Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Wagon Tracks (1919)

Director: Lambert Hillyer                                Writer: C. Gardner Sullivan
Producer: Thomas H. Ince                             Cinematography: Joseph H. August
Starring: William S. Hart, Jane Novak, Robert McKim and Lloyd Bacon

Wagon Tracks is a solid middle period western for the great William S. Hart. In an essay I once wrote about genre film I posited the idea that the western is less a genre and more a setting in which any number of actual genres can function. This film is a case in point. Putting aside the western setting it is actually a murder mystery, though more of a how-done-it that a whodunit. Hart has suspicions right from the start and the trick is for him to figure out how to expose the real killer. Director Lambert Hillyer was a prolific director who began his career in the silent era shooting westerns and would become one of William S. Hart’s most frequent collaborators. In the sound era he would go on to work at Universal and became one of the directors working in their horror factory. The film he is most remembered for today is the atmospheric sequel to the film that began the genre, Dracula’s Daughter. As for Hart, this was the last film he would make under the employ of Thomas Ince who had been paying him far below the market value for a star of his magnitude. Hart created his own production company thereafter, and would continue to work with Hillyer and release his films through Paramount.

The film begins with William S. Hart traveling alone along the Santa Fe Trail. His purpose is to meet his brother on the trailhead and go back with him. Meanwhile, his brother, Leo Pierson, is playing cards with criminal Robert McKim on a riverboat. When Pierson catches him cheating he pulls a gun on the criminal, but McKim’s sister, Jane Novak, hears the argument and tries to prevent Pierson from shooting her brother. During the struggle McKim joins in and points the gun at Pierson, killing him, though Novak doesn’t realize this. To avoid an investigation by the Captain, Charles Arling, McKim makes up a story that Novak was protecting herself from Pierson’s advances. Still on the trail, Hart has no idea his brother has died until the next day when he confronts the trio of McKim and Novak and her fiancé, Lloyd Bacon, who is a tool of McKim. Hart is devastated, and while he believes it was an accident, he doesn’t believe that his brother was making untoward advances. Still, they all set out from the trailhead back to Santa Fe as part of a wagon train with Hart as the elected leader. On the way Novak can’t stand the deception and tells Hart what she believed happened. It’s then that Hart knows there must be more to the story and determines to discover which of the men was really responsible for killing his brother.

The most obvious thing one notices right away about Hillyer’s direction is the intensity of the crosscutting. He moves between the scenes on the Mississippi and Hart on the prairie with deliberate frequency. The other thing the film benefits from is the outdoor setting and the seriousness of the story. When western star Tom Mix began incorporating trick riding and shooting into his films, they quickly degenerated into stories designed for children and left serious studies in the genre with no audience. With the product sufficiently degraded the prevalent use of sound stages on most westerns from the thirties give them an obvious artificiality. This film, on the other hand, has more of the look of a John Ford western from the forties or fifties when he brought about the resurgence of the genre as adult entertainment. The acting is about average for the time. The actors, with the exception of Hart, tend to overdo their pantomime but it’s still in keeping with the style of the period. The stoicism of Hart, on the other hand, and the unconsciously complete infusion of his character with virtue, is a pleasure to watch. Wagon Tracks is vintage Hart, but a vintage that would only continue to mature into an even more powerful filmmaker as he moved into the twenties.

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