Part of what caused William S. Hart’s decline as the top box-office western star of the late teens and early twenties was perhaps a rigidity to a more serious and hard-nosed approach to the western genre’, one which began to look more and more severe as competition from more lighthearted cowboy stars like Tom Mix and Hoot Gibson began to encroach on Hart’s territory.
Hart had been doing what he could to vary his formula away from the Old West for some time, he had played Native-Americans in THE CAPTIVE GOD (1916) and THE DAWN MAKER (1916), moved to the Northwoods for THE DARKENING TRAIL (1915), BLUE BLAZES RAWDEN (1918) and O’MALLEY OF THE MOUNTED (1920), became a whaler in SHARK MONROE (1918), did comedy in BRANDING BROADWAY (1918), straight modern crime dramas in THE POPPY GIRLS HUSBAND (1917) and THE CRADLE OF COURAGE (1920), he even ran a modiste’ shop in JOHN PETTICOATS (1919).
THE WHISTLE is William S. Hart’s last non-western and one of his finest films, commenting on the conflicts between capital and labor, and shining light on some of the abuses of the former in areas of safety. Hart plays Robert Evans, foreman of the factory of Henry Chapple (Frank Brownlee). Evans has been urging Chapple to upgrade factory conditions to avoid unnecessary accidents and Chapple, in need of contracts filled quickly, refuses to make the repairs. Things come to a tragic head when Evan’s son Danny is killed in a factory accident, driving Evans into a mad frenzy of revenge.
Though Hart was not going to veer too far from the two primary emotions of his general acting range, stoicism and rage, the setting and theme of THE WHISTLE sets it apart from anything else he ever did. Part of the credit must go to Lambert Hillyer, directing here from his own screenplay. Hillyer had pretty much been a Hart collaborator from the very beginning of his own career when he joined Triangle in 1916. The South Bend, Indiana-born filmmaker came from a show business family, his Mother had been actress Lydia Knott, and he began working for Thomas Ince as a screenwriter. After writing two William S. Hart films, THE DESERT MAN and WOLF LOWRY in 1917, the actor hired Hillyer to be his Director when he joined Paramount-Artcraft. Hillyer directed Hart’s first Paramount feature, THE NARROW TRAIL(1917), and after that essentially became Hart’s prime collaborator, either directing, co-directing, writing and/or generally working behind the scenes on all of Hart’s films until Hart finished producing his own pictures with TRAVELLIN’ ON in 1922.
Hillyer immediately went out as a free agent, and in 1923 alone helmed some well-received films like THE SHOCK with Lon Chaney, a remake of THE SPOILERS with Milton Sills, and a version of Zane Grey’s THE LONE STAR RANGER with Tom Mix. Hillyer continued directing silent films of various genres until 1927, when his western background returned to the fore as he took over Buck Jones last season at Fox in 1927-28. When talkies came in, he followed Buck Jones over to Columbia, where he handled features with both Jones and Columbia’s other western star, Tim McCoy from 1931-33. Remaining at Columbia for much of the thirties, Hillyer found himself a niche’ as an efficient handler of all sorts of programmers, even moving over ti Universal in 1936 to direct two from the tail-end of the first horror-cycle, DRACULAS DAUGHTER and THE INVISIBLE RAY with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.
Lambert Hillyer saw the 1930’s out at the newly reformed Monogram Pictures, still doing crime-dramas and comedies, but in 1940, Columbia and westerns called again and he handled their Bill Elliott series until 1943, also making the first BATMAN serial for the studio before he went back to Monogram to make the Johnny Mack Brown and Whip Wilson westerns. By 1950, Hillyer had 106 feature films to his credit, and with B Westerns disappearing from the theaters thanks to television, Hillyer moved his talents to the small screen, adding numerous episodes of MEET CORLISS ARCHER, YOUR FAVORITE STORY, I LED THREE LIVES, THE CISCO KID, and THE MAN CALLED X to his resume, wrapping up his career writing and directing some fine episodes of HIGHWAY PATROL with Broderick Crawford. Retiring in the late 1950’s. Lambert Hillyer died in 1969 at the age of 80, another prolific professional whose career spanned the length and breadth of silent films, talkies, and then television, and if not ever considered an A-list Auteur by them that makes up those sort of pointless lists, found his name on many, many hour of enjoyable entertainment.
By the time THE WHISTLE made it to the Theaters in April, 1921, William S. Hart’s popularity was already slipping, but the picture was well-reviewed. Photoplay Magazine said, “This should stand out as one of the finest contributions William S. Hart has given the screen------were it not for careful direction, and with the dignity and repression in which Mr. Hart enacts his role, a drab picture painted with a brilliant touch.”. Exhibitors thought it a good picture, even if they wished he had ridden a horse and worn a cowboy hat through it, yet it retains its power today as a fine film and as social commentary, not just as an offbeat variation on Hart’s usual style.
RICHARD M ROBERTS
So you want to discuss silent drama, science fiction, horror, noir, mystery and other NON-COMEDY films? Look no further, this is the place.
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