The William S. Hart Company
Cast: William S. Hart (Black Deering), Anna Q. Nilsson (Mary Brown), Jack Richardson (The Sheriff), Joseph Singleton (Tom Jordan), Richard Headrick (The Little Feller)
Black Deering has been successfully leading his gang, The Raiders, in a series of robberies, but he decides they are too well known and sought by too many people. It's time to quit.
However, one of his lieutenants, Jordan, disagrees, and convinces the gang they should do one more job - a robbery of a mail train. Against his better judgment, Deering is forced to agree.
Unfortunately, it turns out that Jordan has betrayed his gang, and every one of them is either killed or captured by a waiting company of soldiers, including Deering. Because Deering once saved their fort by informing them of an impending Indian attack, the soldiers turn their backs and allow him to escape.
Broke, without a horse, and wearing tattered clothes, Deering passes through Rincon, a tough town near the Mexican border and finds that Jordan owns a cantina there. After a failed attempt to shoot Jordan, Deering sets the cantina on fire and robs and sets ablaze another saloon before escaping on a stolen horse.
For two days, Deering eludes both the sheriff's posse and a posse of Mexicans led by Jordan. The posses are closing in when worse luck hits. Deering's horse breaks a leg, so he sets out on foot hoping for a last minute miracle.
At the edge of a river, he sees a small boy fall in and rescues him, although it will most likely cause him to be captured. To show her gratitude, the mother invites Deering back to her cabin offering him dry clothes which belonged to her husband who disappeared a year ago.
As the posse comes over the hillside, he must trust this woman to help him, and she must trust that he will not harm her or her child. That trust comes to a test later when he learns of her connection to his quest for revenge.
"The Toll Gate" is an engrossing western and one of Hart's best. Certainly it makes liberal use of the standard Hart clichés, but we come to expect these in his westerns. They don't make his westerns any less enjoyable because they are somewhat regarded as his trademark. Actually, we are disappointed if the expected elements that are typical to a Hart western aren't there.
The New York Times reviewer didn't agree, however. In an April 19, 1920, review, he says, "It is too stereotyped and artificial in its narrative and too much given to heroics to be plausible." One complaint of the reviewer is "the inevitable innocent woman," and he also bemoans, " . . . it is involved too much with unrealities," although he doesn't say what these "unrealities" are. Wid's (April 25, 1920) also criticized, "The story is not quite as good as some he has had previously."
Contrary to the Times complaint that the film is "too much given to heroics to be plausible," Photoplay (July, 1920) said it was "most plausible" and "most intelligently directed."
All agree that the story is "melodramatic," but, then again, that is Hart's style. However, within this melodrama comes passion, and Hart gives us plenty of that whether it's his zeal to carry out his revenge on the bad guy, Jordan, or the compassion he feels for the little boy and his mother. It's a credit to Hart's acting that he carries off this 'good-bad guy" persona so well. Moving Picture World (May 1, 1920) made reference to this when it said Hart, as Black Deering, "shows his better traits in sympathetic moments," but "does not avoid the truth as to his bitter vindictiveness and small store of scruple."
In "The Toll Gate," it's actually oversimplifying matters to imply that the "innocent woman" and a small child brought about a sudden, miraculous change in the outlaw Black Deering. Early on in the film we are shown a flashback of this man riding 80 miles and arriving half dead at the soldiers' fort to warn them of an Indian attack. Also, it is he who suggests the gang bring their crime spree to an end. Admittedly, we don't know what his plans are after that, but could it be that he wants to "go straight?" If he's so bad, why would he risk being caught by a posse in order to save a small child from drowning?
When the posse is about to arrive at the cabin, he is very distrustful of the woman and nearly threatens her if she doesn't tell the posse that he is her husband. This hard-hearted stance doesn't appear to be the actions of a man who is so quickly won over. It is only later when he overhears the woman tell her son that he should call this stranger "Daddy" in order to fool the sheriff that he allows himself to trust her.
No, we must give Hart more credit for character development that to dismiss "The Toll Gate" as another film in which he is "saved" by the love of a good woman. There is depth to Black Deering. He has some goodness in him, some compassion, but the hardness that has been developed through a life as an outlaw is not immediately vaporized merely by the sight of a good woman.
Hart's westerns are also more "adult" than any other from that time and certainly more so than any of the best remembered cowboy stars that followed such as Tom Mix, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, etc. The nighttime scene in the cabin is a good example.
The sheriff and some of his men ask to camp in the cabin for the night. Since Hart is posing as the woman's husband, he must obviously go in the next room with her. He stays up in the main room with the sheriff's men long after everyone has gone to sleep trying to delay the inevitable awkwardness, but eventually must carry out the role of the husband and go into the woman's room.
To avoid revealing a key element of the plot, let's just say something happens to instill a sudden feeling of hatred and desire for revenge in Deering toward the woman. He approaches her bed removing his vest. She sees him, sits up and recoils in fright while saying, "I'm still trustin' you." His anger subsides, and he turns and walks away. The implications here are very "adult," especially for 1920, but they are handled tastefully and adeptly by Hart.
If anything about "The Toll Gate" is "stereotypical" for Hart, it's the inclusion of an open Bible in the woman's room that just happens to be turned to a key verse that moves him to introspection. The verse is "Wherefore, by their fruits ye shall know them." This Bible passage appears twice more in the final reel of the film. One of those is as the last intertitle in the film as he rides off into the sunset. Of course, we have to remember that "The Toll Gate" was adapted by Hart and director Lambert Hillyer from an original story entitled "By Their Fruits Ye Shall Know Them."
The story has some similarities to a 1915 Hart two-reeler entitled "Bad Buck of Santa Ynez." In that film, he is also an outlaw who comes upon a widow and her small child. Again, he risks his life to save the child, this time by riding into town to get a doctor when the child is bitten by a rattlesnake. In "Bad Buck," however, this act of heroism does cause him to lose his life.
Anna Q. Nilsson is well-chosen for the "good woman" role, a more mature choice than many of Hart's earlier leading ladies. With Hart at 55 years old when he made this film, the difference in age of a too young heroine would be all too evident. Nilsson was 32 years of age at the time. However, the Times reviewer could not refrain from at least some aspect of Nilsson's portrayal to criticize. He said, "Anna Q. Nilsson would approach genuineness as his heroine if she did not use a Broadway makeup in her scenes of primitive life at the Mexican border."
The intertitles are one of the best aspects of the film, but, at the same time, one of the weakest. As is typical of a Hart film, they attempt to convey the relaxed language of an old cowpoke, mainly by dropping the "g" from any word ending in "-ing" such as "watchin'," "hopin'" or "hangin'." One of the best lines in the film is delivered by a cowboy in the saloon that Deering has just robbed and set afire. Another cowpoke tells him, "Follow him!" to which he responds, "Follow him, hell! I'm lookin' to make sure he's gone!" Then, there are the intertitles that border on corny such as one delivered by the sheriff where he says, "They may call you Black Deering, but, by God, you're white."
No one can deny that the overall quality of Hart's output of westerns during the silent era is excellent. Thankfully, many are still available today in very good quality, such as "The Toll Gate." The copy reviewed here is the first Hart release on DVD, produced by David Shepard and released by Image Entertainment. It includes a very good score by Eric Beheim who has performed the musical accompaniment many of the shorts on Shepard's "Slapstick "Encyclopedia." The quality of the film is excellent throughout, however, at the end, particularly in the final gun battle, there is an unusual look to the film. It loses its contrast and a gold or brown outline can be seen along the hilltops in the background. Supposedly this is because it was taken from an original tinted and toned print that suffered deterioration in the final reel. However, this drawback does not make the final scenes difficult to view or detract from the drama of the closing.
The DVD has the added attraction of a 1916 Mack Sennett two-reeler entitled "His Bitter Pill" with Mack Swain and Edgar Kennedy.
copyright 2002 by Tim Lussier, all rights reserved
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