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THE MAKING OF WILL ROGERS' 1920s BY PETER C. ROLLINS Peter C. Rollins is Assistant Professor ofEnglish at Oklahoma State University at Stillwater, Oklahoma , and co-editor of The Writings of Will Rogers. He is also Chairman of the American Studies Association Film Committee. It is obvious that Will Rogers spoke for and to his times. As a syndicated journalist, radio voice, and film image, he utilized all of the new mass media to communicate his special brand of humor and wisdom to millions of Americans. An ardent Will Rogers fan, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, summarized the meaning of the Oklahoman's contribution to national morale: "There was something infectious about his humor. His appeal went straight to the heart of the nation. Above all things, in a time grown too solemn and somber, he brought his countrymen back to a sense of proportion." When the collaborators proposed a film project on Rogers to the National Endowment for the Humanities, we believed that Americans in the Seventies needed a renewed "sense of proportion" about their national identity. In a world increasingly polarized by divisions of race, sex, and class, we hoped that Americans could profit from reexposure to a humorist who could honestly say, "I never met a man I didn't like." From the beginning, a fortunate conjunction of events made the project seem especially favored . I had become immersed in a rich collection of materials at the Will Rogers Memorial, Claremore, Oklahoma. Editing activities for Oklahoma State University's Will Rogers Publication Project had also demanded close readings of daily and weekly articles, radio broadcasts, and presidential convention reports by the great Oklahoman. At the same time, members of Cadre Films (R. C. Raack, Patrick Griffin, William Malloch) were refining their cinematic skills. The group had been organized in the late Sixties. Cadre's first film Goodbye Billy America Goes to War. 1917-18. was screened before the American Historical Association in 197 1 . Later that year, the film received the audience prize at Ann Arbor Film Festival, and the Chris Award for Excellence. (See "The Making of Goodbye Billy" in Film & History. Vol. II, No. 2 [May 1972].) After completing a second film, The Frozen War: America Intervenes in Russia. 1919-20 ?973). the Cadre team invited me to help prepare a workbook stressing Cadre's uses of film language to spark a historical sense in student viewers. The workbook project proved to be a rewarding initiation into the research methods and cinematic style of the historian-filmmakers. The actual making of Will Rogers' 1920s began at the 1975 meeting of the Popular Culture Association in St. Louis. A screen treatment of the film was discussed by a panel entitled "Will Rogers in Print and Film." Patrick Griffin and R. C. Raack devoted special attention to methods by which sight and sound could be related to add levels of meaning to the film as a cinematic experience. Lessons from two previous attempts at compilation filmmaking here proved valuable in counteracting the abstractness of the screen treatment prepared by me. Observations from attending popular culturists attuned members ofthe film team to future audience expectations. The historian-filmmakers left the session convinced that a final script should not be written until after a full exploration of archival sources had been conducted. The Will Rogers Memorial in Claremore, Oklahoma contained most of the sources, which displayed Rogers on screen or before microphones. Since 1938, the Commission and Staff of the Memorial have diligently accumulated aluminum discs, phonograph records, tapes, as well as the prints of approximately seventy-four fiction films, which Will Rogers made between 1919 and 1934. The fiction films of the silent era were readily available. Will Rogers' voice was a bit more difficult to lasso, for only a few of his radio programs were recorded and only some of those had found their way to the Memorial's fireproof vault. The limitations of available sound had a direct-and unanticipated—effect upon scripting. -This problem with sound was exacerbated by the discovery that no Movietone newsreels would be available for our use. The authenticity of commentât!ve music has always been of great importance to the Cadre...


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