Will Rogers Collection, Vol. 1

 

In Old Kentucky       Steamboat Round the Bend


Doubting Thomas         Life Begins at Forty

 

It’s a shame that my generation’s appreciation for Will Rogers has been lost amidst the Tom Cruises, the Brad Pitts, and the Reese Witherspoons. To be honest, fewer and fewer stars of the 1930s are remembered as fondly as they should be and have regretfully become little more to present society than names in the pages of history. For a film geek such as me, it can be frustrating to realize that recognition isn’t going where recognition is most-deserved. Yet, at the same time, the thought of exposing someone new to the work of an actor such as Will Rogers is an exciting and promising prospect.

Will Rogers was many things to many people: a gifted humorist, newspaper columnist, radio personality, and most notably (from his perspective), a cowboy at heart. It took some time for Rogers to discover his knack for comedy, but once he did, his humble personality and grounded philosophies won him a legion of fans. Fox (before merging with Twentieth Century) promptly signed Rogers to one of the most illustrious contracts of his time--one offering the actor $15,000 a week. Neither money nor fame changed the actor’s lifestyle (he would still travel consistently while working his film schedule around his trips) or values.

While Rogers’ certainly conveyed enough wit to sustain an audience for hours, it was his acting technique that separated him from other comedians of his time. Rogers, like a handful of other early comedic actors, would often improvise and use the script only as a guideline for the general direction of the film. Although his co-stars would occasionally struggle with the changes and inadvertently miss their cues, improvisation elevated many actors’ performances, particularly in comedies, largely because of the freedom to experiment with already humorous dialogue and clever situations (just compare the number of laughs Robin Williams generates during his live shows as opposed to his more controlled performances in film). It was also commonly believed that improvisation would enhance the realism of film and give the impression of “natural” dialogue. Thus, Rogers preferred to keep rehearsing to a minimum.

Rogers’ line deliveries were also an important part of his talent. He often emphasized specific mannerisms in order to specific personality traits. His characters rarely had anything substantial to say, but Rogers never failed to embody them with Southern charm and folksy ideals. While it’s apparent why Rogers never won any awards for his acting, there is satisfaction in knowing that he created a timeless quality in his characters, which is why he has continued to appeal to audiences for more than seventy years.

Although Fox has packed their Volume 1 Collection of Will Rogers films with his more modest body of work, Fox deserves credit for taking the initiative to finally release several of the iconic actor’s films on DVD. This collection comes with a high recommendation for fans of classic cinema.

 - Kurtis J. Beard


 

directed by George Marshall
USA 1935

 

As entertaining as it is to see the legendary Bill "Bojangles" Robinson teaching Will Rogers how to dance in 1935’s “In Old Kentucky,” the film suffers from carelessly racist overtones and an often overly formulaic plotline. In retrospect, it’s hardly surprising that director George Marshall was at the helm of such a project.

Marshall had recently finished directing Will Rogers in “Life Begins at 40” (1940), and his new project excited the celebrated actor since it offered Rogers a chance to play a character that shared his native background (Rogers was born in Oklahoma). Marshall worked with a script (derived from Charles T. Dazey’s play) that was awfully similar to his previous film, and in light of the success of “Life Begins at 40,” it’s easy to see why. Rogers once again stars as man rebelling against the pressures of the rich and powerful, causing them as many problems as he can muster. Somehow, Rogers’ still has time to rouse young love just as he did in “Life Begins at 40.” However, Dazey’s play takes advantage of the Kentucky setting by employing a traditional Oklahoman theme of a deep-rooted, long-lived feud between two families. Of course, Will Roger’s character, Steve Tapley, finds himself in the middle of the feud, having been fired by his boss, Pole Shattuck (Charles Richman), for socializing with the enemy, The Martingales. Old Man Martingale (Charles Sellon) offers Tapley an opportunity to work on his ranch and attempt to settle the score with his former boss by defeating him in a horse race.

The racial issues come into play towards the end of the film when Tapley colors his skin black and attempts to pass himself off as the house servant, Wash Jackson (Bill Robinson). The sight of Rogers’ attempting to replicate the enthused dancing of Robinson is quite funny, yet the racial stereotypes recall numerous politically incorrect films, particularly D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” (1915). It’s unfair to dismiss “In Old Kentucky” entirely on the basis of its racism, but the aforementioned scenes are certain to upset a large portion of today’s audiences.

 

Kurtis J. Beard

Posters

Theatrical Release: November 28th, 1935

Reviews    More Reviews  DVD Reviews

DVD Review: 20th Century Fox - Region 1 - NTSC

Big thanks to Kurtis J. Beard for the Review!

DVD Box Cover

CLICK to order from:

Distribution

20th Century Fox

Region 1 - NTSC

Runtime 1:25:53
Video

1.33:1 Original Aspect Ratio
Average Bitrate: 6.32 mb/s
NTSC 720x480 29.97 f/s

NOTE: The Vertical axis represents the bits transferred per second. The Horizontal is the time in minutes.

Bitrate

Audio English (Dolby Digital 2.0), English (Dolby Digital 1.0)
Subtitles English, Spanish
Features Release Information:
Studio: 20th Century Fox

Aspect Ratio:
Fullscreen - 1.33:1

Edition Details:
• Commentary by Film Historian Anthony Slide
• Restoration Comparison (4:01)
• Movietone News: Will Rogers Off with Wiley Post to Arctic Circle (0:46)
• Movietone News: Film Executives Visit Memorial to Will Rogers (1:01)

DVD Release Date: July 25, 2005
Keep Case

Chapters 24

 

 

Comments Video:

“In Old Kentucky” is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The image is relatively clean and often quite crisp--a prime testament to Fox’s restoration process. Scratches and surface flecks can be seen occasionally, but contrast levels are appropriate.

Audio:

The audio is presented in a Dolby Digital 2.0 track, which suits the southern sounds of Oklahoma quite well. Unfortunately, there’s considerable distortion when the audio reaches higher frequencies. Still, for a film from the 1930s, the track is certainly passable. A Dolby Digital 1.0 track is also included.

Extras:

Fox has provided a restoration comparison between the source print and the transfer provided on the DVD. A total of 50 hours were spent on the restoration of “In Old Kentucky.”

Anthony Slide’s third audio commentary track in the Will Rogers set is particularly disappointing. Sure, Slide enlightens us with his keen observations, but he also dismisses the film quite hastily and conveys an obvious distaste for the film. At the very least, a negative commentary is a change of pace.

Lastly, two movietone reels are included. The first has film executives visiting a hospital (funded by Will Rogers) that offers assistance to entertainers. The second outlines the cause of Rogers’ tragic and unexpected death.

 

 - Kurtis J. Beard

 

 






DVD Menus


 

 


Screen Captures


Subtitle sample

 

 

 


 

 

 


 

 

 


 

 

 


 

 

 


 

 

 


(aka "Steamboat Bill" )

 

directed by John Ford
USA 1935

 

John Ford is best remembered as the director who brought us “The Informer” (1935), “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940), “The Searchers” (1956), and “The Man who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962). Will Rogers is warmly remembered as the kind-hearted comedic actor who became America’s favorite star during the early 1930s. You’d think the two would be a very unlikely pairing in Hollywood, but their friendship and mutual respect culminated in three spirited motion pictures--“Doctor Bull” (1933), “Judge Priest” (1934), and “Steamboat ‘Round the Bend” (1935). Although the least of the three is included in the set, the film still has its share of humor and Rogers’ genial screen persona.

Steamboat ‘Round the Bend” was a personal project for Ford who saw the novel (Ford purchased the adaptation rights from writer Ben Lucien Burman) as a potential opportunity to work with his good friend Will Rogers. The pictures he directed at Fox were usually lighter affairs with a sustained focus on entertainment rather than art. Ford is generally not remembered for such films because his precise framing and noble themes brought him far more recognition and acclaim. Nevertheless, Ford still had the sense to know how to present a good comedy.

In the film, Will Rogers plays Dr. John Pearly, a traveling salesman who has finally saved enough money to begin his lifelong dream--to be a steamboat pilot. Pearly and his nephew, Duke (John McGuire), purchase a steamboat that is clearly in need of repair, but the two are hardly fazed by a little elbow grease. Tragedy strikes when Duke murders a man in defense of his girlfriend, Fleety Belle (Anne Shirley). Pearly hardly takes a liking to the girl, particularly because she’s caused his nephew potential trouble with the law. Pearly advises Duke to plead self-defense after reasoning that no judge in his right mind would ever conclude that the man’s unfortunate death was intentional. Unfortunately, the judge sentences Duke to the death penalty by means of hanging, and Pearly must find a way to save his nephew’s life. Pearly and Fleety Belle embark on a quest up the Mississippi in order to find a potential witness who ends up being a half-crazed religious man. Along the way, they just happen to fall into a steamboat race, which concludes in a thrilling and often hilarious finale.

Steamboat ‘Round the Bend” is clearly a minor effort in John Ford’s oeuvre. The supporting performances are mostly uninspired, with the notable exception of Anne Shirley, Francis Ford (John Ford’s older brother, who plays a genuinely hilarious drunk), and the always-entertaining Will Rogers. This is, after all, a Will Rogers film and that’s precisely who audiences were paying to see.

 

Kurtis J. Beard

Poster

Theatrical Release: September 6, 1935

Reviews    More Reviews  DVD Reviews

DVD Review: 20th Century Fox - Region 1 - NTSC

Big thanks to Kurtis J. Beard for the Review!

DVD Box Cover

CLICK to order from:

Distribution

20th Century Fox

Region 1 - NTSC

Runtime 1:21:12
Video

1.33:1 Original Aspect Ratio
Average Bitrate: 6.51 mb/s
NTSC 720x480 29.97 f/s

NOTE: The Vertical axis represents the bits transferred per second. The Horizontal is the time in minutes.

Bitrate

Audio English (Dolby Digital 2.0), English (Dolby Digital 1.0)
Subtitles English, Spanish
Features Release Information:
Studio: 20th Century Fox

Aspect Ratio:
Fullscreen - 1.33:1

Edition Details:
• Commentary by Author Scott Eyman
• Restoration Comparison (4:01)
• Theatrical Trailer for Steamboat 'Round The Bend (1:25)

DVD Release Date: July 25, 2006
Keep Case

Chapters 20

 

 

Comments Video:

Available in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1, “Steamboat ‘Round the Bend” suffers from minor damage; however, given the age of the film print, occasional flecks and blemishes are to be expected. Fox has clearly done their best to remove all noticeable scratches, which has resulted in a much cleaner transfer. Exterior shots show the worst signs of aging and occasionally suffer from awfully mis-balanced contrast levels, particularly during night-time sequences.

Audio:

Again, given the age of this film, audio is certainly weaker than one would hope. Over the entirety of the Dolby Digital 2.0 track, there is very little range, and the audio levels certainly peak much higher than they should, particularly when the locals are hooting and hollering. A Dolby Digital 1.0 track is also included.

Extras:

Fox has provided a restoration comparison between the source print and the transfer provided on the DVD. Obviously, there are considerable differences, and clearly Fox has repaired a good portion of the damage and restored the contrast to appropriate levels. A short clip from each film included in the Will Rogers Collection is compared. Fox also includes the amount of time that was spent on repairing each print. A total of 65 hours were spent on the restoration of “Steamboat ‘Round the Bend.”

A commentary by John-Ford-biographer Scott Eyman is also provided. Eyman offers a wealth of knowledge on both Ford and Rogers while casually offering occasional anecdotes that provide fascinating insights into the lives, relationships, and filmmaking/acting techniques of both men. Eyman speaks fluidly and briskly with very few silent breaks. It’s a pleasure to listen to him speak.

A worn trailer is also provided on the DVD, and it clearly indicates, on numerous occasions, that the film is a Will Rogers vehicle.

 

 - Kurtis J. Beard

 

 



DVD Menus
 


 

 


Screen Captures


Subtitle sample

 

 

 


 

 

 


 

 

 


 

 

 


 

 

 


 

 

 


 

 

directed by David Butler
USA 1935

 

It’s hardly surprising that Will Rogers was unable to rise above the many clichés that exist in the awfully familiar plot of “Doubting Thomas” (1935). It’s a shame because the film obviously had potential with the strong performances from its leads, particularly with Billie Burke (the “Good Witch” from “The Wizard of Oz,” 1939) playing Rogers’ wife. Nevertheless, we’re still treated to one fine sequence that has plenty of laughs--the showing of a local play gone awry. I just hope you’ll be able to turn off your brain for the remainder of the film.

Doubting Thomas” concerns Thomas Brown (Will Rogers), who’s a firm believer in traditional attitudes--especially when it comes to the woman’s role in a marriage. Thomas expects his wife to stay home, clean the house, and cook the meals. His wife, Paula (Billie Burke), has other plans when she’s given a leading role in a local play. Thomas pleads with her to reconsider but eventually gives up after recognizing her persistence in the matter. When the play is finally exhibited after some preparation, all goes wrong--actors miss their cues, sound effects are ill-timed, and props pose numerous problems. In light of the situation, the audience interprets the play as a comedy, but Thomas feels the show is a failure. After the positive reception, he’s forced to develop a new plan of action as his wife becomes more enthralled by the thought of acting full-time. He devises an arrangement that will see a director cast him over his wife after a series of screen tests. The threat of Thomas leaving to Hollywood saddens Paula greatly and eventually a compromise is achieved--no more acting!

The weaknesses in David Butler’s direction are reasons to fault this film’s inability to put a new spin on a dated story. Will Rogers’ charm can only be stretched so far without any visual flair or gripping themes. “Doubting Thomas” is good for a few laughs on a rainy day or a Sunday afternoon, but it is still best-appreciated by die-hard Will Rogers fans.

 

Kurtis J. Beard

Theatrical Release: July 10, 1935

Reviews    More Reviews  DVD Reviews

DVD Review: 20th Century Fox - Region 1 - NTSC

Big thanks to Kurtis Beard for the Review!

DVD Box Cover

CLICK to order from:

Distribution

20th Century Fox

Region 1 - NTSC

Runtime 1:14:27
Video

1.33:1 Original Aspect Ratio
Average Bitrate: 6.9 mb/s
NTSC 720x480 29.97 f/s

NOTE: The Vertical axis represents the bits transferred per second. The Horizontal is the time in minutes.

Bitrate

Audio English (Dolby Digital 2.0), English (Dolby Digital 1.0)
Subtitles English, Spanish
Features Release Information:
Studio: 20th Century Fox

Aspect Ratio:
Fullscreen - 1.33:1

Edition Details:
• Commentary by Film Historian Anthony Slide
• A&E Biography Will Rogers: An American Original (1:30:47)
• Restoration Comparison (4:01)
• Movietone News: Stage Dedicated to Will Rogers in Hollywood (0:46)
• Movietone News: Will Rogers Memorial Fund (6:07)

DVD Release Date: July 25, 2005
Keep Case

Chapters 16

 

 

Comments Video:

Presented in the film’s original aspect ratio of 1.33:1, the transfer has significant surface damage and considerable grain. Scratches are most common along the right side and of particular note during the opening titles. Nevertheless, the image is decent for its age; certain areas may not be as crisp as one would hope, but the transfer is marginally passable. Again, exterior night-time shots suffer from the most damage and contrast issues.

Audio:

The Dolby Digital 2.0 track is suitable for this dialogue-driven film. There are intermittent moments of distortion, but taking into consideration the film’s lack of action, the track rarely has to exert a wide range of frequencies. A Dolby Digital 1.0 track is also included.

Extras:

Fox has provided a restoration comparison between the source print and the transfer provided on the DVD. A total of 110 hours were spent on the restoration of “Doubting Thomas.”

Anthony Slide offers his thoughts and opinions on the work of Will Rogers in a rather bland audio commentary track. Slide reiterates many of the same points he made in other commentaries from the Will Rogers Collection and again, with this track, there are several long pauses. Nevertheless, Slide clearly respects the film and offers fascinating information about the impact that Rogers’ death had on the general public. Apparently, Rogers was a universally-respected man.

Also included is A&E’s excellent biography of Will Rogers. A wealth of insights is provided on everything from his birth and upbringing to his untimely death. Most-interesting is the footage of Rogers’ expansive silent work and archival footage of the comedian cracking jokes. Retrospective interviews provide additional anecdotes that give viewers a “complete picture” of the iconic actor, and we also get a chance to see a few familiar faces.

Two movietone reels are also included. The first clip has Fox’s Shirley Temple presenting a plaque for a soundstage dedicated to Will Rogers. The second is a promotional piece encouraging support for Will Rogers’ charity.

 

 - Kurtis J. Beard

 

 



DVD Menus
 


 

 


Screen Captures


Subtitle sample

 

 

 


 

 

 


 

 

 


 

 

 


 

 

 


 

 

 


(aka "Life Begins at Forty" )

 

directed by George Marshall
USA 1935

 

Life Begins at 40” (1935) is perhaps one of my favorite Will Rogers films because it’s immediately evident that Rogers takes pride in developing a character that shares his ideals and motivations as well as one of his occupations. He stars as Kennesaw Clark, a newspaper editor with a penchant for living life in the moment and a gift for spurting clever political quips (sound familiar?). Clark’s positive outlook on life, regardless of one’s age, is a fascinating subject to see in the 1930s, particularly when the practice of age discrimination was extremely common in Hollywood (as it still is today in some respects). The script for “Life Begins at 40” is also surprisingly insightful and perceptive given the time of its release. Clark remarks on several occasions that society’s reliance on technology is absurd and notes that someday everything could just as easily be reduced to the push of a button. Since the script tackles such observant and alternately hilarious themes, I would hardly be surprised if Kennesaw Clark was one of Rogers’ favorite characters.

Life Begins at 40” is also one of Rogers’ least offensive films--one that avoids racism entirely by replacing Stepin Fetchit with Sterling Calloway as Rogers’ right hand man. Stepin Fetchit clearly weakened films (by no fault of his own) such as “Judge Priest” (1934) and “Steamboat ‘Round the Bend” (1935) as he was virtually reduced to a caricature who conveyed overtly racist overtones. Sterling Calloway is an able replacement and one who is infinitely more pleasant and fun to watch. Although Rogers has his share of sexist remarks, the time period of this film must be taken into consideration (of course, time is never an excuse for prejudiced attitudes).

The film concerns a young man (Richard Cromwell) who’s been wrongfully convicted of theft and Clark’s attempt to restore the boy’s reputation in a small town. Along the way, he must contend with the town’s bank manager and key financier for his newspaper, Col. Joseph Abercrombie (George Barbier). However, Clark still finds the time to act as a matchmaker for his attractive neighbor and the young man he’s defending.

Life Begins at 40” may pair Will Rogers with yet another relatively unexceptional female lead (Rochelle Hudson), but the gifted Jane Darwell (“The Grapes of Wrath,” 1940) is a strong female foil for Rogers. Slim Summerville, whose physical comedy is well suited for this film, provides another key supporting performance. Having two talented comedians complement each other so effectively is a pleasure to watch. The film is ably, albeit blandly, directed by George Marshall. Marshall is clearly a step down from John Ford, but at least he knows how to handle a Will Rogers film.

 

Kurtis J. Beard

Theatrical Release: March 22, 1935

Reviews    More Reviews  DVD Reviews

DVD Review: 20th Century Fox - Region 1 - NTSC

Big thanks to Kurtis J. Beard for the Review!

DVD Box Cover

CLICK to order from:

Distribution

20th Century Fox

Region 1 - NTSC

Runtime 1:19:50
Video

1.33:1 Original Aspect Ratio
Average Bitrate: 6.68 mb/s
NTSC 720x480 29.97 f/s

NOTE: The Vertical axis represents the bits transferred per second. The Horizontal is the time in minutes.

Bitrate

Audio English (Dolby Digital 2.0), English (Dobly Digital 1.0)
Subtitles English, Spanish
Features Release Information:
Studio: 20th Century Fox

Aspect Ratio:
Fullscreen - 1.33:1

Edition Details:
• Commentary by Film Historian Anthony Slide
• Restoration Comparison (4:01)

DVD Release Date: July 25, 2006
Keep Case

Chapters 20

 

 

Comments Video:

The video is presented in the film’s original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. There are instances of surface scratches, flecks, and considerable grain. Long shots and medium shots appear somewhat soft compared to the crisp close-ups. There also appears to be several frames missing at various points in the film, which produces a skipping effect (a problem that is present throughout Fox’s Will Rogers Collection). However, mid-day exterior shots are well-lit and hold up much better than footage in some of the other Will Rogers films.

Audio:

Audio levels are seriously tested in this Dolby Digital 2.0 track, particularly during a ‘pig calling’ scene where there is evidence of some serious distortion. During such distortion, the audio is only unpleasant at excessive volumes. The audio also suffers from a low-pitched humming that can be found in many older films. A Dolby Digital 1.0 track is also included.

Extras:

Fox has provided a restoration comparison between the source print and the transfer provided on the DVD. A total of 90 hours were spent on the restoration of “Life Begins at 40.”

Film historian Anthony Slide provides an audio commentary track that offers a variety of background information on Will Rogers as well as several personal anecdotes about the actor. I would have preferred more background on the film to Slide’s sporadic choice of gossip, but the commentary is still informative regardless of a number of silent gaps. After twenty minutes, it’s clear Slide would have benefited from playing off of another expert or possibly an interviewer.
 

 - Kurtis J. Beard

 

 



DVD Menus
 


 

 


Screen Captures


Subtitle sample

 

 

 


 

 

 


 

 

 


 

 

 


 

 

 


 

 

 


 

DVD Box Cover

CLICK to order from:

Distribution

20th Century Fox

Region 1 - NTSC




 

Hit Counter

 

DONATIONS Keep DVDBeaver alive:

Mail cheques, money orders, cash to:    or CLICK PayPal logo to donate!

Gary Tooze

Mississauga, Ontario,

   CANADA

Thank You!