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A family faces hard times in this surprisingly topical film
Will Rogers was known as a humorist, but that doesn't mean his movies were strictly for laughs. Down to Earth was made when the Great Depression was hitting its nadir: banks were failing, civil unrest was worsening, and the financial crisis was sweeping the world. By 1932 a lot of people who'd come through the Wall Street Crash of '29 with their savings intact were losing their jobs or their businesses and starting to feel the pain. That's what this comedy-drama is all about, and consequently the emphasis is on drama, especially in the final scenes. Viewers expecting nonstop chuckles may be disappointed, but as a longtime fan of Rogers' Fox features I'm especially fond of this one, which I feel is the most emotionally moving film he ever made.
Will and Irene Rich reprise their roles as Pike & Idy Peters, a married couple from Oklahoma introduced in the early talkie They Had to See Paris. In that film the middle-class Peters family suddenly strike it rich, and Mrs. Peters and their two grown children are soon spoiled by their new wealth while Pike looks on bemused. They Had to See Paris, which happened to be Will's first talkie, was released just before the stock market crash. Three years later this sequel finds the Pike family still living high on the hog despite the Depression. (Rogers and Rich return from the earlier film, but their son is now played by a different actor while their daughter has inexplicably vanished.) The tone is set from the opening scene, when son Ross shows up in a flashy new car that cost him thousands of dollars, while Dad still drives a perfectly good, weathered jalopy. Idy Peters is now an insufferable snob, obsessed with making an impression on the other wealthy wives yet unaware that behind her back they're laughing her off as a social climber. Pike is worried about his business, upset that his family won't cut back on spending, and, in a running gag that provides a bit of comic relief, irritated that his every move is watched by a sternly disapproving butler, whom he hates.
There are a number of strong scenes, but two in particular stand out for me. First, when Pike's financial trouble reaches a crisis point, his business associate Ed Eggers offers to give him some shares of stock as a gift to tide him over. Pike is moved almost to the point of tears by the gesture, even when it's revealed that the stock is worthless. In addition to being poignant this sequence stands as convincing evidence that Will Rogers was more than a screen personality who simply played himself, he was a genuinely skilled actor, natural and unaffected. This scene is also notable for off-beat casting. Edgar Kennedy played Ed Eggers as a bluff comic figure in They Had to See Paris, but here he's played by Clarence Wilson, a character actor most often cast as sour S.O.B.s. Usually we find Wilson as a mean old guy who orders the Our Gang kids to stop playing on his property, or a banker who takes sadistic pleasure in foreclosing on tenants and kicking them out into the snow. Seeing him in such a sympathetic role adds to the power of this scene.
The second and more flamboyant dramatic highlight comes towards the end, at a lavish costume ball in the Peters home, thrown by Idy to honor a Russian dignitary who'd been a high-ranking noble under the Czarist regime. (She's unaware that in recent times he's been reduced to working as a uniformed doorman at a Chicago hotel, one more sign of the times.) Everyone at the ball wears 18th century finery such as silk breeches and powdered wigs, even Pike, although he's not happy about it. During the party Pike learns that his business has gone under and his son has gambled away what was left of the family's savings. Still wearing his silly costume Pike takes the stage and delivers a blistering address to the assembled guests. He admits that he's broke and says his family has been living too lavishly, and adds that it's wrong for people in his position to blame the hard times for their own mistakes. With mounting fury he says it's taken an international catastrophe to beat some sense into his head, then denounces his guests as "parasites" and "leeches," and orders them out of his house. It's a startling scene, unique in Will Rogers' work. When I first saw this movie as a teenager on late-night T.V. that scene really burned itself into my memory, and if anything it's even more powerful today.
When this film was first released, oddly enough, the Fox Studio chose to advertise it as "a story flooded with side-splitting humor" and "a scream from start to finish." That's far from accurate, but maybe they didn't want to scare audiences away with the truth: this is a hard-hitting story of a family struggling with the impact of the Depression, leavened with humor but not exactly side-splitting. That said, I do feel Down to Earth is one of the best Will Rogers features. I count it among my favorites, and hope it becomes more widely available.
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