Today we pay homage to the film legacy of Will Rogers. He was brilliant at teaching common sense to the common man during the Roaring Twenties and Great Depression; a populist who manipulated the media to educate his fellow citizens about what the Washington politicians were up to – and what the barons of Wall Street were doing to Main Street. Sound familiar? So popular and influential was Rogers prior to his untimely death in 1935, that many encouraged him to run for governor, senator and even the presidency.
Will Rogers entered life as part Cherokee Indian in 1879 Indian Territory, 25 miles NW from what is now Tulsa, Oklahoma. His father, Clement Rogers, was a rancher, a judge and a five-term Cherokee Democratic Senator. Young Rogers often quipped “My ancestors may not have come over on the Mayflower, but they met ’em at the boat.” His mother died when he was only 11 years old.
Young Rogers yearned to be a cowboy and developed skills as a horseman and lariat artist (his rope tricks later got him into the Guinness Book of World Records). By the time he turned 21, at the turn of the 20th century, his thirst for knowledge and adventure had taken him to Argentina, where he learned the livestock trade while transporting pack animals from Buenos Aires to South Africa for use in the Boer War.
While in Johannesburg, Rogers joined Texas Jack’s Wild West Show as “The Cherokee Kid” and went on to perform his act in Australia and New Zealand with the Wirth Brothers Circus. He had a natural stage presence, and upon returning to the states, continued performing in Vaudeville circuits from 1905 to 1915 in America, Canada and Europe. In 1915, these experiences culminated in a decade-long starring role on Broadway in the famous Ziegfeld Follies. Gradually Rogers embedded humorous commentary and homespun philosophy into his lasso routines to the increasing delight of audiences. Wry one-liners like “When the Okies left Oklahoma and moved to California, it raised the I.Q. of both states” and “Make crime pay – become a lawyer” endeared him to audiences.
His growing popularity rapidly propelled Will Rogers into simultaneous careers as an author, journalist, radio star and world famous Movie Star. But it was his keen understanding of politics combined with the opportunity to personally impact humanity that became his driving passion in life: “Live your life so that whenever you lose, you’re ahead.” His radio career began in 1922, and by 1930 he appeared regularly for the pharmaceutical firm E.R. Squibb & Sons and was regarded as one of the nation’s primary molders of public opinion. Also in 1922, Rogers began writing a nationally syndicated newspaper column for the New York Times, criticizing dishonest politicians and the political influence of big business. The Saturday Evening Post subsequently hired him to serve as a goodwill ambassador-at-large, writing dispatches from Europe and the Soviet Union.
The stock market crash of 1929 and the resulting Great Depression had a profound impact on Will Rogers and his determination to make a difference in the lives of his fellow citizens. His voice was a reassurance to a demoralized population that they were not alone in their distrust of corrupt politicians and the greedy elite. Hundreds of quotes attributed to him during his career attest to his humanitarian nature and power of political persuasion. Here are a few timely examples:
“Diplomacy is the art of saying “nice doggie” until you can find a rock.”
“You can’t say that civilization don’t advance, however, for in every war they kill you in a new way.”
“There is no trick to being a humorist with the whole government working for you.”
“I don’t make jokes, I just watch the government and report the facts.”
“If we ever pass out as a great nation we ought to put on our tombstone, ‘America died from a delusion that she has moral leadership.”
“I love a dog, he does nothing for political reasons.”
Will Rogers began flirting with the movie industry as early as 1916, when he was hired to write a screenplay. This resulted in starring roles in 71 motion pictures (sadly, most of them lost forever). One of his earliest sound films, released in 1931, was Ambassador Bill, which humorously paralleled his own life. In the film, Will stars as Bill Harper, an American ambassador to the revolutionary-ravaged fictional country of Sylvania. Bill is sent to replace the current ambassador who has experienced a nervous breakdown. The corrupt prime minister of Sylvania is attempting to steal power from the queen, until Ambassador Bill arrives to spread good humor and deliver a happy ending.
Among his finest cinematic achievements were three films directed by the great John Ford; Doctor Bull (1933), Judge Priest (1934) and Steamboat Round the Bend (1935). In Doctor Bull, more drama than comedy, Rogers plays an old-fashioned country doctor underappreciated by the rural community.
Director John Ford once called Judge Priest, “My favorite picture of all time.” The New York Times had this to say about the film after its exclusive premiere at Radio City Music Hall: “The photoplay which Fox has assembled around Dr. Will Rogers, the eminent newspaper columnist, presents the cowboy Nietzsche in one of the happiest roles of his screen career … and let it remind you that Will Rogers, although he bears the burdens of the nation on his shoulders, continues to be a remarkably heart-warming personality.” Of course, off screen, Rogers had very strong opinions on the American legal system, often quipping: “Personally I don’t think you can make a lawyer honest by an act of the Legislature. You’ve got to work on his conscience. And his lack of a conscience is what makes him a lawyer.”
Unfortunately, Judge Priest and some of Rogers other classic films suffer today from racial stereotypes and racial humor, making them offensive to many modern viewers. Nonetheless, they do represent rural life in America during the 1930s.
Will Rogers died in a plane crash in Alaska in August 1935, along with pioneer aviator Wiley Post, while testing the feasibility of flying freight from the U.S. to Asia. The following was posted in The Oklahoma Gazette: “Many called him the future president of the United States. When he died, a squadron of airplanes dropped flowers over those attending the funeral services at Claremore airport and people scattered to gather the fallen blossoms. In Washington, D.C., Congress adjourned while the grief-stricken family received a well-publicized letter from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. California’s governor ordered a day of mourning as flags flew at half-staff in Los Angeles County. An estimated 100,000 reportedly paid their respects at Forest Lawn cemetery. Church bells tolled in 100 cities nationwide in remembrance. For two silent minutes, more than 12,000 theaters darkened across the country and all Hollywood studios stopped production.”
Steamboat Round the Bend was released to a mourning nation and critical acclaim in September 1935, three weeks after Rogers death on August 15th. The final scene originally written to conclude the picture was cut prior to the films release. The scene showed Will Rogers waving to Captain Eli as his boat faded out of the picture. The scene cut was a close-up of Will waving farewell, and the studio feared the audience would leave the theater crying as if he were waving to them. You can watch the original trailer for Steamboat Round the Bend here.
In Old Kentucky (1935), directed by George Marshal, was Will Rogers’ final film and was released in November, three months following his death. The Literary Digest had this to say: “The same absence of morbidity which made audience reaction to Steamboat Round the Bend so remarkable, when that picture was shown soon after his death early this fall, is apparent now. Audiences in the West and New England are flocking to the film and reacting to it much as though the comedian were still alive.”
And here you can enjoy one of Will Rogers’ most original and amusing silent short subjects Big Moments From Little Pictures (1923). Rogers impersonates famous stars in famous films, including Rudolph Valentino in Blood and Sand, Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood, and Ford Sterling and his Keystone Kops. At the end of part one, click here to enjoy part two.
Bob Campbell is co-creator and producer of the original PBS series Matinee at the Bijou. He is currently working to bring back the series in a sequel to be hosted by the magnificent Debbie Reynolds.