Saturday, November 14, 2009

Movies in the SCV, Part 11: Bill Hart's Pinto Pony

One day last week, I was absolutely delighted to find this little treat waiting for me in my mail box.

Most people that know anything about William S. Hart, biggest cowboy star of the silent movies, know that he wrote an autobiography, MY LIFE EAST AND WEST that was published in 1929.

But Hart wrote other books after he retired, mainly young adult books, two of whom were adventures of two boys, Injun and Whitey. And he "ghosted" a book written by his famous pony, Fritz.

Even though Hart was the most popular star of his time, he was always at risk of being upstaged by Fritz.

In 1914, during his first year filming movies, Hart discovered Fritz who was owned by his producer-partner Tom Ince at the time. In this passage from MY LIFE EAST AND WEST, Hart talks about one of his first encounters his tough little pony.

In one of my first pictures I used a pinto horse named Fritz. He weighted only one thousand pounds, but his power and endurance were remarkable. We had a lot of desert riding to do...The action of our story called for Cliff Smith and myself to be attacked by Indians. His horse was killed and he mounted behind me, and we were chased for a long distance before my horse was shot while going at a full gallop, and we went down and fought behind his body. The combined weight of cliff and myself with our guns and a heavy stock saddle was close to four hundred and fifty pounds, yet that little horse carried us for hours until all our scenes were taken. But when I was lying across his neck shooting Injuns, he rolled eyes at me that plainly said:

"Say, Mister, I sure was glad when you give me that fall."

He never called me Mister again. He is on my ranch to-day, monarch of all he surveys.

Bill loved his horse so much that he talked Ince into producing a film starring the horse, "Pinto Ben."

Hart eventually bought the horse in a complicated deal with Ince that was tied into the income both Hart and Ince made from Hart's movies. At this point Hart and Ince's relationship was beginning to sour and Hart was threatening to leave Ince's production company.

They had asked me to postpone my big salary raise three or four weeks so Mr. Hodkinson could get the booking prices raised. When that time had elapsed, they begged for four more weeks, just one more picture; they would start the big salary positively on the second picture.

"I'll do it on one condition, and that is that you sell me my horse Fritz," I said.

Tom had always refused to sell him to me, as he knew the horse helped to hold me there.

They said they would give me Fritz. the picture was five weeks in the making, so it figured out that Fritz cost me $42,500. But he was worth it...and the old snoozer is worth it still.

MY LIFE EAST AND WEST is full of Hart's love for his animals, and especially for Fritz. He loved to show off what the little pony could do, even when he misbehaved, which was often. He liked to buck, and wouldn't do anything unless his stable mate, a mule mare named Cactus Kate, was close by. Sometimes the only thing Bill could do was fetch Kate and bring her along Fritz's side during production.

But Ince never liked the horse and was constantly trying to get Hart to use other horses.

For some unaccountable reason Tom, who could always see anything that had a money value, could not see Fritz. He just did not like the horse and I was never able to find out why. The Narrow Trail was conceived and written in my love for Fritz, and when Tom wanted me to use another horse, I began to doubt either his or my own sanity. The horse made the picture a great success...

Eventually he had his way in getting Fritz out of Hart's movies, and Fritz did not appear in 15 of Hart's movies.

So while Fritz was in semi-retirement out at the ranch, he decided to tell his story, TOLD UNDER A WHITE OAK TREE.

Say, Kate, stay here. It's awful nice and shady under this big white oak tree. Let's stay here till the sun gets low, and besides, I want to talk to you some - about myself and the Boss. You know, he thinks he owns this ranch, but he doesn't. Me and you and Lizbeth and Wolf, we own it, and by golly, we'll run it too. What have I got to show for my seven years' work in pictures - if we don't own this place? 'Course I get lots of sugar and letters from little boys and girls, and grown-ups too, from all over the world - and I'd be real stuck up and sassy if I didn't appreciate it, which I do - a whole lot. But sugar and letters ain't real estate, and I just want to tell you that this is Newhall, California, and right in the foothills, and land is worth something here - this ain't no sand and sagebrush country. And we are all pardners and it'll bring us in some money some day.

Fritz talks about his various stunts he and Bill performed in his movies.

I had to jump off of a cliff into a river while a feller on the other bank was shooting at us...When we gits all ready, the Boss, he says: "Boys, I'm going to take the little feller in first and see if he can swim. If I jump him off that cliff and he couldn't swim, it would be curtains for him." Right here I had my fun with all the boys standing around. I wouldn't even look at that river, much less get my feet wet. No, siree! The Boss, he tried and tried, but I'd shy away every time. Then the Boss, he got down and commenced to scold me - and I said, "Look here, Bill, I ain't wishful to cause no trouble, but I'm afraid that water'll give me a cold in the head."

But pretty soon the Boss, his voice got soft again, and I knew it was all off. I had my fun anyhow, and when he got on me I almost jumped from under him gitting into that river. I just played round in there, because I loved it. And when we came out the Boss, he kind of glared at the boys and said, "Swim? That hoss has got web feet."

I ain't going to talk none about going off that cliff. When the Boss took me up there and I looked down, I felt about as warm as a gas stove in winter with the heat turned off. I just shut my eyes when we went - and when we came up from under half the water in the State of California, was I glad? Gee!

Fritz lived out the rest of his days at the Hart Ranch in Newhall and died in 1938 at the age of thirty-one, a nice ripe age for a horse. He is buried under a large oak tree at the ranch, and the site is marked with a large cobblestone monument.

In 1939, Hart rereleased his last movie, TUMBLEWEEDS, and added music, sound effects and a speech at the end which is a moving tribute to Fritz. You can see this addition at the end of this post. It's nineteen minutes long, but if you don't have time to watch the whole thing, do jump to 16:00 and watch the last three minutes. When Hart talks about his "a pinto pony....A pinto pony," his voice cracks with emotion. Definitely worth watching and you may even need a Kleenex or two.

"You do give old Fritz a pat on the nose
and when your arm encircles his neck
the cloud of dust
is no longer a cloud of dust
but a beautiful golden haze,
through which appears a long phantom herd of trailing cattle -
at their head, a pinto pony...a pinto pony
with an empty saddle
and then a low, loved whinny the whinny
of a horse so fine -
that nothing seems to live between it and silence."

William Harts farewell to the screen


Walker Martin said...

No matter how many times I've seen William Hart's farewell speech it always comes across as a sincere, heartfelt tribute to the old days of movie making. Or as Hart says, "Oh the thrill of it all!"

Barry Traylor said...

Very enjoyable post Laurie. Whenever I see a still of William S. Hart I think "now that is a cowboy"!
Fritz was really a small horse wasn't he as I assune Hart was not all that tall was he?

Laurie Powers said...

I enjoy that speech too, Walker. He's so sincere and so emotional, it really makes me love the guy.

Barry, according to, Hart was 6'2". Still, from looking at the photos, Fritz was on the small side. Although I don't know if he could be classified officially as a pony, everyone in westerns called their horses ponies back then. Horses are considered ponies if they are are 14.2 hands or shorter at the withers. (A hand is 4 inches.) Fritz looked like he wasn't much taller than that - I'm guessing 15 hands.


wonderful post

Laurie Powers said...

Thank you Archavist. Glad you liked it. And don't be such a stranger.

Barry Traylor said...

Whatever made me think William S. Hart was average height? Not having seen more than a few clips of his films I could not tell. Hmmmm, perhaps I should check Netflix and see if they have anything with Hart.

Barry Traylor said...

Well by golly, Netflix has 3 films starring Hart so I put Tumbleweeds at the top of my queue.

Barry Traylor said...

Drat and Double Drat! A copy of "Tumbleweeds" arrived from Netflix today and the disc is cracked. I was looking forward to watching it this evening.

Laurie Powers said...

That is a drag, Barry. At least you can return it and get another one from them fairly quickly. I haven't had too many problems with Netflix.