Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

ROGERS, WILL (1879-1935)

Will Rogers in Steamboat Round the Bend

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Will Rogers was more than a movie star; he was one of the greatest American show business personalities of the first third of the twentieth century. Born William Penn Adair Rogers at Oolagah in Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, on November 4, 1879, he entered show business in a turn-of-the-century Wild West show, already helping construct the myths of the values and spirit of the Old West of his childhood. Audiences loved him, and so producers brought him to New York City. By 1912 he was bringing the humor of the Great Plains to Broadway; through the late 1910s and early 1920s he reigned as the top attraction of the Ziegfeld Follies. This led to authorship of some 4,000 newspaper columns; a series of influential articles for the Saturday Evening Post; popular phonograph records; six books, including The Cowboy Philosopher on the Peace Conference (1919) and Letters of a Self-Made Diplomat to His President (1926); an NBC radio show; and ultimately to world fame as a Hollywood movie star.

Rogers did not instantly rise to motion picture stardom. Famed producer Samuel Goldwyn signed him to play in silent films, and between 1918 and 1922 he essayed cowboy roles, but his career went nowhere. He needed his verbal wit and humor; silent film titles never captured his presence. While he spent most of his adult life outside the Great Plains, surely his homespun humor was based on a persona of straightforward, unpretentious traits developed from his childhood. For the remainder of the silent film era, Will Rogers returned to the vaudeville stage–except for completing a handful of silent short subjects for Hollywood's Hal Roach Studios.

The coming of talkies enabled Rogers to shine. During the bleak years of the Great Depression he came to represent the common person, the casual humorist and raconteur, the man who clung to the folkways of a mythical nineteenth-century America that seemed so long ago.

From 1930 on Will Rogers was Fox Films' most important movie star. John Ford, the great American film director, best understood Rogers's image and persona and fully exploited them in a series of hometown tales that were as popular as any set of films made during the Great Depression: Doctor Bull (1933), Judge Priest (1934), and Rogers's best film, Steamboat 'round the Bend (1935). Sadly, Rogers's best was his last, and he was at the height of his motion picture popularity when he died in an airplane crash at Point Barrow, Alaska, on August 15, 1935. His final two films, In Old Kentucky and Steamboat 'round the Bend, were released after the actor's death by the major studio he helped create, Twentieth Century Fox.

Douglas Gomery University of Maryland

Rogers, Will. The Autobiography of Will Rogers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949.

Rollins, Peter C. Will Rogers: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 1984.

Yagoda, Ben. Will Rogers: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.

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