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Will Rogers Collection: Vol. 2 (Ambassador Bill / David Harum / Mr. Skitch / Too Busy to Work)
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Disc 1: AMBASSADOR BILL 1931 (B&W) Disc 2: DAVID HARUM 1934 (B&W) Disc 3: MR SKITCH -1933 (B&W) Disc 4: TOO BUSY TO WORK 1932 (B&W)
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"Too Busy to Work," a drama with comedy highlights, will bemuse anyone who doesn't appreciate that Rogers played the "Jubilo" character in several movies throughout his career, this movie being the culmination and apothesis of them all, right down to the little jig step in Jubilo's stride. "David Harum" has as much sentiment but even more comedy and is a lot of fun to watch, no matter what your opinion of Stepin Fetchit.
"Ambassador Bill" weaves uneasily between sentimental comedy and broader, "Duck Soup"-style political satire that finally (and thankfully) predominates in the last third of the movie.
As with Volume 1, there are some good extra features included, the most interesting being the "He Chews to Talk" featurette with the famous "unemployment relief" speech. Any Rogers collection is better than none, but if we're only going to get one or two more of these, let's do Will proud and collect "Dr. Bull," "Judge Priest," "The County Chairman," and "State Fair."
The first movie in this set is a short and fun one. Ambassador Bill shows off all of the charms of the legendary Rogers with great ease. His trademark personality brings about plenty of humor in the film. There is nothing really important in this movie, but it is an enjoyable way to pass the time. Bill Harper (Rogers) is the US Ambassador to Sylvania, a troubled country in the midst of a revolution. The former ambassador has suffered a nervous breakdown, so the US sends Bill to take over the job. The elite in Sylvania are corrupt individuals intent on taking power, and Bill is an unwanted foil to their plans. The young king (Tad Alexander) quickly takes to Ambassador Bill; the two play baseball together. The queen (Marguerite Churchill) appreciates his efforts to reunite her with the abdicated king (Ray Milland), although she fights the reconciliation. Although Bill's manners do not mesh well in Sylvania, he charms many people there, and the powerful abhor him. To get rid of him once and for all, they plant a beautiful young girl (Greta Nissen) in his room and hope for the best.
Too Busy To Work is the best film of the lot, an excellent example of just how good Rogers could be. Here he plays Jubilo, a man who roams the world and refuses to work. His life's ambition is to find the man that charmed his wife away from him while he was away at war. Finally, after years of searching, he stumbles upon the house of his enemy. There, he gets a job as a farmhand at the insistance of his daughter (Marian Nixon) who does not recognize him. (After all, she was only a baby when her mother re-married, and her mother is dead now.) Jubilo decides not to tell her the truth, but he does his best to ensure her happiness. When her boyfriend (Dick Powell) gets mixed up in a crime ring, Jubilo does his best to get him out. The entire cast is excellent here and each perform to the best of their abilities. The story is sentimental and sweet, a treat to watch many times over.
Mr. Skitch is your typical Depression era story, although the film is quite rare. Usually, Hollywood avoided such sad topics and moved on to a lighter fare, but Rogers' popularity as an average man made it possible for audiences to connect happily to the character. As a result, this film features events very much like The Grapes of Wrath, but instead presents them lightheartedly and ends happily. The Skitch family has been uprooted; the local bank has foreclosed and lost off of the family's money. Unhappily, the gang packs up into their car, and makes way for California, the land of dreams. Mr. Skitch (Rogers) is in charge, Mrs. Skitch (Zasu Pitts) takes care of the food and the children, the twins Winnie and Minnie (or is it Minnie and Winnie?) describe every location they visit like travelling Encyclopedias, Little Ira (Wally Albright) questions the validity of everything, and Emily (Rochelle Hudson) falls in love. Lots of minor events occur, but the general feeling is of optimism in spite of the desperate times.
David Harem is the weakest entry. It concerns Rogers as a horse trader who constantly tries to trick the local Deacon (Charles Middleton) into getting a bad deal. David gets tricked instead, and winds up with a tempermental horse that won't move unless he is sung to. Trying to make the best of a bad situation, David enters him into a race, hoping he has stumbled onto something special. Stepin Fetchit appears as a stable hand, and although he is normally a pretty good comic underneath the racial stereotypes, here he is more embarassing than anything.
Overall, this is a worthwhile set to have to experience the talents of a forgotten star. Also included is a booklet with information on all four films which come with cards for their scene selection menus.
"Ambassador Bill" (1931) is an early Rogers vehicle as he plays the title role. Sent to a foreign country and at first, shocking the officials with his down-home diplomacy & etiquette, he then teaches its boy-king how to be a regular boy. The friendship between Rogers & the boy-king is quite touching, Rogers briefly shows off his rope tricks, and even a young Ray Milland is in the cast! "Too Busy To Work" (1932) has Rogers re-prising the role of Jubilo the bum, which he first played in the silent era. It's a balance of comedy & drama as Rogers plays a seemingly ineffectual & "lazy" drifter who winds up affecting everyone around him. Its closing shot of Rogers strolling down a country road to his next adventure is strikingly reminiscent of Chaplin's ending in "Modern Times". "Mr. Skitch" (1933) begins with echoes of the Depression era as Rogers & family lose their their home, load up the jalopy, and travel from Missouri to California to start over. This gives Rogers opportunity to converse with several interesting characters en route. "David Harum" (1934) has Rogers at his eccentric best as a bank owner/horse trader who affects the lives of a new bank employee & his object of affections during the 1890's. Its climax is memorable as Rogers discovers his horse loves song during a harness race, and before you know it, the entire crowd is singing along!
What's so enchanting about these films is that all Rogers had to do is play himself, while everything else took a back seat or just coasted along. Rogers didn't have to do broad humor to get laughs; all he had to do was drawl one of his humorous observations & hang his head in shyness, and an audience was hooked.
A wonderful talent is thankfully preserved on DVD...and I'm sure glad to have "met" him!