The Will Rogers Collection

There was a time when Will Rogers was the most famous man in America. A columnist and radio commentator famous for his homespun wit and wisdom, he was a big box office draw from the silent era to his untimely death in 1935. This collection brings together the films from the last year of his life, none of which are revelations but at least two of which will bring a smile to your face. Alas, Doubting Thomas possesses some antiquated values that blight its "before the fact” Waiting for Guffman. Rogers must dissuade his wife (Billie Burke) from taking to the stage when an amateur theatrical director starts filling her head with dreams; the star seems at best condescending and at worst hostile in declaring his wife’s place to be the home. No such issue mars In Old Kentucky, which is merely rather dull in its horse race intrigue. It involves the feuding Martigales (that’s Rogers’ side) and the Shattucks (the bad guys) as they scheme and feud over disputed land and a prized racehorse. You’ll thrill to Bill "Bojangles” Robinson’s dancing (and pity him for his servile role) but there are neither solid concepts nor laughs. Much better is Life Begins at 40, in which our hero is a journalist who supports a man wrongfully convicted of stealing. When his do-gooding gets the bank (whose owner’s son did the thieving) to foreclose on his paper, he starts a new one and goes after the mayor with a drunk as an opposing candidate. This is Rogers at his most appealing, sticking up for the underdog and defending him from angry mobs; he’s also got some of his best (if unsophisticated) material in the script. But the best of the bunch is Steamboat Round the Bend, featuring the great John Ford’s moody filmmaking. Rogers plays a riverboat captain whose nephew has killed a man in self-defence; he has to raise money for the boy’s defence and care for his swamp girl daughter. Much of what makes 40 good is here as well but Ford provides excellent mood in ways not present in the other films. Extras include commentaries by Anthony Slide for three films; he’s witty and on-issue but he’s rather sparser than Scott Eyman’s vivid yakker during Steamboat. Other extras include restoration comparisons, newsreels on Kentucky and Thomas, and an episode of A&E Biography on Thomas. (Fox)