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Monday, April 10, 2017

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 watched 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 even 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 relied 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.


Blogger Kevin K. said...

For me, Will Rogers is a "you had to be there" kind of entertainer. Recordings of his radio broadcasts don't hold up, and his movie persona has never held my interest for more than 5 minutes. WC Fields thought him a brilliant monologist in the Ziegfeld Follies, though.

Will Stephen Colbert's political monologues seem funny 80+ years from now? Unlikely. You had to be there.

2:38 PM  
Blogger lmshah said...

Actually, I once listened to Will Rogers surviving radio broadcasts in chronological order and was amazed how similar events going on in current news of the time were to current events now, same BS, new names. I've always found Rogers humor to be a very frank, incisive and biting one wrapped and hidden in a warm, folksy, rural tone, but is a surprisingly progressive voice for times then and certainly now. Though his tragic death elevated Rogers to an iconic reverence (while his actual words faded into the background) in the Public's Eye, I always figured if he had lived into the 1940's and 50's, he would have been hounded by HUAC and the commie-haters for what he had said. Think not?---well, that's what happened to his son, Will Rogers Jr., who lived a far more interesting and political life than his Dad that deserves a biography of his own someday.

Having seen nearly all of the Will Rogers Fox vehicles (anyone have a copy of SO THIS IS LONDON so I can say I've seen `em all?), I also have to say that, despite the reverence film historians give to the trio directed by John Ford (DR. BULL, JUSGE PRIEST, STEAMBOAT ROUND THE BEND), I've always found them to be some of Roger's weakest films, BULL and JUDGE are barely comedies, and all three are bathed in Fordian melancholia for sometimes seemingly pointless reasons. STEAMBOAT is the best of the three, but it suffers from a lack of post-production (it had barely finished shooting when Rogers took off on his fatal plane trip with Wiley Post)and was rushed ahead of several other finished unreleased Rogers films as it was felt by Fox to be a better tribute to him, but it has a slapdash, patched together feel that makes it seem like a much-earlier talkie than it is (in several scenes, they are obviously having problems with a malfunctioning camera and you can hear it whirring away in various takes that would have been obviously re-shot if Rogers had been around to re-shoot them), and Fox re-cut the original ending because they felt it was too sad to see Rogers waving farewell to his son and future daughter-in-law, as well as the audience, leaving a rather abrupt finale instead.

The best Rogers features are indeed directed by others the Ford, probably Roger's best all-around Fox feature is LIFE BEGINS AT 40 (1935) directed by the always underrated George Marshall, who handles the equally entertaining IN OLD KENTUCKY (1935), James Cruze deftly handles DAVID HARUM (1934), balancing the comedy, sentimentality, and melodrama much more effectively than Ford, and the seldomly-seen Rogers version of the old George Ade play THE COUNTY CHAIRMAN(1935 and directed by John G. Blystone)paints a very biting satire of big-time politics via small-time politics and Rogers is great in a performance where he is not-all-good. Then, of-course, there is Henry King's STATE FAIR(1933), still the best version of that play (even without the Rodgers and Hammerstein songs)with stand-out performances by Rogers, Louise Dresser, Janet Gaynor, Lew Ayres, et all.


3:55 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Rogers has to be up there with Theda Bara among stars who are famous but who have barely been actually seen. I saw The County Chairman at Cinevent, and liked it a lot because the script was sharp; and I think They Had to See Paris is pretty good for 1929.

But I bought one of the DVD sets recently on sale and honestly, I am stuck trying to get all the way through Too Busy To Work, a wan version of the It's a Gift-type cross-country comedy with obvious family and broken-car gags, and Rogers looking as eager to cash his check without being bothered to act as late 80s Burt Reynolds.

I'll keep trying I guess, I actually have a soft spot for the kind of rural-oriented domestic sitcoms with unpretty stars (give me Slim Summerville and Zasu Pitts any time!), but the national love for Rogers remains at least partly mysterious to me.

7:38 PM  
Blogger lmshah said...

Well, I think you're mixing up TOO BUSY TO WORK with MR. SKITCH to begin with, TOO BUSY TO WORK is basically a remake of Roger's silent Goldwyn feature JUBILO (1919) and Will's travelling on his own in that one. The family is in MR. SKITCH and that's very much a programmer-type vehicle for Rogers, who did make a few of those (Fox cranked out four or sometimes more Rogers films a year), it has it's moments, but is no classic.

Better Rogers programmer-type pictures include DOUBTING THOMAS (1935), which kindly takes a few swipes at Hollywood, AMBASSADOR BILL(1931), which I'm surprised Fox didn't sue Universal over for basically copying in MY PAL THE KING(1933)with Tom Mix, BUSINESS AND PLEASURE (1932) which also has the pleasure of Boris Karloff as an Arab Sheik, and YOUNG AS YOU FEEL (1931) which continues Rogers flirtation with Fifi D'Orsay in a decidedly pre-code manner.

The Nation that loved Will Rogers was a much different Nation than the one we have today,frequently for the better, and the so-called intellectual film geeks like to look down their nose at anything that seems or sounds "rural" in a pathetic failed
attempt at seeming sophisticated, when the irony is that they are unable to see just how sophisticated Will Rogers was. Then the politically correct are scared by Stepin Fetchit and Bill "Bonjangles" Robinson. Maybe only Garrison Keillor in modern times was able to couch same said sophistication and humor into a kinder, gentler, small-town sort of mode, and a lot of the tragically hip couldn't keep up
with him either.


8:25 PM  
Blogger Barry Rivadue said...

I recall seeing A CONNECTICUT YANKEE (1934) at a cine event ages ago, and thought it pretty good.

8:34 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Correct, it is Mr. Skitch. Clearly the impression any of it is making on me is not great...

Anyway, I don't know from tragically geeks, but the interesting point is that for all that he's still famous (and I remember what a hit James Whitmore was playing him in the 70s), there really is not a single famous Will Rogers movie, a single role he's remembered for if you know nothing else. (But you could probably say the same for Shirley Temple, say.) I think people assume the Ford ones must be the best ones, because they're by Ford, but I'm curious to get through this set and see if I think anything is a standout-- Ambassador Bill is in the set I bought, and too bad they left out County Chairman, which was stronger than this, at least.

10:35 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

The big thing with Rogers, as several have noted here already, was his commentary on current events. His tagline was "I only know what I read in the papers", and he was in fact an omnivorous consumer of newspapers every day. I suspect much of the appeal of his films was putting a face (and, with talkies, a voice) to the widely syndicated words.

His silent shorts are amusing but mostly generic as Rogers gamely does whatever's asked of him. Robert Youngson used clips of Rogers parodying silent stars; a big part of the joke is that he looked as much like a dashing hero as Ben Turpin did, and knew it. I vaguely recall "Silents Please" or some such running "The Headless Horseman", with Rogers looking exactly right as the absurd schoolmaster Ichabod Crane.

"Connecticut Yankee" is a real curio, and maddeningly not available. It's possibly the most filmed of all Twain's books, yet Twain's satiric venom is invariably left out. Here, the time travel is emphatically framed as a dream sequence. Rogers plays Hank Morgan almost like Bing Crosby's version, but more bashful and rural. Any satiric jibes are infinitely gentler than the book (or even some of Rogers's columns). Once he gets his modern factory going, we see Hank in his office dictating to a buxom medieval stenographer. As she sashays out Rogers just smiles at the camera without comment. A few moments later he has a good laugh as King Arthur eyes a bathtub and asks what it's for.

It's all harmless fun up to the climax. Then, when Hank is captured by villains, knights ride to his rescue in a massive fleet of black sedans, armed with tommy guns to mow down the enemy. It's Ivanhoe by way of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, with an autogyro bombing the castle for good measure. Was this intended (and taken) as pure comic absurdity, or were they in fact trying to capture a bit of the horror Twain offered in the book's final battle?

11:33 PM  
Blogger Tommie Hicks said...

I think Rogers' silent comedy shorts are among the best Roach silent product. Rogers inserted a wryness and dryness to the Roach comedy template that lasted at Roach studios long after Rogers' departure.

10:39 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Will Rogers: "I am not a member of an organized political party...I am a Democrat."

10:37 AM  
Blogger Lionel Braithwaite said...

@Kevin K.: With all due respect, you have no idea if Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart's stuff will hold up years from now, at all. Sometimes, commentary is timeless and doesn't date.

As for Stepin Fetchit, lmshah, ask anybody black (like myself) today what they think of him, and you'll get your answer.

3:51 AM  

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