The Uncharted Frontier: Will Rogers in John Ford’s America

The Uncharted Frontier: Will Rogers in John Ford’s America

Just slightly northwest of Death Valley, in what is now eastern California, a mountain range carves out the eastern edge of the Owens Valley. Sculpted by bedrock pushed between tectonic faults during the late Proterozoic to Cambrian periods, the Inyo Mountains were a place rooted in the stresses of the earth itself and fated to play its part in those of later mankind.

Since time immemorial, the Numu (the Northern Paiute people) called the valley home, and their lives adapted to its unique and wildly diverse geographies. In the definitive pattern of the young United States’ westward expansion, these tribes faced war, genocide, and forcible relocation to reservations as Manifest Destiny advanced. The eventual influx of settlers staking their claims in this ethnically cleansed territory was fueled by the promise of cheap land on which to start anew, as well as the possibility of striking it big. By the mid-to-late 1800s, the valley’s central river, lake, and wetlands were drained into newly irrigated farmlands, and its mountain ranges were being stripped of their minerals.

At the range’s southern edge, an area known as Cerro Gordo (Spanish for “Fat Hill”) was discovered to be rich in silver deposits in 1865. From the late 1800s and into the coming century, one of the more notable clients of the mine’s lode was Eastman Kodak. The extracted silver was an essential component in the chemistry of their film’s light-sensitive emulsion, and it played a key role in their eventual innovation and dominance of early cinematic technology. Working with Eastman’s funding, William Kennedy Dickson pioneered the use of 35 mm film at Thomas Edison’s Black Maria Studios. It’s hard to not see an irony in two of Dickson’s landmark Kinetoscope works: Buffalo Dance and Sioux Ghost Dance, both filmed in 1894. The brief clips feature dancing Indigenous performers from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, themselves survivors of the American Indian Wars. These were later classified as the first known films to depict Native Americans.

The fate of the Owens Valley was to take yet another turn. A series of political events in the early twentieth century known as the California water wars led to the valley’s desiccation and the impoverishment of its farmers. Much of the region’s water was once again diverted, this time via the newly built Los Angeles Aqueduct, designed in 1913 to feed its eponymous city hundreds of miles away. It was a scheme designed by LA’s powers-that-be to grow the once-dusty pueblo on the edge of the desert from a turn-of-the-century population of 102,000 to the megalopolis it would eventually become. A version of this would later be dramatized as the central conspiracy uncovered in Chinatown (1974). Unsurprisingly, this boom fed directly into the growth of the city’s fledgling film industry. When the city of Hollywood merged into Los Angeles in 1910, only ten film companies were in operation. By 1921, the City of Angels held over eighty percent of the world’s film production.

There is a scene in Fox’s 1930 comedy So This Is London in which Hiram Draper, played by Will Rogers, attempts to get a passport. When Hiram is unable to provide a birth certificate, the passport-office official inquires if he is an American citizen. Rogers, in his thick Oklahoman accent, responds: “I think I am. My folks are Indian. Both my mother and father had Cherokee blood in ’em. Born and raised in Indian Territory. Of course, I’m not one of these Americans whose ancestors come over on the Mayflower, but we met ’em when they landed.” It’s a great bit of comedy, a pre-Code jab pointing out an existential absurdity of America itself. It’s also a key to Rogers’s brand of humor and his positioning as a straight-talking outsider lodged in the eye of popular culture’s storm.

Like Hiram Draper, Rogers was a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. He was born in 1879, raised in a prominent family within his tribe’s territory, and was the grandchild of survivors of the Trail of Tears. By his own account, Rogers was a poor student and found himself drawn to Cherokee ranching culture. His skills led to gigs as a horsebreaker, bringing him to Argentina and later to South Africa, before he took his first steps into show business as a trick roper with a Wild West show. In 1905, he became a sensation on the New York City vaudeville circuit, performing fifty weeks a year over the next decade and refining a signature bit with his pony, lasso, and off-the-cuff commentary on current events. He shot to a new stratum of popularity when he signed on to the Ziegfeld Follies in 1916, and in 1918 he was hired by Samuel Goldwyn’s Goldwyn Pictures to star in his first film, in the title role of Laughing Bill Hyde.

For urban audiences, Rogers became not only the definitive image of the cowboy but also something like a rural Aristophanes: a plain-speaking joker free of institutional bias. Despite his consistent and very vocal pride about being Indigenous, his image did not fit with the public’s assumptions of what a Native American ought to look like, especially those forming in the seventh art. It didn’t matter that Rogers was noticeably darker-skinned than his costars; the thought of connecting him to the Indians in the films of D. W. Griffith, Thomas H. Ince, or even Dickson was a bridge too far. His hair was styled short, he didn’t don regalia, and he was a bankable star with a multidimensional personality. Moreover, his characters were of a humorous disposition and delivered monologues in multisyllabic English. Perhaps even more mind-boggling for audiences was the fact that Rogers’s embodiment of the cowboy persona did not necessarily divorce him from Cherokee traditions, given the tribe’s long history of ranching. In Indians in Unexpected Places, historian Philip Deloria, an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, notes that non-Indigenous expectations of Native Americans in the Progressive Era reflected “colonial and imperial relations of power and domination.” Deloria later distinguishes between “the anomalous, which reinforces expectations, and the unexpected, which resists categorization and, thereby, questions expectation itself.” By all measures, Rogers was the unexpected Indian in an unexpected place during Hollywood’s early years.

In keeping with his atypicality, Rogers was one of the lucky few to successfully hopscotch not only from vaudeville to the silent screen, but also later into talkies. Following his debut in Laughing Bill Hyde, he went on to appear in forty-nine other silent films. Although Rogers was consistently given top billing, his films of the era had one major drawback: the lack of his voice. Much of the comedian’s magnetism was powered by his onstage ramblings, peppered with catchy aphorisms and flavored by his signature Southern Plains twang. With the advent of sound in 1929, Rogers became one of film’s most popular actors. That same year, he began hosting his own wildly successful Sunday evening program on the radio (then a new medium), where he read from his weekly syndicated newspaper column and delivered offhand commentary on the news of the day. It was a precursor to the broadcast format of political comedy later defined by Bob Hope, Letterman, Leno, and the many alumni of The Daily Show. As the talking pictures ushered in a new boom in Hollywood, Rogers became the industry’s highest-paid actor of the early 1930s. He went on to star in twenty-one more films in the sound era, three of which were made by John Ford, his favorite director to work with.

In an unaired 1968 interview for the BBC, film journalist Philip Jenkinson, audibly nervous, asks a seventy-four-year-old John Ford about his memories of making Steamboat Round the Bend (1935), Rogers’s penultimate film.

Jenkinson: I believe that Will Rogers had his own way of approaching a script.

Ford: No, that isn’t true, because he never approached a script in his life. I don’t think he ever saw one. I mean, you’d get there in the morning and say: “Will, this is what you’re supposed to say—words to this effect.” He’d read it and memorize it and when the time would come he’d say it in his own words and they were much better than what a writer wrote because no one could write for Will Rogers. He was Will Rogers. He was more human than all the writers in the world, and it was said in his own way, which was good. You never bothered, just let him go along and leave him alone . . . He was a very, very humorous man, but he was always wonderful to work with because he was full of suggestions . . . He was a delight to work with.

It’s a poignant moment in an otherwise tense eighty-three minutes, with the notoriously gruff director relentlessly belittling Jenkinson. During Ford’s Fox years, he made three comedies with Rogers in three years: Doctor Bull (1933), Judge Priest (1934), and Steamboat. All of their films were among the studio’s biggest hits of their respective years, and this easygoing trilogy reflected the perfect alignment of actor, director, and their signature celebrations of Americana.

In Rogers’s seventy-one-film career, his roles for Ford are generally considered to be among his finest. The director knew how to elevate the comedian’s persona by adding a deeper human layer to his populist-philosopher routine. Whether he was a country physician in Doctor Bull, the quirky officer of a small-town court in Judge Priest, or a benevolent snake-oil salesman in Steamboat, Rogers always embodied a version of Ford’s favorite type of protagonist: the man of a fading generation, yearning for a simpler time and the rural traditions of the late 1800s. His characters solve their communities’ dilemmas by reminding them of their old-fashioned values, helping them to weather modern times and the encroaching storm of their complications. Under Ford’s direction, Rogers channeled his larger-than-life charm beyond his political-outsider shtick and brought it back to the soil, repositioning himself as something like America’s favorite uncle—irreverent, yet radiating a fatherly warmth and healing communities through common sense.

Top of page: Judge Priest; above: Steamboat Round the Bend
Doctor Bull

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