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Case Number 09861

Buy Will Rogers Collection Volume 1 at Amazon

Will Rogers Collection Volume 1

Fox // 1935 // 415 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart (Retired) // August 16th, 2006

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All Rise...

All Appellate Judge James A. Stewart knows after reading the papers is that Pearls Before Swine is the best part.

The Charge

"The average life of a movie is until it reaches the critics."—Will Rogers

Opening Statement

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
"To Diogenes, Humble Seeker After Truth" reads the legend on the statue put up by Plain View Citizen editor Kenesaw Clark (Will Rogers). He sits in Diogenes's shadow as he writes: "A man at 40 is as old as he feels…A woman at 40 is almost 29." Kenesaw takes his own advice, chasing jaybirds with slingshots and breaking windows like a mischievous kid. Kenesaw takes up the cause of Lee (Richard Cromwell, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer), who was wrongly convicted in a bank robbery, and winds up backing his shiftless buddy (Slim Summerville, All Quiet on the Western Front) in a political race against the town boss (George Barbier, Week-End in Havana).
Grade: B

Doubting Thomas
When Rudolph La Haze breezes into the beauty salon to offer a screen test to local theater actress Peggy Burns, it sounds "awfully phony" to her fiancee Jimmy. Future father-in-law Thomas Brown (Will Rogers) even objects to women having thespian ambitions at all. Naturally, Thomas returns from a trip to the sausage-makers' convention to find his wife Paula (Billie Burke, The Wizard of Oz) bitten by the acting bug as well. As a husband who generally acts like a five-year-old, Rogers is a scream. Watch for a great silly parody of Bing Crosby's crooning near the end. Doubting Thomas was on movie screens when news of Rogers's death reached America, which makes the line about Thomas envying a man who died before his wife took the stage too ironic.
Grade: A-

Steamboat Round the Bend
In 1890s Mississippi, Doc (Will Rogers) sells his Pocahontas remedies by recommending that customers do no work until the bottle's drained. He's invested in a steamboat but bets it on a big race. From the looks of the boat, though, he might be better off losing this one. A more important race against the clock emerges when his son is jailed on murder charges and he must find the preacher witness who can prove that it was self-defense.
Grade: D

In Old Kentucky
Where's a good place to hide Grandpa Martingale when he's about to be committed as a nuisance, thanks to his feud with the Shattucks over a piece of land? Steve Tapley (Will Rogers), the Shattuck horse trainer, has an idea; Grandpa can stay in his cottage on the Shattuck farm. It's not a good one, since Shattuck has brought a city doctor in to share the cottage. All this feuding puts pressure on Tapley to make sure the Martingale horse wins the big race.
Grade: C-

The Evidence

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.

Closing Statement

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.

The Verdict

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

Video: 85
Audio: 86
Extras: 90
Acting: 80
Story: 55
Judgment: 79

Perp Profile

Studio: Fox
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
• English
• Spanish
Running Time: 415 Minutes
Release Year: 1935
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Classic
• Comedy
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• Commentaries by film historian Anthony Slide on Life Begins at Forty, Doubting Thomas, and In Old Kentucky
• Commentary by Scott Eyman on Steamboat Round the Bend
• A&E Biography episode, "Will Rogers: An American Original"
• Original Theatrical Trailers
• Restoration Comparison
• Movietone News segments on Will Rogers

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Review content copyright © 2006 James A. Stewart; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.