Regional Literature and Will Rogers: Film Redeems A Literary Form

Article excerpt

Will Rogers is not usually associated with questions of literary form or literary consciousness. Yet his relationship as a humorist to American regional literature poses some interesting questions for students of film and literature because almost all of Rogers' films were adapted from works of the regional genre. The first section of this paper will explore the "mind" of the Saturday Evening Post in order to determine why regional literature remained a staple for this popular weekly as late as the second and third decades of the twentieth century. Our study has led us to read the regional novels, the Post regional stories, and the screenplays written from these literary sources. We have then watched the Rogers films closely - with heartening results. Much of the basic setting, plot, and dialogue for Will Rogers' films were borrowed without modification from literary sources. These portraits of American life were nostalgic and politically conservative. Many included derogatory stereotypes of racial minorities. Yet when Rogers appeared on the set. he injected into these films messages about American life which were more relevant and humane than those to be found in either the original stories or the final shooting scripts. It is often said that Will Rogers paid little attention to the scripts for his films. It is more likely that he dropped lines out of his prepared parts and improvised from his journalism while the cameras rolled because he found the official lines to be repugnant. Whatever the reasons for changing the lines and developing scenes to suit his own taste, the result of Rogers' extemporaneous editing was to break the conservative mold prepared for him. For this reason, rather than being forced to relate the process by which literary classics have been vitiated by Hollywood, we are happy to report that the second section of this paper will describe an unusual case in which film redeems a literary form. 1

The "Mind" of the Saturday Evening Post and The Post School of Regional Fiction

When Cyrus Curtis purchased the Saturday Evening Post in 1899. he installed an ambitious editor who vowed "to interpret America to itself."2 Indeed. George Horace Lorimer from 1899 to 1936 developed a magazine which one historian has said "had more influence on the cultural life of America" than any other periodical.3 Yet for all its claims to being "the dominant and representative American publication" of the 1920's and 1930's, the Post contained a highly selective portrait of American life.4 Most significantly, big business, big labor, and the immigrant were perceived by the Post as threats to "native," middle-class Americans whose roots were (supposedly) deeply planted in genuine cultural soil. 5

The Post was especially reactionary on the immigration issue, for Lorimer was a firm believer in the pseudo-scientific racial theories popularized during the twenties by Theodore Lothrop Stoddard, Madison Grant, and Max Nordau.6 For Lorimer. these proponents of Nordic superiority had supplied Americans with "a trustworthy key and codebook to the underlying mysteries of bolshevism. snydicalism, the Age of Jazz, the silly season of politics and the devastating epidemic of fool ideas" which had swept America after the European war.7 In Lorimer's eyes, only a few. select races could live up to the high standards of American citizenship. Through editorials and non-fiction articles, Lorimer's Post helped to sway public opinion in favor of the restrictive Immigration Act of 1924, a law which remained in force until the son of immigrants became President in 1961 .

The Post worked hard to fight one ineluctable tide of political change. In May, 1936, Lorimer announced to his readers that "There is one issue and only one issue before the country today - the New Deal and all its works, public and private, and its threat to the fundamentals of government and society."8 Without encouragement from the candidate, the Post voluntarily mounted a campaign for the cause of Herbert Hoover. …


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