In my spare time, and when the thought occurs to me, I enjoy browsing the Digital Video Repository of the Moving Image Research Collections (or MIRC) at the University of South Carolina, a vast online archive of historical film footage, much of which consists of newsreels footage. Often, I’ll just enter some different search terms and see if I can find anything interesting. It was on one such online excursion that I stumbled across a newsreel (or rather outtakes thereof) depicting the arrival of the famed humorist, movie star, and cowboy philosopher Will Rogers in San Antonio, Texas, that caught my attention. I am (as any red-blooded American surely must be) counted among Will Rogers’ legion of admirers, but his presence was not what attracted my interest to the video. Rather, it was the appearance of a background character that struck me as a familiar face.
Will Rogers was America’s most complete human document. He reflected in many ways the heartbeat of America.
— Damon Runyon
On this day, August 15, eighty years ago, the great American humorist, movie star, vaudevillian, and cowboy, Will Rogers met his tragic fate with the famed aviator Wiley Post near Point Barrow in Alaska while surveying a route from North America to Russia in Post’s cobbled together airplane, with Will intending to pick up some new material for his newspaper column along the way. The flight went well until an engine failure caused the plane to take a nosedive and crash into a lagoon.
In his life, Will Rogers, born November 4, 1879 in Oologah, Indian Territory, was one of the biggest and brightest stars of the Roaring Twenties. He became a cowboy in his early life, and later turned to vaudeville, starring in Ziegfeld’s Follies, with his trick roping a major attraction. By the end of the 1910s, Rogers had become a Hollywood movie star, and would appear in seventy-one pictures from 1918 to 1935. What Will Rogers is probably best remembered for however, is his wit, which he expressed in his newspaper column from 1922 to 1935. Befriending another of the greatest stars of the day, Charles Lindbergh, Rogers took an interest in aviation, which would be his downfall in 1935. Will Rogers in his day became something of a folk hero, representing classical American values, and an innocence of bygone days, and his death sparked nationwide tributes.
On Victor 45347, recorded February 6, 1923 in New York City, Will Rogers gives us “A New Slant on War” and “Timely Topics”. The record was released in March of 1923 and remained in the Victor catalog until 1927, it was later reissued as Victor 25126 on August 25, 1935, ten days after Will’s untimely demise.
With the Great War still fresh on the nation’s mind, in “A New Slant on War”, Will gives us, as the title would indicate, some humorous thoughts on war, why we have them, and how we can prevent them in the future.
While “Timely Topics” may not be so timely anymore, this side is still brimming with gems of Rogers’ timeless witticisms.