Will Rogers was once the biggest star in Hollywood. Think of any other big name from the late 20’s and early 30’s, and he outpaced them all. Today, he is little more than a name, and there are plenty of film guides out there that don’t even list his films. Quite the sobering lesson on the evanescent nature of fame. The films in this collection were all made in 1935, the last year of Rogers’ life, before he was killed in a plane crash. These comedies have definitely dated, but Rogers’ charm i… undeniable. He was an inveterate improvisor, but he apparently stuck pretty closely to the script of Doubting Thomas. Dismayed by his wife’s sudden theatrical ambitions, Rogers plots to derail those hopes and keep her in the kitchen, where she belongs (did I mention the films had become a bit dated?). Life Begins at 40 sees Rogers in full aphoristic mode as the crusty, mischievous and independently-minded newspaper editor determined to clear the name of an ex-con employee and triumph over the small town’s evil banker. In Old Kentucky has a feud between two families centred around horse racing. Rogers is the trainer who switches loyalties. Finally, has con-man Rogers captaining a steamboat as he searches for the half-crazed preacher who can prove that Rogers’ nephew killed a man in self-defense.
The films are very much of their time, and built around the personality of Rogers, who plays essentially the same character with different jobs in each flick. Some of his quips are still pretty funny and topical, despite the aforementioned dating, and some of the sequences are also pretty humorous (the disastrous play performances in Doubting Thomas, for instance.
The usual story: original mono and new stereo remix on all four discs. The movies are over 70 years old, and miracles are neither expected nor forthcoming. The sound is clear, though, with a minimum of static. The stereo has the usual indiscriminate surround thing happening, but the rear sound is faint enough to prevent it from being a real distraction.
Variable quality. All the discs have a restoration comparison featurette to proudly show off the work that was done, but that work is more impressive on some than others. So Steamboat looks pretty good, with minimal damage, nice B&W tones, and grain held to a pretty tolerable level. Doubting Thomas, on the other hand, looks like it was made much earlier, not the same year as Steamboat. The guitar strings are quite severe, the grain is very noticeable, and even the restoration comparison doesn’t show a heck of a lot of improvement between the Before and After images.
All of the discs have first-class commentary tracks. Anthony Slide does the honours on all but Steamboat ‘Round the Bend, his focus is very much on Rogers and his career. Scott Eyman is just as good on Steamboat, but this was directed by John Ford, and Eyman has him as his focus, rather than Rogers. Other than the aforementioned restoration comparisons, there are Movietone Newsreels on In Old Kentucky and Doubting Thomas. The latter also has an A&E Biography episode on Rogers. Trailers are present all around.
In some ways, these movies now work better as documents than as comedies now, but their release is of real historical value, and welcome for that reason.
Special Features List
- Audio Commentary
- Movietone Newsreels
- Restoration Comparison