Here is William S. Hart, brightest star of the early western screen, in the film he thought his best. As a 1920 reviewer wrote, “He represents the combined daring and cunning of the American fighting male. He not only looks the part, but he acts it with keen intelligence. There constantly shines in his eyes the combined pugnacity and caution of the true gunman of the West.”
Hart plays Black Deering, an outlaw who, in his own words, “ain’t never been any good.” He and his gang are ambushed during a daring train robbery, and he later learns his betrayer was one of his own men: Jordan, who used his blood money to buy a frontier parlor of gambling and prostitution. Escaping from the law, Deering flees into the wilderness and finds shelter in the home of an abandoned woman (Anna Q. Nilsson) and her young son. The vengeful gunfighter finds the possibility of redemption, warns an outpost of an impending Indian attack, and even saves the small child’s life; but this happiness is short-lived when two posses - one led by the treacherous Jordan, the other by a local sheriff - converge upon the isolated cabin.
Although Hart was born in Newburgh, New York, some of his early years were spent on the frontier where he learned to speak Sioux and Indian sign language. As one critic wrote, “His genuine love for the West and his memory of real cowboys and Indians he had known in his youth were to set his films apart from any other films of the genre before or after.” He found absurd the conventionalized Westerns made by others and set about to dramatize the real frontier code and illustrate it in authentic detail. By the time Hart formed his own production company for which The Toll Gate was his first endeavor, his westerns had brought him world fame and film earnings surpassed only by Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford. Hart’s influence even extends to later films of both John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.
The Toll Gate is digitally mastered from a rare tinted-and-toned original print (which suffers from deterioration in the final reel) and backed by an effective and flavorful music score by Eric Beheim from period arrangements.
Prominent and serious, Hart was also an ideal target for parody, and His Bitter Pill (also available in a Blu-ray edition on Flicker Alley’s The Mack Sennett Collection, Vol. One) is comedy king Mack Sennett’s famous lampoon on the noble Good-Bad Man. The hero is played by Mack Swain, best remembered as Big Jim McKay in Chaplin’s The Gold Rush. Apparently a genuine western, His Bitter Pill reflects Hart’s mannerisms in the bent mirror of Keystone humor.