Will Rogers Keeping Fox Afloat
|Holdovers A Given Where Rogers Played|
The Team Of Ford and Rogers Has Its Best With Judge Priest (1934)
Judge Priest is from wretched lot of Hollywood features that fell into the Public Domain during the 70's. That's how most of us saw it then, and since. Poor impression could be expected, as no print I saw passed muster, least of all ones sold on 16mm and eventually video cassette. What a lot of us knew of Will Rogers was gleaned from Judge Priest, as how many with him showed up on TV? (for me, exactly one: Steamboat Round The Bend on Charlotte's Channel 36). Watching PD rubbish on UHF should have cured us of old films evermore, but as with poor reception, cuts, and commercial breaks, imagination filled in quality such presentations took away. Judge Priest only got greatness back when Fox included it among a John Ford Big Box of DVD's (released 2007, pricey at the time, much less now). Further improvement is lately had from I-Tunes HD stream, putting Judge Priest to best advantage yet. Here is instance where a film finally approaches quality of stills taken in 1934 to publicize it, digital again giving us near-as-possible access to films as they were meant to look when new. And best of all, enjoyed from convenience of home.
Legend persists of Ford bossing sets and taking no backtalk from help. For a most part, this was so, but Will Rogers was nobody's shove-around, being famous in ways a Ford or anyone could barely dream about, and a totally instinctive performer who had less use for scripts than JF who famously ripped pages from them when behind schedule. Fortunately, the two got along. Rogers had too much going with wide-syndicated newspaper columns and dining with presidents to worry how a movie turned out. Besides, they all made profit whatever merit or lack of. Rogers was the best screen voice Ford had before John Wayne came along. They thought a lot alike and Jack trusted Will to put over dramatic situations ever where latter ignored printed words. Ford said Rogers' paraphrasing was better anyway, which must have flattered Fox oarsmen who sweated over dialogue, only to see it cast to winds.
Judge Priest takes place at the turn of the century, but it is about the Civil War. Arguments persist among townfolk as to details of battle fought forty years before. Men attend ice cream socials in dress Confederate uniforms. North-South concerns inform everyone's social standing. Veterans of the struggle were alive when Judge Priest made theatrical rounds in 1934. Humor might derive from war memories, but they could not be mocked. Recite of battlefield heroism becomes sacred ritual in a courtroom otherwise given to skylarking and spittoon aiming. Henry B. Walthall's valedictory for the Lost Cause bestirs memory of D.W. Griffith and The Birth Of A Nation, Ford's knowing tribute to a past master who taught most directors everything they knew. I wonder if DWG was invited to visit the set that day, because Walthall seems to be addressing him as much as characters in Judge Priest.
Ours was still a rural country in the mid-thirties. Movies could get back their cost and then some on domestic rentals alone. Small town admissions still meant something where majority of theatres operated with 500 or less seats. Fox could rely on these to take Will Rogers to break-even point every time, plus he had crossover to urban sites thanks to column work and books he penned. Rogers was remembered too from the Follies, so was no product confined to hicks. He could probably have gone on at least to WWII had not death intervened. Demand did an uptick after that event, Steamboat Round The Bend, released posthumously, getting best Rogers money so far, topping even State Fair. Reissues came after a decent interval, Fox having said initially they'd not exploit morbid interest. Judge Priest yielded another $116K from 1937 dates. Fox DVD did the unexpected by releasing several Rogers boxes ten years back, and there were more when the Ford-Fox set came later. Judge Priest remains most ubiquitous thanks to PD status.