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Hailed by The New York Times as "America's Aristophanes," Will Rogers was one of this century's most astute and beloved humorists. If as he often remarked, he never met a man he didn't like, it is also true that Rogers never met a man he didn't like to make fun of. Everyone from congressmen and Presidents to Hollywood movie moguls and wealthy industrialists bore the brunt of his gently lacerating wit—and seemed, mostly, to be charmed in the process. So popular did Rogers become—through dozens of films, a daily column that ran for nine years in newspapers across the country, and countless lectures and stage performances—that he was often urged to run for Congress and even the Presidency. Upon receiving a mock appointment as Congressman-at-Large for the whole United States, Rogers protested, "I regret the disgrace that's been thrust upon me here tonight. I've tried to live my whole life so that I would never become a congressman."
In American Original, Ray Robinson chronicles the trajectory of Will Rogers' remarkable life. Written with engaging immediacy and filled with a wealth of delightful anecdotes, this lively portrait follows Rogers from his childhood in the Indian Territory of what is now Oklahoma, to his first spellbinding lariat performances in the Wild West shows (where he would often lasso prominent audience members and drag them on stage), to his stardom in vaudeville and the Ziegfeld Follies, to his early silent movies and the later "talkies," and finally to his astonishing influence as a "cowboy philosopher" columnist read by over 40 million Americans. Far more than other biographers, Robinson excels at conveying Rogers' impact as a political commentator ("I belong to no organized political party. I am a Democrat.") and his great success as an actor in Hollywood, where he was the leading star of Fox Films. And along the way, Robinson paints a vibrant portrait of one of America's most colorful eras. We follow the early evolution of modern entertainment, enjoy vivid snapshots of W.C. Fields, Charlie Chaplin, Florenz Ziegfeld, Eddie Cantor, Samuel Goldwyn, Shirley Temple, and John Ford, and, perhaps most important, witness the major political events of the era through Will Rogers' uniquely perceptive eyes.
American Original succeeds most appealingly in bringing Will Rogers before us with all the spontaneity, intimacy, and honesty of a live performance. In it we are given front row seats to the life of a character unabashedly American and unforgettably original.
He was simply a natural. With his vaunted wit, Rogers (18791935) conquered stage, screen, print, airwaves—just about every available medium of communication, with the possible exception of semaphore. The genial, lariat-twirling philosopher roped in everyone from Flo Ziegfeld to FDR with sly winks and pungent topical observations. Rogers played the quintessential American (that is, himself) to perfection. Using basic pop history, starting with Hernando de Soto, the Trail of Tears, and the Civil War, Robinson quickly sketches Rogers's progenitors, some of whom would now be called Native Americans, and his progress from the Indian Territory that became Oklahoma to world traveler and national icon. We learn that Rogers, though often seasick, was a reckless air passenger (which led, of course, to the ultimate tragedy). There are extensive quotations from his unlettered and remarkably inept, unfunny letters of courtship and a gathering of opinion from fellow actors. Withal, the text too often seems to be an amalgam of random recollections, a few odd facts, and secondary source material. There is little new and revealing about the man that urgently demands another biography after Ben Yagoda's masterful 1993 work. Clearly, Rogers was usually a man of remarkable native intelligence and wit. What caused him, then, to offer words in support of Huey Long, Benito Mussolini, and Father Coughlin? Robinson doesn't enlighten us; the most natural and open of performers remains an enigma as a man. Appended are several pages of Rogers's gags, but no index, filmography, bibliography, or notes.
A serviceable account of a famous American, but not a prime example of the biographers' art.
Posted November 16, 2010
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