Will Rogers, THE Top Movie Star in America for the 1920s and '30's

Will Rogers Movie Ad 1920

Ad for a Will Rogers's silent film released in 1920, Cupid the Cowpuncher, directed by Clarence Badger.
Ad for a Will Rogers's silent film released in 1920, Cupid the Cowpuncher, directed by Clarence Badger. | Source

Will Rogers Excelled Across Entertainment Media

Riding and Roping Tricks

Will Rogers was a part-Cherokee cowboy who, in his early twenties, used his roping and riding skills to entertain audiences. He had always been passionate about riding and lasso skills, and his natural talent combined with hard work to hone his cowboy tricks landed Will roles in the open land and on stage. In 1902 and 1903, Will traveled with "Texas Jack's Wild West Show" across South Africa playing "The Cherokee Kid." He also toured Australia and New Zealand with the Wirth Brothers Circus. Returning to the United States in 1904, Will made appearances at the World's Fairs in St. Louis and New York City. He was popular and fun.

Humorist

Soon, Will added another dimension to his act: sharing plain folk wit and wisdom in an easy-to-take, common man delivery. Rogers advanced to performing on stage, touring vaudeville circuits in America, Canada and Europe. From 1905-1917, he shared humorous, yet intelligent, observations about human nature, the government, and life, chewing gum all the while. He shared his perspectives both on a stage and as an after-dinner speaker. He even entered the crème de la crème, performing with the Ziegfield Follies.

Author

Besides these, Will successfully wrote humor columns, articles and books. He had a weekly syndicated column with the New York Times newspaper from 1922 through 1935. Furthermore, in 1926 Rogers began a syndicated, daily column. The Saturday Evening Post weekly magazine hired Will to make a European tour, sending in articles about his impressions.

Radio Star

This was not all. From 1930 to 1935 Rogers made weekly live radio broadcasts sponsored by Gulf Oil Company. Radio was an exciting new medium, and Rogers became a star there. His show ranked among the top radio programs in the US. Since Rogers comfortably chatted about one subject and another, never at a loss for words, he occasionally lost track of the half-hour time limit for his broadcasts. This resulted in his often being cut off from broadcasting in mid-sentence. Never one to taking himself too seriously, Will ingeniously corrected this problem by using a wind-up alarm clock. Its on-the-air buzzing warned him to wrap up his comments. By 1935, his show was being announced as "Will Rogers and his famous Alarm Clock."

Movie Actor

Moreover, Will Rogers started acting in silent films in 1918. As one can see from the movie posters included in this article, he quickly became a star. In 1929, when "talkies" (movies with sound) evolved, Will was right there continuing in starring roles.

Silent Movies

Some historians feel that Will Roger's entry into movie acting arose from a concern about supporting his young family and worries that his success on vaudeville might peter out. Around that time he was offered a role in a Samuel Goldwyn movie, so he gave it a try, playing a slapstick comedian being chased by actors in automobiles while he trick-rode his horse. This first film, "Laughing Bill Hyde" (1918) was filmed in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Since many early films were made near New York city; Rogers could work on the film, yet still perform in the Ziegfield Follies in the evening.

Goldwyn then offered Will a contract and the Rogers family moved to California in 1919, concurrent with the Goldwyn company's move to the West Coast. Before his contract with them ended in 1921, he appeared in 13 moving pictures including box-office success "Jubilo" (1919), "Honest Hutch" (1920), the comedy "Doubling for Romeo" (1921), "The Ropin' Fool" (1921) and "The Headless Horseman" (1922). Will was extremely fortunate that his own common man, folksy personality came through to the audience in his pantomime acting. He was able to display his personal style and wit by the creative control he exercised writing many of the films "title cards." (Title cards are still frames of text between scenes providing either dialogue or narration for the story.)

In Rogers' films, he was frequently cast as a simple cowboy, country bumpkin, or workingman trying to get along in the all-too-complicated modern world. Audiences came to love his characters and the way they coped with ordinary life.

Along the way, in 1920 Rogers decided to try producing his own two-reel films. Characteristically, his first one poked gentle fun at the Hollywood movie industry. However, this venture was unsuccessful and he abandoned producing after one year, unfortunately deeply in debt.

Rogers signed with movie producer Hal Roach in 1923, and spent the next two years starring in twelve successful films. These included Hollywood spoofs "Uncensored Movies" (1923) and "Big Moments From Little Pictures" (1924). Will ended the contract in 1924.

Posters for Will Rogers's Silent Movies 1919 - 1921

Poster for 1919 film with Will Rogers: Almost a Husband. pages 1534 and 1535 of the August 23, 1919 Motion Picture News.
Poster for 1919 film with Will Rogers: Almost a Husband. pages 1534 and 1535 of the August 23, 1919 Motion Picture News. | Source
1920 ad for film starring Will Rogers: Jes' Call Me Jim. Appeared on page 4424 of the May 29, 1920 Motion Picture News.
1920 ad for film starring Will Rogers: Jes' Call Me Jim. Appeared on page 4424 of the May 29, 1920 Motion Picture News. | Source
Poster for 1920 film, The Strange Boarder, starring Will Rogers.
Poster for 1920 film, The Strange Boarder, starring Will Rogers. | Source
Poster for 1921 film with Will Rogers: An Unwilling Hero.  Note the period style for the drawing of the bird on the branch. appeared on the back cover of the May 8, 1921 Film Daily.
Poster for 1921 film with Will Rogers: An Unwilling Hero. Note the period style for the drawing of the bird on the branch. appeared on the back cover of the May 8, 1921 Film Daily. | Source

List of Silent Films

Laughing Bill Hyde (1918)

Almost A Husband (1919)

Jubilo (1919)

Water, Water Everywhere (1919)

The Strange Boarder (1920)

Jes' Call Me Jim (1920)

Cupid The Cowpuncher (1920)

Honest Hutch (1920)

Guile Of Women (1920)

Boys Will Be Boys (1921)

An Unwilling Hero (1921)

Doubling For Romeo (1921)

A Poor Relation (1921)

The Illiterate Digest (1920)

One Glorious Day (1922)

The Headless Horseman (1922)

The Ropin' Fool (1922)

Fruits Of Faith (1922)

One Day in 365 (1922) (unreleased)

Hollywood (1923) cameo

Hustling Hank (1923)

Two Wagons Both Covered (1923)

Jus' Passin' Through (1923)

Uncensored Movies (1923)

The Cake Eater (1924)

The Cowboy Sheik (1924)

Big Moments From Little Pictures (1924)

High Brow Stuff (1924)

Going to Congress (1924)

Don't Park There(1924)

Jubilo, Jr. (1924) (part of Our Gang films)

Our Congressman (1924)

A Truthful Liar (1924)

Gee Whiz Genevieve (1924)

Tip Toes (1927)

A Texas Steer (1927)

A Will Rogers Silent Film Below

Immediately below is a YouTube video of The Headless Horseman, running 1 hour and 11 minutes. Although the clarity of the picture is slightly fuzzy by the standards of the today, the video still displays the acting ability of Will Rogers and his fellow thespians and the styles of early film - sets, pace of story, make-up, lighting, acting. This is a treasure! It is also full of bits of humor, bright spots in a rather scary tale by Washington Irving.

The background music would have been supplied by a live pianist or organist at the theatre. The music behind this video was composed and copyrighted by Edward Rolf Boensnes.

Full Video of 1922 film THE HEADLESS HORSEMAN, with Theatre Music

Talkies

Will Rogers did not return to screen screen acting until movies with sound were produced in 1929. The coming of sound provided Will with his best film successes, since the audience could finally hear his mid-Western accent and enjoy the delivery of his humor. In 1929 he signed a contract with Fox and made the memorable "talking pictures" such as "They Had to See Paris" (1929), and the first version of "State Fair" (1933). With his talent and appeal in commentary, Will became a national star. His plain talk and country roots connected with audiences, who saw him as one of their own: an everyman with common sense.

Will was no fool. He knew he was not a true actor, and would take only roles which were thinly veiled portrayals of himself. Things even progressed to the point where he used little make-up, ad-libbed, and even worked in his commentaries on politics. The clean moral tone of his films led to an activity unknown in today's world: various public schools took their classes on a field trip during the school day to the local theatre to attend special showings of Rogers's pictures.

From 1929 to 1935, Rogers was a star on the Fox Film lot (now 20th Century Fox). He appeared in 21 feature films alongside actors including Mickey Rooney, Maureen O'Sullivan, Boris Karloff, Myrna Loy, Hattie McDaniel, ZaSu Pitts, Ray Milland, Bill (Bojangles) Robinson, Dick Powell, and Peggy Wood. He was directed three times by John Ford.

In 1934, Will Rogers was voted the most popular male actor in Hollywood. He had been the number two movie "Box Office Draw" in 1933. By 1935, Will was the highest-paid male actor even though his ranking had returned to second place. The only person above Rogers in popularity was child star Shirley Temple.

Rogers in the Insiders' Circle of American Film-Making

February 6,1931. Photo of a celebration of Carl Laemmle's 25th anniversary in motion pictures. At back, from left-Will H. Hays, Irving Thalberg, Cecil B. DeMille. Front from left-Carl Laemmle, Mary Pickford, Will Rogers and Carl Laemmle, Jr.
February 6,1931. Photo of a celebration of Carl Laemmle's 25th anniversary in motion pictures. At back, from left-Will H. Hays, Irving Thalberg, Cecil B. DeMille. Front from left-Carl Laemmle, Mary Pickford, Will Rogers and Carl Laemmle, Jr. | Source

The Evolution of Rogers's Roles in the Talkies

Wisely, both Will and the film companies knew that he could not remain a country bumpkin in his movies. The American people were grappling with, and adjusting to, the same issues that Rogers's characters faced. His roles had to reflect similar growth and maturity. This led to Will's portrayal of straight-talking doctors or judges, still full of common sense.

In his last movies, Rogers's characters explore a society fracturing into competing classes from economic pressures. The three films he made with John Ford, "Doctor Bull" (1933), "Judge Priest" (1934), and "Steamboat Round the Bend" (1935), are some of his greatest.

A 1934 publicity still for the movie, Judge Priest. Will Rogers (left) and Henry B. Walthall.
A 1934 publicity still for the movie, Judge Priest. Will Rogers (left) and Henry B. Walthall. | Source

List of Talking Films

They Had To See Paris (1929)

Happy Days (1929)

So This Is London (1930)

Lightnin' (1930)

Young As You Feel (1930)

Ambassador Bill (1930)

A Connecticut Yankee (1931)

Down To Earth (1932)

Too Busy To Work (1932)

Business and Pleasure (1932)

State Fair (1933)

Doctor Bull (1933)

Mr. Skitch (1933)

David Harum (1934)

Handy Andy (1934)

Judge Priest (1934)

The County Chairman (1935)

Life Begins At Forty (1935)

Doubting Thomas (1935)

Steamboat Round the Bend (1935)

In Old Kentucky (1935)

Career Ends with Tragic Accident

Will Rogers was completely comfortable with the new mode of travel: airplane. He flew all over the country to get to political after-dinner talk engagements. Additionally, Will had flown all over the world as a reporter, visiting London, Manchuria, Java, Egypt, South America, Japan, and Moscow. During this time he became the first civilian to fly from coast to coast with pilots flying the mail in early air mail flights. In recognition of this, the National Press Club of Washington, DC, dubbed him Ambassador at Large of the United States; and, in 1927, he visited Mexico City with Charles A. Lindbergh. He also flew all around Europe and noted their progress developing commercial air business. Rogers advocated this for the United States.

Sadly and ironically, Will's life was cut short in a plane crash at the age of 55 . In the summer of 1935, he planned a trip to Russia with a famous fellow Oklahoman racing aviator, Wiley Post. They were traveling via Alaska with stops along the way. Post's plane, an experimental and top-heavy craft was built from various airplane parts, Tragically, on August 15, 1935 after take-off from Fairbanks, Alaska, Will and Wiley's flight crashed near their destination of Point Barrow and both died. The ill-fated flight took the life of America's most beloved celebrity.


A Still from Boys Will Be Boys (1921) with Will Rogers and Irene Rich, on page 57 of the August 1921 Photoplay.
A Still from Boys Will Be Boys (1921) with Will Rogers and Irene Rich, on page 57 of the August 1921 Photoplay. | Source

Will Rogers was a genuine person with wisdom for his times. He was adventurous, accepting, and generally positive. Throughout his career, Rogers was a link to the comprehensible past and a visionary of hope for the future. We could use a man like him today.

Text copyright 2014 Maren E. Morgan.

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