doctors or professors. Ma Kelly is a refreshing change from the saintly mother trope that was so common in silent films. She is mean, crooked and I just loved her!

Cradle of Courage (1920) William S Hart Ann Little Silent Movie Review

The safe-cracker and the cop’s son

Ma tells her son that his brother and friends didn’t want to risk meeting him at the dock. They are waiting for him at a cafe owned by top crook Tierney (Tom Santschi), who is eager to make use of Kelly’s skills.

On the way into the cafe, Kelly runs into Rose (Ann Little), an orphan Tierney adopted to wait tables and flirt with his customers. Rose was a girl when Kelly was drafted but she is now a woman. He notices that she is wearing a service lapel pin. What soldier could that be for? Rose won’t say but Kelly has a pretty good idea.

Cradle of Courage (1920) William S Hart Ann Little Silent Movie Review

Square discovers that Rose has grown up

Tierney and Kelly’s younger brother Jim (Frank Thorwald) are planning some robberies and they have not found anyone as skilled or as fast as Kelly. They want him back. Kelly isn’t sure. He is glad to see his old friends but after years of living as a soldier, he feels strange about returning to his life as a crook.

Jack, meanwhile, is trying to convince his father to help Kelly go straight. Lt. Riley respects Kelly’s war record and he doesn’t want to deal with another one of Kelly’s one-man crime waves so he decides to take action. Jack calls Kelly at Tierney’s and asks him over to dinner. Meanwhile, Rose slips Kelly a note begging him not to return to a life of crime.

Cradle of Courage (1920) William S Hart Ann Little Silent Movie Review

Giving Kelly a chance

Lt. Riley makes his offer to Kelly: Become a policeman. Kelly may be doubting his life of crime but he still can’t stomach the idea of donning a police uniform. He tells Lt. Riley and Jack that he will think about it but he is just being polite.

Tierney and Jim Kelly are all set to begin their robbery. They just need Square Kelly. Kelly’s mother has proudly saved his safe-cracking tools for his triumphant return to crime. Kelly eagerly agrees to the robbery and begins to get ready. However, when he is about to leave he comes across a Mauser pistol that he took from an enemy officer while fighting for his life in the trenches.

Cradle of Courage (1920) William S Hart Ann Little Silent Movie Review

Hart is an army of one

Kelly realizes that he is betraying the very thing he had been fighting to protect: law and order. He tells his mother that he is not going to commit another robbery. His mother calls him a coward and orders him to leave her sight. Kelly goes to Tierney’s to break the news. Rose is outside waiting to see if Kelly will join the robbery. She is relieved when he tells her he is going straight but is afraid of what Tierney will do to him.

Tierney is angry about losing a top-notch safe-cracker and he asks if the army made Kelly a coward. Kelly can’t abide an insult to the Army and gets into a fistfight with Tierney. Before the war Kelly had been a burglar not a fighter. He needed to preserve his hands for his work. But he has been two years in the trenches and he makes quick work of Tierney. Kelly calls Lt. Riley to tell him that he has accepted his offer. Rose is even more frightened when she hears Kelly will be a cop. They share a kiss before Kelly departs.

Cradle of Courage (1920) William S Hart Ann Little Silent Movie Review

Square Kelly goes from crook to cop

Lt. Riley is at wits’ end to end the wave of robberies plaguing to finer homes of San Francisco. Look sharp in his shiny new uniform, Kelly decides to use his knowledge of crime to catch the crooks. He looks for the house he would have targeted and stakes it out.

Rose has stayed with the gang in order to watch Kelly’s back. She overhears Jim and Tierney planning another robbery. Rose disguises herself and follows them. Kelly sees a movement at the garden gate and pulls his gun on the suspicious character. It’s Rose. She has followed Jim and Tierney to the scene of their latest robbery. Kelly believes that Rose is casing the house and indignantly rejects her explanations.

Cradle of Courage (1920) William S Hart Ann Little Silent Movie Review

Kelly and Rose have a confrontation

However, there is indeed a robbery going on inside. Kelly rushes in and exchanges fire with the criminals in the dark room. One man falls and the second escapes out the window. Kelly turns on the lights and sees who the dead man is. He has shot his brother Jim.

Kelly crouches over his brother’s body in disbelief. He checks his brother’s pistol. It has not been fired. Kelly’s brother had not been the one doing the shooting. Kelly is close to breaking down from guilt when he discovers something else: his captured Mauser pistol. Kelly turns over his brother’s body and sees that he was shot in the back. That means that whoever had the pistol shot Jim in the back because he was not shooting at his own brother.

Cradle of Courage (1920) William S Hart Ann Little Silent Movie Review

Jim is dead

After he became a police officer, Ma Kelly had sold everything that had belonged to her wayward son: his burglary kit and his pistol. Kelly has to find out who Ma sold the pistol to. Will he bring his brother’s murderer to justice? Will his mother ever forgive him for giving up his life of crime? Well, see The Cradle of Courage for yourself!

William S. Hart is a bit too old for this part (the earliest birth-date for WWI draft registration was 1872 and Hart was born in 1864) but his patented Good Bad Man persona fits neatly into the scenario. However, unlike many Hart vehicles, we are not shown his earlier villainy, just the aftermath of it. I think this more subtle approach works well. The other actor’s reactions to Hart clearly illustrate what a formidable crook he must have been.

Cradle of Courage (1920) William S Hart Ann Little Silent Movie Review

Kelly investigates his brother’s murder

The two main actresses, Gertrude Claire and Ann Little, both turn in likable and interesting performances. Gertrude Claire, as mentioned above, is a ball of fire as Kelly’s larcenous and unforgiving mother. Her fierce love for her sons and her uncompromising stance against law and order make her one of the more memorable mothers of silent film. Ann Little’s character could have easily sunk into the mire of Poor Abused Waif. Instead, Rose is smart, lively and she provides a moral center for Kelly without coming off as preachy. Hart’s best scenes in the film are the ones with these talented ladies.

Another great aspect of The Cradle of Courage is the photography. The location scenes in San Francisco are fun viewing and add considerably to the atmosphere. Then there are the pyrotechnics. The gunfight in the dark is made more suspenseful thanks to the strobe-like flashes of gunfire. The climactic confrontation between Tierney and Kelly is pleasantly understated with Tierney attempting to shoot Kelly through the bar counter with a hidden pistol.

Cradle of Courage (1920) William S Hart Ann Little Silent Movie Review

Gutsy Ma Kelly threatens her own son

The florid intertitles for which Hart was famous are similarly understated in this film. Oh, they’re still as purple as can be. (“Out of the mill of war, grinding the stoop from his shoulders and the twists from his soul– Square Kelly to the world.” What does that even mean?) But this is Ernest Hemingway compared to the usual Hart fare. I should say, though, that Hart is usually able to pull off florid better than anyone in Hollywood.

I should also note that while Hart has had a long list of characters who go by nicknames (Blaze, Blue Blazes, Black, Draw, Petticoats (!), Oak, Buckskin, Hardwood, Riddle, Wolf, Silent… the list goes on) “Square” is not the best choice. Characters are forced to say things like “Go straight, Square!”

Cradle of Courage (1920) William S Hart Ann Little Silent Movie Review

San Francisco of 1920

This film is a Hart western toned down. This isn’t a complaint. Well, not exactly. But it is something to know. I like Hart best when he is  apocalyptic in his righteous indignation. (See my review of Hell’s Hinges for Hart at his most fiery.) Hart benefits from a touch of the old Victorian gloom and doom. By comparison, The Cradle of Courage has Hart pretty much solving his problems within the letter of the law without the dark vigilante justice that his films often displayed. I know that the theme of the film is Law and Order but a lawful Hart is not the best Hart in my opinion.

The film has several opportunities to make its characters more conflicted but it chickens out. Tierney’s contempt for Rose makes her decision to side with Kelly understandable but it also removes what could have been an interesting moral struggle. Kelly discovering that he could not have shot his brother is another wasted opportunity. If the film had drawn out the question of whether Kelly’s shot was the one that killed his brother (rather than switching immediately into revenge mode) Hart could have drawn on more complicated emotions.

Cradle of Courage (1920) William S Hart Ann Little Silent Movie Review

Kelly’s showdown with Tierney

The Cradle of Courage is also not different enough from Hart’s westerns to be completely satisfying. Replace “safe-cracker” with “stagecoach bandit”, “The Great War” with “The Civil War”, and the “San Francisco Police Department” with the “U.S. Marshals” and you have a Hart western with little or no rewriting required. The film was met with lukewarm critical reception when it was released. Ann Little’s performance was praised but the critics found the story to be too restrained.

So, do I recommend this film? Yes, I do. While it is not a Hart masterpiece, it is still a very good movie. And it is fun to see Hart out of his cowboy gear once in a while.

On a historical note, Al Capone’s older brother, James, idolized William S. Hart. He changed his name to Richard Hart and became a famous prohibition agent with his sharp-shooting skills earning him the nickname Two-Gun Hart. Life following art, eh?

Where can I see it?

The Cradle of Courage has been released on DVD by Grapevine Video.