When Will Rogers died in an airplane crash in 1935, America was devastated.
The folksy rider, roper and vaudevillian from Oklahoma was the real New Deal: a mix of Woody Guthrie, Andy Taylor, Mark Twain and Destry. In his movies, Rogers generally stood still and let the filmmakers build the picture around him. He’d shuffle and mumble under his breath like Popeye, often making it up as he went along. Fox’s box set rounds up Rogers’ last four pictures, all released in 1935. In Old Kentucky is the least of the four, a ragged race horse comedy that circles in the dirt before limping to a wheezy close. A few choice dance moments with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson save the picture. Doubting Thomas is a dull comedy with Rogers playing a wealthy sausage mogul determined to keep his flaky spouse (Billie Burke) from pursuing a mid-life career as an actress. The best thing it offers is a glimmer of what a more serious Rogers might have brought to Sinclair Lewis’ character Dodsworth, which was tackled by Walter Huston in ’36. Steamboat Round the Bend is fully deserving of its reputation as one of Director John Ford’s better early films. Ford biographer Scott Eyman gives a fine classroom dissertation of Ford and Rogers as a DVD extra. While Steamboat is the best directed and written of the four, Life Begins at Forty may be the most interesting. Rogers plays a small town newspaper publisher who hires a young ex-con to work in his shop, which infuriates the community. There’s acid in this Saturday Evening Post view of rural America and a wry twist of Hoagy Carmichael buried in the mix, as well as a taste of early feminist theory. The best part of the Volume One collection may be the commentary track on three of the discs by Anthony Slide, one of the greatest living authorities on early American films. Slide is funny and full of curious facts, and he doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty—he’s the guy you want to watch the movie with. Other good extras are the A&E biography of Rogers and a newsreel of Rogers getting set to take off with his pal Wiley Post on what would be their final flight. A newsreel shot after Rogers’ death features aviator Frank Hawks choking up as he speaks of his late friend. Hawks was a renowned speed-record breaker and would die in an airplane crash exactly three years after Rogers, in 1938.