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Edward F. Cline
In small-town America the easy-going publisher of the local paper finds himself in opposition to the local banker on the return to town of a lad jailed possibly wrongly for a theft from the bank. Written by
Jeremy Perkins <email@example.com>
By the 1930s Will Rogers had attained the status of a national institution. He was more just than a humorist; thanks to the rapidly developing mass communications media he was as familiar to most Americans as a member of the family. People read Will's syndicated column in their local newspapers daily, they listened to his talks on the radio, and they went to see his movies. When I was a kid in Oklahoma, Rogers' home state, one of my teachers told us that she used to call off afternoon classes and take her students to see the latest Will Rogers picture at a nearby theater. Thirty years after his death, Rogers was still fondly remembered.
Today most of Will's Fox studio vehicles from the '30s are available on DVD and are generally entertaining for buffs, but some viewers may find the star's near-heroic stature a little hard to fathom. Rogers himself comes off as a charming, avuncular figure who ambles through his scenes and delivers his lines with an endearing awkwardness. He usually rephrased the dialog he was given and was famously averse to retakes, which meant that his fellow actors had to be especially alert to catch their cues. The plots, especially with the later films, tend to follow a well-worn pattern: Will is a respected small-town figure (judge, doctor, lawyer, etc.) who stands in opposition to the mean-spirited bankers or other malefactors of great wealth who run things and make people miserable. Will's position in the community allows him to comment on modern mores, new fads, and, occasionally, on the contemporary political scene. He usually acts as matchmaker between the juvenile leads, and sometimes helps clear a person wrongly accused of a crime. Once you've seen a couple of the movies you pick up on the formula, but for this star the formula worked like a charm, and watching the films today one can imagine how satisfying they were for anxious, Depression-weary audiences who needed reassurance.
Life Begins at Forty is a typical Rogers vehicle and one of the more enjoyable ones. Will plays Kenesaw "Ken" Clark, editor and chief columnist of the Plainview Citizen, the only newspaper in town. It's a perfect role for Will, as it reflected his real-life career in journalism and gave him a platform to comment on the foibles of humanity, both locally and in a broader sense. The plot concerns the trouble that erupts when Ken hires a new assistant, a young man recently released from jail after being convicted of stealing from the local bank where he was employed. The young man (Richard Cromwell) soon falls for the pretty schoolteacher (Rochelle Hudson) who believes in his innocenceas do we all. He must be okay, Will Rogers wouldn't hire a crook! But the young man's former boss, a pompous banker blessed with the moniker Joseph Abercrombie (George Barbier, excellent as usual) remains convinced of his guilt, while the banker's son, shifty-eyed Joe Jr., may know more about the crime than he lets on.
That's the gist of it, but the primary pleasures to be found in Life Begins at Forty are not in the storyline. This is a star vehicle, and the star obliges us with a number of his characteristic quips. For instance, when his friend Ida (the wonderful Jane Darwell) comments on the charity work of local ladies who are raising money for starving people overseas, he remarks: "Americans'll feed anyone who don't live close to 'em." During an extended sequence in a modern kitchen Will marvels at the abundance of goods and groceries available to American housewives, Depression notwithstanding, and observes that instead of the bald eagle our national symbol should be the can-opener. As per usual for a Rogers film much of the humor is verbal, but director George Marshall (who'd worked with Laurel & Hardy, and would later direct a number of vehicles for Bob Hope) provides two set-pieces of visual comedy: the first is a hog calling contest that ends in mass confusion, and the second is a comic duel between Will and his nemesis, the banker. These sequences fall a little short of comic genius but they're pleasant and amusing, and boost the film's entertainment value. Although attention is focused mainly on Rogers, buffs will enjoy the contributions of the highly polished supporting cast. In addition to Barbier and Darwell there are nice character turns by Sterling Holloway, Keystone veteran Slim Summerville, and Charles Sellon, forever remembered as the ornery blind man Mr. Muckle in W.C. Fields' It's a Gift. Comic actor T. Roy Barnes, the salesman who was searching for Carl LaFong, can be spotted here too.
One rather strange aspect of this movie is the finale, when a backyard dance celebrating the engagement of the young lovers is disrupted by an angry mob. The mob's leaders believe, erroneously as it turns out, that the groom has attempted to murder the banker's son, and they're out for blood. The near riot that ensues is a startling climax to this otherwise low-key comedy, but I guess it goes without saying that things end happily for the good folk, while the bad guys are punished. This is a Will Rogers movie after all, and our hero wouldn't have it any other way. I wonder if my teacher of long ago took her class to see this film when it was new. If so, I bet they had a good time. Life Begins at Forty is still an entertaining flick with much to recommend it.
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