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Life Begins at 40

Life Begins at 40(1935)

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teaser Life Begins at 40 (1935)

Hollywood legend claims that an avuncular, middle-aged man and a little girl saved Fox Films Corp. from financial collapse during the mid-1930s. Indeed, the films of Will Rogers and Shirley Temple proved to be enormously successful at the box office, securing some much needed cash flow for the studio. After William Fox lost his fortune in the stock market crash, he was unable to refinance his loans for Fox Films Corp., which was sold to his creditors in 1930. Fox never fully recovered until its merger with Darryl F. Zanuck's 20th Century Pictures in May 1935. Attributing the survival of the studio to the films of Rogers and Temple may be Hollywood hyperbole, but Rogers was the studio's top box-office attraction until his untimely death in August 1935.

Rogers had appeared in films during the silent era, and many had been moderately successful, but silent movies did not showcase his greatest asset--his homespun philosophy and common-sense commentary delivered in a self-effacing style with a down-home accent. Beginning in 1929 with They Had to See Paris, Rogers starred in 20 sound films, all of them for Fox; it was talking pictures that made him the studio's top box-office draw.

After costarring in State Fair in 1933, Rogers jumped to the number-one position in the Motion Picture Exhibitors' Poll of leading box-office stars. The film earned $1.5 million at the box office and gave Rogers the clout to select his own scripts. He was also tapped to host the Academy Awards ceremony in 1934, a measure of his status in the Hollywood community.

One of the properties Rogers selected was based on a best-selling novel titled Life Begins at 40 by Walter B. Pitkin, which contained some homespun philosophy. However, the screenplay by Lamar Trotti bore little resemblance to Pitkin's original book. And, though Robert Quillen--a small-town newspaper editor from South Carolina--is credited with writing additional dialogue, he didn't provide a single word used in the final script. While Trotti structured the narrative and Quillen offered some suggestions to capture the local color of small-town life, Rogers' dialogue was improvised by the actor himself. Accustomed to speaking off the cuff during his vaudeville days or on the radio, he never memorized dialogue or rehearsed a scene when making movies. He preferred to get the gist of the scene from reading the script or from a description by the director and then ad lib his dialogue, so that his lines were natural and spontaneous.

Rogers plays small-town newspaper editor Kenesaw H. Clark in the lightweight comedy. Kenesaw involves himself with the lives and problems of his hometown residents who respect his wisdom and follow his advice. He befriends Lee Austin, an ex-con who was falsely accused of robbing the local bank, owned and operated by the curmudgeonly Col. Joseph Abercrombie. When he gives Austin a job at the newspaper, Abercrombie threatens to call in the loans Kenesaw had taken out to buy the latest printing equipment. Refusing to be bullied, the editor quits his position at the Plain View Citizen and starts a rival newspaper, the Wildcat, with Austin. Helping the pair to get started in their new venture are neighbors Ida Harris, Adele Anderson, and a screechy-voiced teen named Chris. Romance quickly blossoms between Lee and Adele, which sparks the jealousy of Abercrombie's hot-headed, irresponsible son, Joe, Jr.

In the meantime, Kenesaw decides that lazy, good-for-nothing T. Watterson Meriwether should run for school-board president against Abercrombie, Sr. Meriwether, whose large brood and overbearing wife give him good reason to pass the day sleeping at the newspaper office, objects to Kenesaw's plan--and work in general--but warms up to the idea after receiving a newfound respect from his friends and neighbors. Abercrombie tries to maneuver Meriwether out of the race, while Joe, Jr. slanders Adele in the Plain View Citizen to invoke the ire of Lee Austin. After Lee springs to Adele's defense and slugs Joe, Jr., the unlucky young man lands in jail. Kenesaw proceeds to untangle his friends from their troubles by setting the supercilious, self-important Abercrombies straight.

Life Begins at 40 is typical of the type of story associated with Rogers in the sound era, and Kenesaw H. Clark closely follows the star image of "the most popular man in America," as the world-famous entertainer was called at the time. The Rogers vehicles were generally set in small-town America, where residents all know each other, and picnics, hog-callings, and hayrides are the order of the day. The bucolic settings evoke nostalgia for an idealized time or place that never really existed. Americans have always associated their heritage and identity with small-town life--but never more so than during the Depression. Rogers' films embraced and exaggerated the small-town ideal to the point of mythmaking.

Rogers generally played a bachelor or widower, because he genuinely disliked participating in stories or scenes involving romance for his characters. Instead, he tended to stage-manage the romances of the secondary characters just as he orchestrates the relationship of Adele Anderson and Lee Austin in Life Begins at 40. Rogers played fair-minded men of some authority who were trustworthy, reliable, and supportive of ordinary folk. Rogers' characters took on tyrants, hypocrites, wealthy autocrats, and liars, all the while offering commentary on life, love, and politics as the town's front-porch philosopher.

Social commentary had made Will Rogers famous, but by the time he was appearing in sound films, he had altered the nature and tone of his observations and criticisms. As a star of the Ziegfeld Follies during the Roaring '20s, Rogers dressed as a cowboy to offer pointed political commentary and critical social observations while twirling a lariat. Called the Cowboy Philosopher, Rogers affected a rural or western persona that differentiated him from the modern urban world and linked him to traditional America during a period of great social change and unprecedented economic prosperity. After the stock market crash, Rogers became less critical of the government and softened his caustic or flippant tone. While he no longer performed in vaudeville at the time of the crash, he was in great demand as a public speaker, appeared in movies, and wrote a nationally syndicated column. He evolved from the sharp-tongued cowboy commentator to the archetypal everyman, who--like many Americans--was baffled by the machinations of politicians and tycoons. Rogers did not shy away from pointing out the lunacy of government policies, the hubris of the wealthy, or the inequities of society, but during the Depression, he saw himself as a ray of optimism whose purpose was to reassure America that they could weather the storm. In his sound films, that reassurance took the form of reminding viewers of traditions and values associated with their country's agrarian heritage and small-town roots.

In Life Begins at 40, Kenesaw H. Clark's identity as the town philosopher is immediately announced in the first shot, which tilts down a statue of Diogenes. According to a plaque at the base of the statue, Diogenes was an ancestor of the protagonist. However, it's not really Kenesaw H. Clark who is being associated with the Greek philosopher, it is Will Rogers, whose self-sufficiency and outspokenness matched that of the ancient philosopher as did his oft-stated contention that wealth and status mattered little compared to complete independence of mind. Kenesaw is shown composing a witticism for his newspaper editorial that is related to the film's title: "A man at 40 is as old as he feels. . . a woman at 40 is almost 29." The scene is a reminder of Rogers's real-life syndicated column in which he offered wry observations on daily life or topical events. The entertainer had begun penning a column titled "Will Rogers Says" in 1922, which was eventually syndicated. The reference to Diogenes and the scene of Kenesaw composing a wry witticism left no doubt for viewers that Life Begins at 40 featured their beloved Will Rogers in his familiar persona.

Kenesaw's nemesis in the film is a wealthy banker who uses his money and clout to get his way rather than for the benefit of the town. Bankers made for good antagonists during the Depression, and they were often fodder for Rogers' humor. When Kenesaw notes in the movie that rich men are all alike and "they spend their life making money then don't know what to do with it," the sentiment is reminiscent of those expressed by Rogers himself. In the course of the film, Kenesaw makes a fool of Joseph Abercrombie, Sr., and also discovers that Joe, Jr. was responsible for the theft that Lee Austin had been accused of. His efforts remind viewers that honesty, integrity, and the innate goodness of ordinary folks outmatches clout, wealth, and social station. Like most of Rogers' films during the sound era, Life Begins at 40 offers solace and reassurance in American traditions and small-town values wrapped in a package of wry wit and homespun humor. As such, Rogers' films served as a source of comfort for Depression-weary audiences.

Rogers' films could always be counted on for an array of colorful characters played by Fox Film's veteran actors. In Life Begins at 40, the cast includes Jane Darwell as Ida Harris. Darwell later played Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1940), her most memorable role. Rochelle Hudson, who had appeared in Judge Priest (1934) with Rogers, plays Adele Anderson, while squeaky-voiced Sterling Holloway is Kenesaw's young sidekick Chris. Slim Summerville, who had begun his career at Keystone with Mack Sennett, complements Rogers' chatty character as the lazy, slow-speaking T. Watterson Meriwether. Rogers was well-liked by costars because of his willingness to allow them to share the spotlight. Though clearly the star, he treated his fellow actors as equals and often increased the size of their roles or persuaded the director to give them more screen time or close-ups. He also coached them in how to respond to his improvisations during a scene and still stay in character.

Just after the production of Life Begins at 40 was complete, Fox offered Will Rogers a new contract. On January 31, 1935, Rogers shook hands on a ten-film, $1.1 million deal. In March, The New York Times reported that the deal was a solid three-year contract. Rogers was experiencing a career peak at the time. He was Fox's top box-office draw, a star on the radio, and a nationally syndicated columnist. In August, Will Rogers, an advocate for the aviation industry, died in a plane crash with aviator Wiley Post on an excursion to Alaska. The most popular man in America was dead at age 55.

Producer: Sol M. Wurtzel
Director: George Marshall
Screenplay: Lamar Trotti with dialogue by Robert Quillen, based on the book by Walter B. Pitkin
Cinematography: Harry Jackson
Editor: Alex Troffey
Art Director: Duncan Cramer and Albert Hogsett
Costume Designer: Lillian
Cast: Kenesaw H. Clark (Will Rogers), Adele Anderson (Rochelle Hudson), Lee Austin (Richard Cromwell), Joseph Abercrombie, Sr. (George Barbier), Ida Harris (Jane Darwell), T. Watterson Meriwether (Slim Summerville), Chris (Sterling Holloway), Joe Abercrombie, Jr. (Thomas Beck), Pappy Smithers (Roger Imhof), Tom Cotton (Charles Sellon), Mrs. T. Watterson Meriwether (Claire Du Brey).

by Susan Doll

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