When the Oakies left Oklahoma and moved to California, it raised the I.Q. level of both states. –Will Rogers, on Oklahoma farmers migrating to California to escape the Dustbowl during the Great Depression (a plight vividly portrayed in John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel/John Ford’s 1940 film The Grapes of Wrath).
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If you’ve ever felt as if you’re a remnant (at least in spirit) of the bygone era of someone who passed away before you were born, you can imagine where I’m coming from when I write about Will Rogers, who died in a plane crash in Alaska on this August day in 1935 (a year before I was a gleam in my father’s eye).
Rogers, the Oklahoma cowboy who became America’s favorite humorist and homespun philosopher in the 1920s & 30s, was born to part-Cherokee parents in 1879 when Rutherford B. Hayes was President and Oklahoma was still Indian territory. As Will wrote in his memoirs, “My ancestors didn’t come over on the Mayflower, but they met the boat.”
In my July 29 post BEHIND THE SCENES, I wrote of several performers and directors from Hollywood’s fondly-remembered Golden Age, including John Ford and some of the great films he directed. Two of those were the above-mentioned Grapes of Wrath and Judge Priest (1934), starring Will Rogers. You may be surprised to learn, as I was, that Judge Priest — well, let Ford himself say it, as told to author Bryan B. Sterling in an interview later shared in Sterling’s 1976 book, THE WILL ROGERS SCRAPBOOK:
Sterling: You made three motion pictures with Mr. Rogers, Dr. Bull, Judge Priest and Steamboat ‘Round the Bend. The character of Judge Priest fit right in with that [Rogers’ small town Oklahoma] background. Was that shot on location?
Ford: No, we did it right in the studio.
Sterling: In those days, how long would it take to make a picture?
Ford: On the largest pictures it would take four to five weeks. And they weren’t expensive pictures at all, but they all did very well. In fact, my favorite picture of all times is Judge Priest.
I hate to end on a sour note, but I doubt if Will Rogers would go over today. His humor was on the money, but of a different time. He told it like it was, but not in the gross fashion of our time. At age 55, he died before his time, but he lived at the right time.
It was a time to which I can relate.