After a Ziegfeld Follies show Will Rogers visited WC Fields in his backstage room. After he left, WC Fields' female guest commented, "Isn't he a wonderful man? I just love that voice." Fields replied: "That son of a bitch is a fake. I'll bet a hundred dollars he talks like everybody else when he gets home."
After reading Ben Yagoda's biography of Rogers it would seem WC Fields was dead wrong. Sure, Rogers had a shtick, but he was still a humble, Oklahoma cowboy who could rope steers.
Rogers work rate was extraordinary. In vaudeville he did two or more shows a day and when he got into the movie business he simultaneously performed with the Follies, wrote daily newspaper articles, lectured, and performed on the radio. When he wasn't working he was traveling, doing charity tours, or expanding his California ranch. To relax he'd rope steers in the back yard or chairs on the front porch. He couldn't sit still and when he had to he mashed on his gum and shook coins in his hands.
Rogers was a modern, inventive comic. In vaudeville he'd speak to the audience. When he failed a rope trick, he'd say, "I'm handicapped up h'yar, as the manager won't let me swear when I miss!"
When he produced his own movie (One Day in 365) he simply had a camera follow him around as he tried and failed to find a quiet place in the family home to write a script.
When he gave public speeches or participated in plays he'd ignore the set script and sit on the lip of the stage and just talk until he ran out of things to say.
But what I love most about Rogers was his skepticism of bankers, politicians, and advertising. He hated pretension and his column became popular because he could critique American society without being mean and bitter about it. He was an artist at kidding anyone who thought well of themselves.
On bankers he said,
"Banking and After Dinner speaking are two of the most Non-essential industries we have in this country...I don't think these Boys [bankers] realize really what a menace they are. As far as being good fellows, personally, I have heard old timers talk down home in the Indian Territory and they say the James and Dalton Boys were the most congenial men of their day, too."
And later he writes, "You can drop a bag of gold in Death Valley, which is below sea level, and before Sunday it will be home to papa J.P. [Morgan]."
On politicians Rogers is equally sharp:
"That's why I can never take a politician seriously. They are always shouting that such and such a thing will ruin us, and that this is the eventful year in our Country's life. Say, all the years are the same. Each one has its temporary setbacks, but they don't mean a thing in the general result."
And on advertising: "You can't go to bed, you can't get up, you can't brush your teeth without doing it to some Advertising Slogan...A fool slogan can get you into anything...[But] Nobody has ever invented a slogan to use instead of paying your taxes."
Though Rogers hated advertising he did accept an offer from Bull Durham tobacco to write 26 ads. What he pulled off is reminiscent of today's ironic ads, but at least Rogers didn't sell out completely. He wrote,
"Peoples tastes are not alike...You ain't no kindergarden, you know what you wore last year and if it pleased you try it again. Now I don't smoke "Bull" Durham. But if you do and you liked it, why dont let some Guys Picture and indorsement tout you off on something else." (Yes, there are errors galore, but that's how all of Rogers' copy is)
Rogers could tease without hurting feelings. It was a skill he honed with the Follies where he'd come on stage, pull out a famous person in the crowd, rib them for a few minutes, and then proceed with the show.
Today, Rogers' politics are almost more famous than his work on stage. His comments on the great depression and international affairs made him a "bona fide" journalist who rubbed shoulders with presidents and world leaders.
Rogers even met Mussolini and Yagoda describes the meeting well. "Mussolini gave most of his answers in a broken English that, in Will's rendition, made him sound like a fruit peddler in a bad vaudville sketch."
Rogers' admired Mussolini strength (as did many) and favored dictators (if they were competent) because he had no faith in the dithering of political parities. He favored Franklin Roosevelt when he was elected, but grew weary of his hand-outs.
Rogers' father was Cherokee which fed his mistrust of the government. "The Government, by statistics, shows they have got 456 treaties that they have broken with the Indians. That is why Indians get a kick out of reading the Government's usual remark when some big affair comes up."
Rogers' had an independent mind and untangled general problems with a rustic logic. "Now, we made a mistake in the last war by fighting on credit. The next war has got to be C.O.D." And, of course he was a comic first: "In Germany they have cultivate everything they got but a sense of humor."
Rogers died in a plane crash in Alaska. That he was flying at all in the 1920s illustrated his restlessness and cowboy courage. He always wanted to see what was over the next ridge.
Yagoda's biography finds Rogers an exemplary character who loved his wife and blushed when a Follies' dancer slipped out of her custom. There are no stories of affairs or tales of addictions to booze (though he was once caught sneaking beer into Madison Square Garden). He participated in the stage version of O'Neil's Ah! Wilderness but wouldn't play the role for the camera, because his character briefly mentions of the utility of prostitutes. His only great weakness was beans. His family and friends were always impressed by how many bowls he could finish. He wrote, "Don't have room for any desert. Had any more room would eat some more beans."