One of William S. Hart’s earliest surviving films, this western two-reeler tells the tale of a bad guy who narrowly escapes being guest of honor at a necktie party and learns to be not quite so bad when he meets a kid in trouble. You know, a typical William S. Hart Thursday. An early example of the gritty-yet-emotional western that would become Hart’s stock-in-trade. Hart also directed.
I hesitated and hemmed and hawed about just how I was going to do this review. Finally, I decided that there was just one way.
Here’s the deal: What makes Bad Buck of Santa Ynez interesting is its ending. Since the only way to do a meaty review is to cover that ending, I am going to be spoiling like crazy. If you don’t want to know how it ends, stop reading here.
Bad Buck is a little two-reel western (about 24 minutes total) that follows the traditional Hart formula, bad man turned good by (kid/woman/faith). But the short is also one of the only times in Hart’s career that he dies on-camera and the only Hart death scene available on DVD.
Hart’s westerns tended to follow a formula (not always a bad thing) so it is always interesting to run into one that bucks the trend. Hart died a grand total of four times (at least judging from extant films and film reviews) during his time in Hollywood. He kicked the bucket in 1915’s The Taking of Luke McVane (killed by Apaches), in 1916’s The Dawn Maker (sacrifices himself to save a schoolteacher) and in 1917’s The Gun Fighter (died saving a young lady from bandits). To give you a sense of how rare it is for Hart to die in a movie, he starred in over seventy films between 1914 and 1925.
Bad Buck (William S. Hart) is the local hell-raiser in Santa Ynez. For fun, he likes to make the sheriff drink whiskey at gunpoint. Now, it may seem that Buck is a mere delinquent but the sheriff has had enough and he decides that a hanging is in order.
Well, that escalated rather quickly.
The sheriff is set to arrest Buck but our hero is not so easy to hang. He breaks free and makes his escape.
Normally, Buck could have made a run for the Mexican border (the sheriff and his posse are a bunch of dopes) and that would be the end of the story but there is a wrinkle. A pioneer family is in peril. The father has died from fever and his wife (Fanny Midgley) is trying to bury him while their small daughter (Thelma Salter) watches. Buck rides up on the scene, feels sorry for the kid and agrees to help bury to body.
Buck leads the hapless pioneer duo to his cabin and tells them they are free to use it as he is departing for parts unknown. However, the mother has the brilliant idea of letting her daughter play barefoot by the river. The child gets bitten by a snake. Buck realizes that her only hope is getting treatment from the doctor in Santa Ynez. He knows that the sheriff is waiting for him and that he might get killed but he does not hesitate.
Buck brings the doctor back but is shot in the process. He dies by the little girl’s sickbed. Curtain.
There are two things silent actors just loved to do: Go insane and die. Why all this death and madness? Well, it gave performers the chance to show their versatility. Plus, if you were dying or going mad, chances are the camera would focus on you. The undisputed champions of this activity were Lillian Gish, John Barrymore and Lon Chaney.
Let’s get morbid! How does Mr. Hart’s deathly skill measure up to this renowned trio? My verdict is that he does well but his death is a little “pretty” for my taste. I give him a solid “B” for his skill at dying.
What I cannot accept, though, is what a sad sack the pioneering leading lady turns out to be. Okay, her husband dying of fever couldn’t be helped and burying his still-warm corpse would have been pretty traumatic. But letting the kid play by the creek barefoot? And then not even thinking to try to suck out the poison? (She waits for Hart to show up and do the honors.) And then letting the kid thrash around so the poison gets nice and circulated? For goodness sake, lady!
The story of Bad Buck is very much in keeping with Hart’s style and in the style of shorts of the late nickelodeon era. Short dramas were already on the way out the door, replaced by features and never to return. Even today, the twenty minute to half-hour length is reserved for cartoons and sitcoms. I have to say, though, that the dramatic short films is something that deserves a second look.
A well-made dramatic short is like a good short story, it aims for impact and a vignette of human nature. Bad Buck of Santa Ynez is no exception. It is a William S. Hart Good Bad Man drawn with quick, colorful strokes. In fact, I suggest that this film not be your introduction to Mr. Hart as you will enjoy it much more if you are already familiar with what he does.
I generally prefer Hart’s earlier westerns. While some of his later work could be wonderful, he tended to get trapped in either fulfilling his chosen formula or attempting to subvert it. Plus, the earlier films often avoid the overbearing religiosity that give his later offerings the flavor of a sermon, albeit one delivered by a very violent preacher.
The direction, as was typical for Hart, is simple and to the point with emphasis on the wild beauty of the west. However, there is a nice panning shot at the climax when the posse comes through the door to arrest Buck and discover his body instead.
Bad Buck of Santa Ynez is not one of Hart’s epics (hey, it’s only two reels) but it is definitely worth checking out.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★
Where can I see it?
Bad Buck of Santa Ynez has been released on DVD by Alpha. The print is pretty rough, as you can see.