Fox Home Video’s “Will Rogers Collection, Volume 1” begins at the end of the great comedian and commentator’s career, presenting the last four films in which Rogers starred before his death on Aug. 15, 1935, in an experimental plane piloted by the pioneer aviator Wiley Post. At his death, Rogers was 20th Century Fox’s second-biggest box office attraction, coming in just behind the child star Shirley Temple, but he was something more than a movie star in Depression America.
As a stage star, notably in the Ziegfeld Follies, where he combined roping tricks with his off-the-cuff observations on the events of the day, and then as a radio commentator and traveling lecturer, Rogers had succeeded to an unusual position in American culture and politics. His was the voice of reason, humility and common sense, directed against the dark, unseen financial and political forces that had plunged the country into poverty. He had become a national hero who spoke (or, more accurately, muttered shyly into a microphone) on behalf of a rural underclass pounded into skepticism and despair.
Rogers’s humor was a brilliant balancing act of sentimentality and cynicism, his manner harking back to the cracker-barrel, aw-shucks style of Andrew Jackson and Lincoln, while his skeptical humor suggested the bitterness and suspicion of his frequent ideological rival, H. L. Mencken. There was nothing casual about the craft of his extremely canny performances; he can be seen in his films working every muscle of his magnificently expressive face, shading every word of every line as precisely as he wanted. Rogers managed the trick of making himself seem surprised by what came out of his mouth, turning gags that would have seemed smug or cruel from more aggressive performers — “When the Okies left Oklahoma for California, it raised the I.Q. of both states” — into dryly affectionate observations.