Hell Bent

Directed by John Ford, USA, 1918

Cast Harry Carey, Duke R. Lee, Neva Gerber, Vester Pegg, and Joseph Harris Production Universal Film Manufacturing Company Print Source Universal Pictures

Presented at SFSFF 2019
Musical Accompaniment by Philip Carli

Essay by David Kiehn

Preceded by Baby Peggy and Brownie the Wonder Dog in BROWNIE'S LITTLE VENUS (1921)

When Hell Bent, starring Harry Carey as Cheyenne Harry, was released in 1918 it was among eighty-seven western features made that year, a high point in the first decade of feature-length films. In that crowded field were William S. Hart, who made nine westerns for his own production company, and Tom Mix, who made six with the Fox Film Corporation. Harry Carey was part of that productive pack, with seven features for Universal.

Carey had been in films since 1910, acting for D.W. Griffith at the Biograph Company and moving out to California with the company in 1911. In 1915 Carey joined Universal, and starred in his first “Cheyenne Harry” feature as a cowboy drifter with a knack for finding trouble. In 1916 he reprised the role in a series of short two-reelers directed by Fred Kelsey, known more for his comedy roles in nearly five hundred films than for his directing. Kelsey and Carey disagreed over the direction of the series and parted ways in 1917. Francis Ford, Universal’s big-name director-actor, suggested that his younger brother Jack take over the directing chores.

Jack Ford had worked his way up in the film business, as a bit-player, assistant director, and writer under the mentorship of Francis, and then starred in and directed his own two-reelers at Universal. Meeting Carey changed the course of Jack’s career, putting him on the road to becoming the John Ford we know today. When a twenty-three-year-old Ford met Carey, sixteen years his senior, they took a liking to each other, forming a collaborative relationship that produced twenty-six westerns.

Although born in New York, Harry Carey had a fascination for the American West and, after making movies in California for six years, he bought a ranch near Newhall in 1917, using it for the outdoor scenes in many of his westerns, Hell Bent included. Ford and Carey stayed out there when they weren’t shooting interiors and town scenes at Universal City, some twenty-five miles south of the ranch. They filmed by sunlight and, at night over a campfire, fleshed out scenes to shoot the next day. They had a definite idea for their films: character studies of western life, featuring basic emotions mixed with rugged terrain and primitive settings.

In Hell Bent, Cheyenne Harry is on the run from the law after a card game gone wrong, but encounters a ruthless bunch of outlaws in another town who make him look good by comparison. A review by Peter Milne in Motion Picture News acknowledged the typical western story essentials but singled out Ford for taking it to a higher level with “a realism that is altogether successful in snatching the spectator from his chair and setting him down in the midst of the great wastes of the West,” and simply stated: “The photography is wonderful.”

Cinematographer Benjamin F. Reynolds was the third essential collaborator needed to complete this vision for the Carey-Ford westerns. He was shooting newsreels for the Universal Animated Weekly and was an assistant cameraman on low-budget dramatic productions when the studio assigned him to photograph John Ford’s The Scrapper, which Ford starred in and directed. When Ford quit acting, he took Reynolds along to shoot his first Carey picture, The Soul Herder (1917). After one more short, Cheyenne’s Pal (1917), the team graduated to features with Straight Shooting (1917). In two years Reynolds shot twelve Carey features and earned a well-deserved reputation as a skilled cinematographer. In 1919 he became chief cinematographer for Erich von Stroheim’s first directing effort, Blind Husbands, and Reynolds continued on with Stroheim through his epic melodrama Greed (1924). Reynolds remained active until 1935, when ill health forced his retirement.

Hell Bent’s love interest, Bess, is played by Neva Gerber, who appeared opposite Carey in three subsequent titles, but she was no newcomer. She had been acting since 1912 and had racked up at least 130 credits by 1930 when she retired at the age of thirty-eight. For much of her career she worked with director-actor Ben F. Wilson, appearing in fifty-two films. In Hell Bent, Harry Carey and Duke R. Lee, who plays Cimmaron Bill, harmonize to an old Stephen Foster song, “Sweet Genevieve,” perhaps an in-joke referencing Neva, whose birth name was Genevieve.

One of the most distinctive locations Ford and Carey used for Hell Bent was a pass through the San Gabriel and Santa Susana mountain ranges known today as Beale’s Cut. It is a deep gash, thirty feet wide and some seventy feet deep, first excavated in 1854, but not fully functional until 1864. In the film, a stagecoach drives through the pass, and Carey rides up later on horseback, throwing a rope to climb to the top. Several angles show the cut in its prime, although the Newhall Tunnel, built in 1910, had already rendered it obsolete by the time of filming. Ford returned to the location for other films, notably to shoot a spectacular jump for the Tom Mix film Three Jumps Ahead (1923) and later for his classic western, 1939’s Stagecoach. Although partially collapsed by the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, Beale’s Cut can still be seen today, a short hike in from the Sierra Highway.

Set for a July 1918 release, Hell Bent ran into problems with the Ohio censor board, which objected to the title. For its release in that state alone, Hell Bent became The Three Bad Men. Censorship was a complicated process with films having to pass boards state by state. Two of the more notorious boards were in Ohio and Pennsylvania, but the most restrictive board might have been in Chicago, where the whole story of a film could be dramatically altered by mandatory cuts. For Hell Bent, Chicago censors demanded that all scenes of a stagecoach holdup in the first reel be removed, a robbery in reel four had to be cut, as did a shootout in reel five.

Harry Carey became a wealthy man as he transitioned from shorts to features. In 1917 he earned $150 a week. The next year, his salary jumped to $1,250 a week in his new contract with Universal. In 1919 it increased to $2,500. John Ford’s pay grew much more slowly, from $75 to $300 during the same period. The salary differential was a sore point between the two men, so in 1919 Ford broke up the team, directing westerns that starred instead Pete Morrison, Buck Jones, and Hoot Gibson. Ford and Carey made Desperate Trails, their last western together, in 1921. Carey continued to make westerns with a variety of directors until 1927, when he abandoned movies for vaudeville. He made an on-screen comeback in the successful MGM action-adventure film Trader Horn (1931) and continued to work steadily in programmers until his death in 1947, garnering an occasional plum role like the president of the Senate in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).

Jack Ford first took directing credit as John Ford with Cameo Kirby (1923), a period drama for Fox Film starring John Gilbert, and hit the big time with the epic western The Iron Horse (1924), which became the top grossing film of the year. Having proven himself in westerns, Ford diversified and went on to win four Academy Awards, none of them for directing his famous westerns. Ford returned frequently to the genre, however, often elevating it to iconic status. At the time of Carey’s death, Ford was finishing a remake of the Peter B. Kyne story he had done with Carey in 1919 as Marked Men. At the end of the picture, 3 Godfathers, Ford included a dedication: “To the Memory of Harry Carey, Bright Star of the early western sky ...” over an image of a lone rider set against the setting sun. It was a fitting coda to a long career.