There's no way to fully "get" Will Rogers without building a time machine and heading back to the days of the Ziegfeld Follies and the Great Depression, when the homespun comedian evolved from rope tricks to trenchant social commentary. But some archival material survives, like tapes of Rogers' low-key, quippy radio broadcasts, and samples of his early slapsticky silent movies and later hokey comic melodramas. Fox has now packaged four of the latter—Rogers' last four features before his fatal 1935 plane crash—into the DVD box set Will Rogers Collection, Volume 1, and as often happens with these projects, the whole is better than the sum of its parts. It's thrilling from a historical perspective to watch Rogers work his distinctively wry, gentle personality into inoffensive studio fare, and the set provides helpful context in the form of a career-spanning 90-minute episode of A&E's Biography. But the actual movies are pretty lousy.
The best is arguably Life Begins At Forty, with Rogers as a small-town newspaper editor who risks everything to give a troubled young man a break. The story devolves into shrill wackiness, but at least Rogers gets to improvise, dropping lines about politicians and how the can opener should replace the bald eagle as the symbol of America. He also gets to do a little of his own material in Doubting Thomas, where he plays a middle-class family man who watches his town go nuts putting on an amateur theatrical. But it isn't really Rogers' story, and director David Butler completely botches the rhythm of the backstage farce. Even when Rogers has a better director, like John Ford on the historical comedy Steamboat Round The Bend, the jokes get ground down in the machinations of a surprisingly steamboat-focused plot. Ditto for In Old Kentucky, a horseracing movie that's heavy on the horses and light on Rogers' observations.
There are other reasons to feel iffy about these movies too, like the shuffling performances of Stepin Fetchit in Steamboat Round The Bend and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in In Old Kentucky. (To be fair, Rogers treats their characters as friends, not dolts, and Robinson's In Old Kentucky tap-dancing is the best part of the movie.) But while it would've been nice to see a set like this made up of four movies on par with Life Begins At Forty, plus maybe some silent-era shorts, at least we get to see Rogers captured on film, flashing the wit that made him the best-liked man in America.
Key features: Exceedingly dry commentary tracks, vintage newsreels, and the Biography episode.