Blue Blazes Rawden (1918)

William S. Hart stars in this somewhat somber morality tale set in the Pacific Northwest. With less action than his usual Westerns, this movie asks more of him as an actor and director in terms of emotion and conviction.

The movie begins, with rather flowery intertitles that have a distinctly Jack London influence, by introducing “Blue Blazes” Rawden – a hellraising timber man far from civilization (played by Hart), surrounded by his admirers on pay day. He leads them to the town of Timber Cove with the full intention of blowing all their pay in a wild debauch. They quickly locate the Far North Hotel, a place with a saloon suited to separate them from their money, and once there, Blazes is soon in a dispute with the owner, “Ladyfingers” Hilgard (Robert McKim), over his girl Babette du Fresne (Maude George). Blazes and Hilgard try to settle things with cards, but as Blazes winnings pile up and Hilgard is about to lose his hotel, he challenges Blazes to a gunfight, even going so far as to have one of his cronies sabotage Blazes’ ammunition, but Blazes is too tough for him, and ends up shooting Hilgard with his own gun.

Rawden has won the respect of the town, the hotel, and the woman in one fell swoop, but there’s a catch. As he’s dying, Hilgard gives Rawden the letter he just received from his aging mother (Gertrude Clair) – she’s coming out to visit, along with Eric, his innocent younger brother (Robert Gordon), and they expect to find a decent, respectable man, not a ruffian card sharp. When they arrive, apparently Rawden’s heart grows three sizes that day, because he can’t bring himself to tell the truth about Hilgard or himself. He admits that Hilgard is dead, but insists they were fast friends and that Hilgard was a pillar of the community. He threatens everyone at the bar not to contradict him or they’ll get what Ladyfingers got, and so they all go along with him as he puts up a gravestone that calls Hilgard  a good man and generally carries off a huge deception, reforming himself along the way. Eventually, Babette becomes annoyed by the “new” Blazes and tells the younger brother that Blazes killed Hilgard, which so enrages him that he shoots Blazes – who refuses to defend himself because that would mean killing two sons of the woman who he so respects. After saving Eric from a lynch mob, Blue Blazes makes him promise never to tell Mrs. Hilgard what he knows and leaves town a reformed man, though it seems likely he’ll die in the wilderness of his wounds.

Most of this movie hinges on Hart convincing his audience that he is so remorseful after meeting the mother of his victim that he completely changes from the brutal hell raiser into a man of decency. What’s remarkable is that he pulls it off quite well. The two sides of this character seem perfectly suited to Hart – he was equally capable of being the devil-may-care brawler and the man with a simple code of honor who never wavers, once decided on his path. It’s strange to see them both evoked in a single story like this, but somehow it works. It helps that Clair is so good as the refined but sweet old lady who could never think ill of her son or his surroundings. When Babette tries to tell her about Hilgard, she invites her to tea and remarks how surprised she is that the other ladies (all of them evidently prostitutes) of the town have never paid her a call. As a director, Hart deserves credit also for building a believable environment of savage lumber jacks, taking advantage of the redwoods in northern California to show a primeval forest that separates men from their upbringing and civilized training. Given this theme in the early intertitles, I was surprised when something as simple as a mother’s love was enough to shatter this premise and change the title character from hellion to angel.

Director: William S. Hart

Camera: Joseph H. August

Starring: William S. Hart, Maude George, Robert McKim, Gertrude Claire, Robert Gordon, Jack Hoxie

Run Time: 51 Min

You can watch it for free: here.