Last year we paid tribute to those Yankee Doodle Boys James Cagney and George M. Cohan (it’s still available on this blog if you missed it). This year we recognize another Red, White, and Blue American – Will Rogers (1879-1935). Born and raised in Oklahoma before it became a state, Will was part Native American and would quip to the Blue Book 400, “Your ancestors might have come over on the “Mayflower,” but mine were standing on the shore waiting to greet them.” You just gotta love a guy like that!
Will Rogers became famous in the Ziegfeld Follies during the 1910s, along with Fanny Brice, W.C. Fields, Marion Davies, and Eddie Cantor, among others. Before that he traveled the world exhibiting his cowboy riding and roping tricks, first touring in South Africa around 1902. As the new century progressed, Rogers adapted his laconic style successfully to every new media: silent films, radio, and talkies. He eventually left off his cowboy routine and focused on his folksy wit and wisdom.
Even FDR cracked up when Will Rogers observed, “I am not a member of any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.”
One of Will’s earliest silent films was based on Washington Irving’s famous tale, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Retitled, THE HEADLESS HORSEMAN, this 1922 silent film was a good vehicle to showcase Will’s personality and is available today on DVD:
Playing Ichabod Crane, Will had to submerge his ingratiating personality to be faithful to the prig character created by author Irving. Still, his winning ways came through as the this frame grab suggests:
This well-known story of Americana was filmed on location in the Hudson River Valley, New York, near where Irving had lived and wrote in Tarrytown. THE HEADLESS HORSEMAN is historically important as the first feature film to use the new panchromatic film stock. Unlike the old orthochromatic film stock that did not photograph certain colors such as blue, and missed clouds entirely (with clear skies looking gray), panchromatic film brought out all the details as these frame grabs indicate:
The story’s climax where Ichabod meets up with the title character is well-handled in an early Halloween frightful style. Faithful to the Irving original, Crane vanishes from Sleepy Hollow thereafter, but word would come that he had established himself quite well elsewhere.
Will Rogers made many silent films although most of his earliest ones, such as LAUGHING BILL HYDE (1918), are lost. During the 1920s, he decided to finance his own series of two-reel comedies but went broke doing it. Happily, when sound films came along in 1929, Will became a huge film star thereafter.
Now let’s hear Will Rogers speak for himself in this April 21, 1935 radio broadcast that sounds very much like our own political situation today – our Government is spending money faster than it can take it in and everybody has a plan to fix it. Although we have restored the sound somewhat, it’s a bit rough to our 21st century ears but Will’s insights are right up to date. Will talks extemporaneously with only a few speaking points to guide him so his style of speaking may take a minute or so to get use to. Enjoy the full ten minutes!