All Appellate Judge James A. Stewart knows after reading the papers is that Pearls Before Swine is the best part.
"The average life of a movie is until it reaches the critics."—Will Rogers
Humorist and actor Will Rogers actually fared well with movie critics in his heyday, but he still didn't take the clippings—or the movies—all that seriously.
If you've seen The Will Rogers Follies on stage, you know that Will Rogers was perhaps the first humorist to get his material out of the daily newspaper, as an actor playing him demonstrates on stage by riffing on the performance date's news in Rogers's folksy style. So if you're a fan of late-night comedians like David Letterman, Jon Stewart, or Jay Leno, you owe Will a debt of gratitude.
From Follies, you also may remember that he got his start doing rope tricks on stage, drawing attention in a Ziegfeld late-night cabaret and in the Ziegfeld Follies. Since the Follies were known for their lovely female performers, that was quite an accomplishment.
He got his start in silent movies in 1918, playing Laughing Bill Hyde, which, IMDb points out, was not a comedy. Though he worked in silent pictures for years, talkies boosted Rogers's career. For four years in the 1930s, he made the list of Hollywood's top moneymakers, heading it up in 1934, only to be bumped down to second place by Shirley Temple in 1935. In his commentary, Scott Eyman calls these films "gold mines for Fox," since each cost less than $500,000 and took in more than $1 million.
The part-Cherokee comedian and rope spinner made his biggest mark on American life when he spun off into newspapers with a syndicated column, becoming one of the nation's most quotable quipsters. In 1930, he took his gently satirical patter to radio with equal success. Even if you haven't heard of Will Rogers, you might have heard someone say, "All I know is what I read in the papers" or "I never met a man I didn't like," two of Rogers's catchphrases.
Rogers also, regrettably, loved to fly. I say regrettably because he died in a plane crash with famed pilot Wiley Post in 1935. His early death while he was still immensely popular meant that his name would become legend, with 12,000 theaters briefly going silent to honor him.
Facts of the Case
This set contains the last four movies that Will Rogers made before his death in 1935:
Life Begins at Forty
Steamboat Round the Bend
In Old Kentucky
Will Rogers doesn't exactly have a cinematic presence that you'd see straight off; he looks down at the ground, away from the people he's talking to with an "Aw, shucks" attitude that seems almost shy and withdrawn. Still, as commentator Anthony Slide says, "It's what Will Rogers says that seems to be important."
The plot's usually just an excuse for Rogers to share his witticisms, often ad-libbed. Like many comedies from the 1930s, Rogers's movies shine when they give him a chance to do what he does best, but seem slow when they indulge in romantic interludes or other movie conventions of the time. Do we really need Rogers trying to get a young couple together in all of these movies? Doubting Thomas got extra points here for keeping the matchmaking to a minimum. Steamboat Round The Bend, while boasting the talents of Director John Ford, is heaviest on the melodrama.
There's been some restoration work on the prints—a comparison feature shows you how much has been done—but there are still pieces that are faded or flaring in this black-and-white transfer. The sound quality is acceptable, so the dialogue comes through even when Rogers seems to be mumbling or trailing off.
The commentaries by Anthony Slide and Scott Eyman are good at putting the movies into historical perspective, though some of Eyman's biographical information on Will Rogers might seem redundant if you watch "Will Rogers: An American Original."
I enjoyed the A&E Biography episode included here a lot. If you want to know more about Rogers—and you probably do if you've bought this set—it's a good introduction to the legendary man. At 90 minutes, it takes the time to cover Rogers's life thoroughly. You get period Movietone News footage of Rogers as well, but it's way too little. Sadly the sound bite was alive and well before television.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Racial stereotypes mar the two Southern-set films, Steamboat Round The Bend and In Old Kentucky. Stepin Fetchit's portrayal of the odd-job man with the high-pitched, semi-intelligible speaking voice in Steamboat is as embarrassingly bad as you've heard. Ironically, like Will Rogers, the black actor was also a writer, his work appearing in the Chicago Defender; unlike Rogers, he doesn't get the chance to show that side of himself. In Kentucky, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson is stuck playing a servant who tap dances while he works and says "Yes, sir" constantly; it's clear here that Robinson had a lot of talent as both an actor and a dancer, but the movie also shows clearly that 1930s Hollywood didn't give him much of a chance to show it. Kentucky also puts Rogers in blackface.
These movies were mostly just an excuse to let the popular Will Rogers do his patented ad-libbing, shot quickly so that he could spend the rest of the year traveling, doing other work, or spending time with his family. Thus, you get a lot of great lines—but they're in movies that fall short of the mark. Still, in lieu of time travel, it's the best way to see this legendary comedian at work.
For preserving a piece of American history with its restoration effort and some strong commentaries, I find Fox not guilty. The movies here, however, are a mixed lot. I may have only wounded this collection, rather than killing it outright, but it proves Rogers's point, doesn't it?
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Scales of Justice
• Commentaries by film historian Anthony Slide on Life Begins at Forty, Doubting Thomas, and In Old Kentucky
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