InsidePulse DVD Review – Will Rogers Collection, Volume 1

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Life Begins At Forty
George Marshall

Will Rogers….Kenesaw H. Clark
Richard Cromwell….Lee Austin
George Barbier….Col. Joseph Abercrombie
Sterling Holloway….Chris
Jane Darwell….Ida Harris
Thomas Beck….Joe Abercrombie

20th Century Fox presents Life Begins At Forty. Screenplay by Lamar Trotti. Running time: 85 minutes. Unrated. Theatrical release: 1935. DVD released: July 25, 2006.

Doubting Thomas
David Bulter

Will Rogers….Thomas Brown
Billie Burke….Paula Brown
Alison Skipworth….Mrs. Pampinelli
Sterling Holloway….Mr. Spindler
Andrew Tombes….Hossefrosse
Gail Patrick….Florence McCrickett

20th Century Fox presents Doubting Thomas. Screenplay by William M. Conselman and Bartlett Cormack. Running time: 74 minutes. Unrated. Theatrical release: 1935. DVD released: July 25, 2006.

Steamboat Round the Bend
John Ford

Will Rogers….Doctor John Pearly
Anne Shirley….Fleety Belle
Irvin S. Cobb….Captain Eli
Eugene Pallette….Sheriff Rufe Jeffers
John McGuie….Duke
Stepin Fetchit….Jonah

20th Century Fox presents Steamboat Round the Bend. Screenplay by Dudley Nichols and Lamar Trotti. Running time: 80 minutes. Unrated. Theatrical release: 1935. DVD released: July 25, 2006.

In Old Kentucky
George Marshall

Will Rogers….Steve Tapley
Dorothy Wilson….Nancy Martingale
Russell Hardie….Dr. Lee Andrews
Charles Sellon….Ezra Martingale
John Ince….Sheriff
Bill Robinson….Wash Jackson

20th Century Fox presents In Old Kentucky. Screenplay by Sam Hellman, Henry Johnson and Gladys Lehman. Running time: 86 minutes. Unrated. Theatrical release: 1935. DVD released: July 25, 2006.

The Collection

Over the years most moviegoers associate Will Rogers’ name to the moment when they stop showing the trailers, turn up the lights and have the ushers pass around popcorn buckets to collect for his Institute. But Rogers’ cinematic legacy was more than a interruption for a charity. For a while in the early 1930s, Rogers was the highest paid actor in Hollywood. While many actors had their careers ended with the introduction of sound, Rogers became a superstar with his ability to dispense homespun wit and insight while performing rope tricks. He’s still quoted by politicians trying to touch base with heartland voters. But while his iconic status remains, his film career has faded a bit. Thankfully this boxset gives us a good insight to his time as a Tinseltown superstar.

This collection is kind of misnamed, we’re actually working our way back through the cinematic career of Rogers. These are the last four films he made before dying in a plane crash. It’s easy to see how America would embrace his wise and passionate father character.
Life Begins at Forty is an oddly titled film. I was imagining a light comedy. Instead it’s about a power struggle between a newspaper publisher (Rogers) and Col. Joseph Abercrombie, the town’s banker and political boss. The Colonel gets upset when Rogers hires an ex-convict that was busted for embezzling from the bank. The feud gets heated enough that the Colonel takes control of the newspaper. Rogers refuses to backdown and starts an indie paper. Plus Rogers does a bit of sleuthing to find out the truth of the embezzling charges against his employee. There’s a bit of violence and a mob scene. But there’s also a bit of levity including a hog calling contest that goes out of control. The film is a little more complicated than the normal Ma and Pa Kettle feature.
Doubting Thomas has Rogers as a husband dealing with his wife wanting to get into showbiz. His wife, Billie Burke, has the lead in a small town play and the female director think she’s got star potential. Rogers doesn’t like being second to the stage in his wife’s heart. He plots against her aspirations. The play turns into a fiasco between actors fighting against their lines and a collapsing set. And to make matters worse for the wife, the famous Hollywood director scouts only one piece of sure fire talent in the town: Rogers.
You probably know Billie best as Glinda, the Good Witch of the North from The Wizard of Oz. Another childhood movie pal arrives in Sterling Holloway who would go on to voice Winnie the Pooh for Disney. Rogers seems most at ease in the film when he’s sits in the audience and unleashes wisecracks at the production. His screen test as a crooner is a hoot although not as funny as seeing “Glinda” declare, “I’m not one of the sausages in your factory.”
Steamboat ‘Round the Bend was the last film Rogers made. The film starts with him as a medicine man moving his health tonic on the Mississippi River. But gets out of the fake pharmaceutical business and uses his medical profits to fix up a steamboat. Trouble begins when his pilot gets mixed up with a swamp woman and there’s a self-defense murder. The film ends up with Rogers having to compete in a steamboat race in order to get down the river to the governor to stop the execution of his pilot. The notorious comic Stepin Fetchit is part of Rogers’ crew. Unlike his normal sloth screen persona, Fetchit actually gets work done in this role.
While In Old Kentucky was Rogers’ penultimate production, it was his final film released to theaters. Rogers plays a race horse trainer who quits his employers’ farm in order to train a single horse for the big race. A lot of the humor in this film is rather second rate including an old man who keeps running around with a shotgun trying to end a feud with the neighboring farm.
There’s one major reason why you should see In Old Kentucky: Bill Robinson. You might know him best as Bojangles. While Robinson is given the thankless role of the house servant, he turns his everyday chores into an exciting dance number. The man sets a table with the happiest of feet. You’ll want to want to replay his domestic choreography. There’s a freakish jail break scene where Rogers escapes by impersonating Robinson. The blackface moment might upset some viewers, but it’s not done in spite and Rogers does a great job mimicking Robinson’s dance steps. This film ends with a hilarious race track sequence which involves a rainmaker trying his hardest to cloud burst. It ends better than it begins.
While none of these four films could be called comedy classics, it’s easy to see why Rogers was a cinematic star during this era. His humor wasn’t based on annoying everyone in the film. He didn’t beat his co-stars. He charmed the audience with wit and down home nature. If you were ever curious about the man whose image delayed the feature film, this collection allows you to understand what he meant to Americans in the ’30s.

The DVD:

The Video:

The films are presented in black and white in Academy 1.33:1 format. The transfer aren’t pristine, but nothing that would distract you from taking in the entertainment.

The Audio:

This films are presented in English Mono and Stereo with English and Spanish subtitles. Author Scott Eyman gives a commentary track on Steamboat ‘Round the Bend. Film historian Anthony Slide handles the verbal chores on the other three titles. Both guys repeat a lot of stuff that you’ll see in the documentary about Rogers.

Special Features:

A&E Biography Will Rogers: An American Original (1:30:47) – The best way to approach this boxset is to start here to get a clue as to the scope of Rogers’ career and his impact on America. It’s amazing to think that a part Cherokee rodeo cowboy could rope the heart of this country. After watching the special, it was easier for me to appreciate Rogers’ screen persona.

Movietone News: Will Rogers Off with Wiley Post to Arctic Circle (0:46) – A newsreel clip shows Will and his pilot leaving for Alaska on their ill-fated flight.

Movietone News: Will Rogers Memorial Fund (6:07) – A promo short to help collect for Rogers’ charity.

Movietone News: Film Executives Visit Memorial to Will Rogers (1:01) – A trip to the hospital founded by Will Rogers’ foundation to help entertainers.

Movietone News: Stage Dedicated to Will Rogers in Hollywood (0:46) – Shirley Temple unveils a plaque for a soundstage named after Will Rogers.

Restoration Comparison (4:01) The folks at Fox give a demonstration of how even though these prints look rough, they were in worst shape when they started the process.

Theatrical Trailer for Steamboat Round The Bend (1:25) – They use the ship’s wheel to wipe the frame.

InsidePulse’s Will Rogers Collection, Volume 1 (1935)
(OUT OF 10)






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