Today, Will Rogers is known for having said, "I never met a man I didn't like," and that's about it. The man's name graces elementary schools across the nation, but for the kids incarcerated in those schools—and probably for most of their parents and teachers as well—Will Rogers is a mysterious figure lost in the misty reaches of the distant past.
Your great-grandpa would have been very surprised to learn how obscure Will Rogers has become. In the early 20th century, Rogers was the original king of all media, simultaneously a homespun cowpoke and an honest-to-god Renaissance man.
Born in the wilds of Oklahoma Territory before it was even a state, Rogers' first job was in Argentina, transporting pack animals from Buenos Aires to South Africa for use in the Anglo-Boer War. He returned to the U.S. and found work in Wild West vaudeville shows, in which he would mix lasso tricks and barbed political commentary. He was no beauty, but his folksy charm led him to a hugely successful film career; he starred in more than 50 pictures while also dabbling in screenwriting and producing. In his spare time, he wrote a long-running newspaper column that at one point appeared daily in 500 newspapers, and he was a superstar radio commentator. His musings, full of love for the commonfolk and a gentle outrage at the malfeasance of big business and the American political process, were so influential on the public that H.L. Mencken once referred to Rogers as the most dangerous man alive. Rogers was even nominated for governor of Oklahoma, a position he declined. Adventurous to the end, he was killed in 1935 when his plane, piloted by famed, one-eyed pioneer aviator Wiley Post, crashed in the Arctic. And just what have you been doing with your life?
On Saturday, you'll get an ultra-rare chance to check out Rogers in action when the Fullerton Museum Center screens State Fair, one of his most fondly remembered films. Rogers doesn't star exactly (he's the dad of Janet Gaynor, the leading lady), but with his winning, naturalistic performance, he completely strolls off with the picture.
The film is a beguiling comedic trifle about rural romantic gamesmanship and hog beauty shows; it keeps threatening to turn into a musical but never quite does (subsequent remakes were unable to resist the temptation). It crams so much incident into its 96-minute running time that it's arguable whether the picture has too much plot or none at all. In its day, it nearly took home the Oscar for Best Picture, and when the pig that portrayed Rogers' prize hog eventually died, it made the obit pages of Time. The film is still a treat; it's the kind of warm, gentle but effective family comedy that it's impossible to imagine anybody attempting in our age of irony or post-irony or whatever the hell era we're supposedly living in now. The Fullerton Museum Center is to be commended for reintroducing us to this cowboy/actor/writer/philosopher of days gone by and reminding us that he got his name on all those elementary schools for a reason. He was an Everyman, but he was a unique Everyman, and we shall not soon see his like again.
State Fair screens at the Fullerton Museum Center, 301 N. Pomona Ave., Fullerton, (714) 738-6545; www.ci.fullerton.ca.us. Sat., 8:30 p.m. Free.