Saturday, January 14, 2012

Screen Gem Saturdays: Shirley Temple & Will Rogers

Will Rogers, an extremely down-to-earth and low key humorist, was one of the world's best-known celebrities in the 1920's and 1930's. He is probably best known for saying, "I never met a man I didn't like." A number one box office draw for 1934, Rogers got knocked down a peg a year later by Shirley Temple in 1935.

On the set of "Baby Take A Bow," Rogers visited the competition. Shirley herself remembered the visit in her autobiography Child Star:

One day Will Rogers had wandered over to watch us during a break from "David Harum," which was being made on an adjoining soundstage. His black felt hat was crumpled and tipped back, allowing a shock of hair to spill over his forehead. Hooking both thumbs in his suspenders and rocking back and forth on his heels, he was a picture of cheerfulness and vitality.

"They tell me we're going to make a movie together about railroading when I get back from Alaska."

"Where's Alaska?" I asked. he gestured for me to sit down with him on a pile of boards. Taking up some little chips of wood, he arranged them on the cement floor to show where Alaska was. Apart from his revelations, I liked him. He wasn't good-looking like some other actors, but his speech had an appealing cadence, and he laughed a lot.

Rogers was sort of my favorite. As I had been born into a middle-class family without pretense, my natural preference went toward outgoing, accessible people like Rogers and the workingmen around the soundstage.

For her 1934 movie "Bright Eyes," much of the plot is centered around an airport, where Shirley's godfather works. It is on an airplane that she sings her most famous song, "On the Goodship Lollipop," which actually refers to a plane, not a boat. Shirley recalls him visiting the set:

Will Rogers had taken a special interest in what we were doing and often hung around our stage. An unofficial cheerleader for aviation, Rogers had written, "There were eight people killed in planes all over America on Sunday, and it's headlined in every paper today. When will newspapers give aviation an even break? If there's a safer mode of transportation, I have never found it." One year later he was dead in an air crash.

Recalling his tragic death, Shirley said:

Near Point Barrow, Alaska, at 8:15 on August 15, 1935, a low-winged red monoplane crashed in the slush ice. Dead in the wreckage was Wiley Post, who the previous year had circumnavigated the earth in the record time of seven days and eighteen hours. Accompanying him on this last, fatal flight was Will Rogers. Ripples from the arctic accident reached Hollywood with telling impact. For newly born Twentieth Century-Fox (Rogers' and Temple's studio), Rogers' death was a catastrophe. In all this darkness flickered on pinprick of hope. Although only number with, I suddenly was the only studio performer among the top ten.

Shirley is shown here with some of Hollywood's behind-the-scenes bigwigs, including (left to right) MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, Darryl Zanuck from Twentieth Century Fox, Joseph Schenck (one of the founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences), California Governor Frank Merriam, and humorist Irvin S. Cobb.

Shirley remembers the occasion:

At the studio a new soundstage was being dedicated to Rogers' memory on November 15, 1935. Newly elected California Governor Frank Merriam was there. Nevada Senator Pat McCarran came wearing high-heeled cowboy boots and a ten-gallon white hat, and many close friends delivered long eulogies. Joseph Schenck called me from the audience to pull the curtain aside and unveil the memorial plaque.

"Now you say something," he instructed and backed away a pace, his mouth gaping open like a gargoyle's. The others before me had said everything.

"I loved him too," was all I could add.

As our group disbanded, around the corner came a vanguard of carpenters for "Captain January." Within days the new soundstage would be transformed from an echoing, vacant hall into a fog-shrouded Maine coast, complete with lighthouse.

21 years later, Shirley came back to the studio and was shown posing next to the very same plaque:

I'll leave you with some of Rogers' more memorable quotes:

"Americans will feed anyone that's not close to them."

"Our foreign policy is an open book - a checkbook."

"Lettin' the cat out of the bag is a lot easier than puttin' it back in."

"People who fly into a rage always make a bad landing."

"The movies are the only business where you can go out front and applaud yourself."

"There is only one thing that can kill the movies, and that is education."

"I'm not a real movie star. I still got the same wife I started out with nearly 28 years ago."

See more vintage & current Shirley Temple photos on my Shirley Temple web page.


Major Pepperidge said...

That's a cute photo of Rogers and little Shirley.

A year ago (or so) I visited Will Rogers State Park, and you can see his original home and stables, and take a horse ride around the remaining propterty. It's very nice!

Connie Moreno said...

I haven't been to Will Rogers State Park since I was a kid and I remember starting at a large photo of him and thinking to myself: "I wish I could have met him".