She’s the saintly sister of a debauched minister. He’s a somewhat homicidal gunslinger determined to run the church right out of town. Is that romance in the air? Marvelously apocalyptic western from everyone’s favorite Good Bad Man, William S. Hart.
Austerity and the Modern Viewer
Two words that invariably come up with describing Hell’s Hinges (and William S. Hart films in general) are austere and intense. Hart was an easterner who embraced the west with the zeal of the converted. Real-life cowboys who entered films, Tom Mix for example, often made their films for fun and laughs, sacrificing accuracy. Hart strove for realism and sincerity. The lack of dated bells and whistles means that Hart’s films, in general, have aged much better than those of his flashier rivals. Austere character study that happens to be a Western? Sounds pretty modern to me.
William S. Hart made his first western in 1914. Working first for Thomas Ince and later with his own production company, Hart quickly hit on a winning formula: an old west ne’er-do-well who is reformed by a dose of religion and a good woman.
The sheer number of films Hart directed and appeared in is staggering. During the ‘teens, he could produce a film every one to two months. Hell’s Hinges is perhaps Hart’s best film of this period.
Hell’s Hinges was filmed in September and October of 1915 and premiered the following February. With a budget almost double the usual amount for a Hart western, Hell’s Hinges boasted a spectacular, fiery climax. Critical reception was ecstatic and the film was a box office hit.
The story opens with the newly ordained Reverend Robert Henley (Jack Standing) giving a sermon. He is not particularly religious but he enjoys the attention of the young ladies of the congregation.
His superiors in the church see that Robert will not be able to bear the temptations of a city parish and so they decide to send him safely west. His devout sister, Faith (Clara Williams) accompanies him to keep house.
Of course, if they ended up at a peaceful town there wouldn’t be much of a movie so the scene immediately shifts to Placer Center, known to the locals as Hell’s Hinges. While a few decent citizens are gathered to welcome the new minister, the majority of the town is plotting to get rid of him.
Silk Miller (Alfred Hollingsworth), the owner of the local saloon, is one of the main conspirators against the minister. He is joined by Blaze Tracy (William S. Hart), a somewhat psychotic gunslinger. Different in many ways, the two men have formed a pact: law and religion will never come to Hell’s Hinges. Blaze intends to confront the minister and scare him away. If that doesn’t work, he is prepared to kill him.
The coach arrives and Blaze steps forward to do his worst. Before he can do anything, Faith smiles and greets him. Taken aback by her friendliness and gentle nature, Blaze can only tip his hat to the lady and withdraw. The disappointed crowd disperses and allow Robert and Faith to enter the town.
The next Sunday, Miller decides to take matters into his own hands. Along with his mistress Dolly (Louise Glaum, one of the major vamps of the period) he stirs up the patrons of the saloon and the mob marches toward the church.
They break down the doors of the church, disrupt the service and begin to threaten Robert, who sits uselessly behind his desk. Blaze watches from the door, torn between the two sides.
Faith confronts the people and tries to reason with them but they turn on her. Things look ugly but the threat to Faith is too much for Blaze to bear. He shoves his way in and tells everyone to leave. Miller is angry but he, like everyone else, is too afraid of Blaze to argue the matter face-to-face. The mob departs and Blaze sits down for his first church service.
Completely unmoved by Robert’s superficial sermon, Blaze is nonetheless impressed by Faith’s genuine devotion. He offers to help build a proper church.
With Blaze protecting the church, Miller has to think of another strategy. He hits on the idea of having Dolly seduce the minister and ruin him in the eyes of his congregation. The plan works like a charm, with Robert drunk and in Dolly’s arms the night before the new church is to have its first service.
Blaze has fallen hopelessly in love with Faith. He has taken to reading the bible. Granted, with a cigarette in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other but it’s the thought that counts.
When the minister does not show up for the Sunday service, Blaze and Faith go looking for him. With Miller jeering, Blaze drags Dolly away from Robert and carries him back to his house. Faith is afraid that her brother is ill and Blaze rides to get a doctor in the neighboring town.
Robert regains consciousness and immediately returns to the saloon where he is greeted with open arms. Worked up by his new friends, Robert joins a mob intent on burning down the new church.
The churchgoers try to save their church but are overwhelmed. The church is torched and Robert is killed in the brawl. The rest of the churchgoers flee, leaving Faith and her brother alone beside the burning building.
Silk Miller and his accomplices return to the saloon to celebrate. Meanwhile, Blaze runs into some of the fleeing townspeople. They tell him what has happened and he rushes off to see if Faith is safe…
Once again those two words come to mind: austere and sincere.
Hart seemed sincere because he was sincere. His love of the west caused him to seek out accuracy to a level unusual for motion pictures in any era. Hell’s Hinges looks like a dive of a western town. Its residents look like they lived in the west. It is clear that real buildings being destroyed when the church and the town burn to the ground. Hart himself is convincingly wicked and then just as convincingly good.
Hell’s Hinges is one of Hart’s most forceful films. With heavy-handed religious symbolism and florid titles, it seems over the top when it is described. However, while the film is being watched, everything melds together into a wonderful cinematic experience. The climax, with Hart emerging from the inferno he has created to witness the destruction of Hell’s Hinges, is often used as an example of the power of the silent western.
Hart’s direction, like his acting, is simple, forceful and it gets the job done. He directed the majority of his own films, occasionally employing the services of a co-director. Charles Swickard served as co-director and receives sole screen credit. He directed Hart in the Aztec drama The Captive God the same year.
Hell’s Hinges does require a certain investment of concentration and suspension of disbelief but it is well worth the effort. It shows off one of the silent screen’s most distinctive personalities in one of his finest films.
John Gilbert fans will want to keep their eyes out for him. He’s one of the roughnecks nearest to the minister when the mob is encouraging him to drink and burn down the church.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★★★
Where can I see it?
Hell’s Hinges is available on DVD. A high-quality version was released as part of the amazing box set Treasures from American Film Archives, currently out of print. That version can now be streamed on the National Film Preservation Foundation’s website. There is also a standalone release available from Reelclassicdvd, which uses an untinted reduction print and has a very good custom piano score.
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