William S. Hart is the proprietor of a successful gambling house. Some clown gets the brilliant idea of robbing him at gunpoint. This goes over about as well as you might expect. The problem? The dead man’s innocent and penniless sister is on her way to town. Hart has to do a whole heap of lying to keep her from finding out about her brother’s disgrace.
Sir, your pants are on fire.
After the success of his very first feature, The Bargain, William S. Hart continued to divide his time between short films and features. The dramatic short film was on its way out but there was still some demand for movies in this format. Hart made sixteen short films in 1915 (in addition to four features) and then switched entirely to feature films from 1916 on. Keno Bates was his final western short.
(As of this writing, Hart’s 1916 film The Devil’s Double is erroneously listed on IMDB as being a 5-minute short film. The film’s length is not five minutes, it is five reels. As a reel generally lasted between 11 and 16 minutes, this puts it safely in the feature category.)
Keno Bates makes for an interesting contrast to The Bargain. In that film, Hart takes back money from a crooked casino. In Keno Bates, Hart owns the gambling house and has to deal with a robbery of his own.
Hart is the title character and is curiously referred to as “Keno” Bates in all the intertitles. Of course, we “all” know that when you “use” quotation marks “too much” it conveys the idea that “whatever” is in those quotes is “not” to be trusted. I took to reading all the title cards as “the so-called Keno Bates” with an appropriate amount of sarcasm.
See what I mean? I found it odd as Hart’s characters often when by names like Blaze, Square, Black… Names that clearly were not given to them by their mamas. Yet they are scare quote free.
Anyway, Keno and his friend, “Wind River” (Herschel Mayall), are owners of a saloon. One day, a local ne’er do well holds up the joint and flees. Keno and Wind River hunt him down and Keno shoots him. When they search the body, they find a letter from the dead man’s little sister. She is broke and is coming to live with her brother.
Keno observes that in order to make things right, they are going to have to do a lot of lying. And so they do. When Doris (Margaret Thompson) arrives, Keno and Wind River pretend that her brother was their partner, that he died in a mining accident and that he left her his money and his house (both of which actually belong to Keno). The whopper is ill-advised as the brother was a notorious loser and the whole town knows how he died.
This doesn’t stop Keno from falling for Doris. He comes a-courtin’ with flowers and a revolver. The gun is for her to defend herself. I’m sure it will play absolutely no part in the plot later.
Of course, there is a rival for Keno’s affections. 1915 was the year of the vamp and the resident seductress in Hart films was Louise Glaum. They appeared on screen together six time, including Hart’s most famous film, Hell’s Hinges. This time around, Miss Glaum plays Anita, a woman who, ahem, “works” at Keno’s saloon and loves him. (See? That’s how quotes work!)
Anita is not pleased to see Keno chasing after Doris and so, armed with a stiletto, she goes to confront her rival in properly vampish, campish manner. First she tells Doris that Keno shot her brother, then the fight is on. Doris emerges the winner but her faith in Keno is shaken. When he arrives bearing flowers, she asks him if he killed her brother. He says that he did. Bang, bang.
Keno Bates, Liar is definitely not one of Hart’s better efforts. Villainy, comedy, vengeful heroes… those he could do and do very well. But straightforward leading man types? Not as successful. The role would have benefited from someone younger and more callow. Hart is just too old to have gotten himself into such a ridiculous situation. The part really should have gone to Wallace Reid or someone of a similar young, clean-cut type.
Look, I understand feeling sorry for the sister of a man you killed. But the lies that Keno and Wind River told depended on an entire town of people keeping their mouths shut. As the old saying goes, three can keep a secret if two of them are dead.
Plus, courting a woman and not mentioning that you killed her last living relative is kind of not cool. There are certain things that should be out on the table when one embarks on a serious romantic relationship. Previous marriages, any children, whether or not you killed their next of kin…
Of course, a happy ending arrives (Hart rarely died in his films) but the whole picture is so odd that it is difficult to say whether or not the romantic finale works.
Silly plot aside, the single biggest problem with Keno Bates, Liar is its dreadful title cards. Fans of William S. Hart know that he loved his purple prose and it usually worked for him. This is not one of those cases. Between the odd use of quotation marks, the overblown descriptions and the strange, inconsistent way of writing western dialect, these cards are distracting.
That’s not to say that the short is a total loss. I liked Herschel Mayall’s performance as the patient Wind River and Louise Glaum is a campy scream. In fact, I would have loved to have made this the Wind River and Anita show. He could dispense homespun wisdom, she could dance around skulls in very silly hats. It would be a surefire hit!
Hart tries his best but the short format simply was not big enough for him. The film is further marred by an improbable plot and silly title cards. I would list this one as being for fans only.
This film was also released under the title The Last Card, which makes absolutely no sense.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD as part of a western short set by Alpha. The usual issues are there: poor print quality, canned score.