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During the 1923-4 season Will Rogers made a dozen or so two-reel
comedies for the Hal Roach Studio, and it seems that no one has ever
thought very highly of them. Contemporary critics were generally
unimpressed, Will himself dismissed the films as second rate or worse,
and his biographers have for the most part followed suit. While none of
the surviving films has emerged as a neglected gem, several are
pleasant and amusing, and certainly deserve a second look. This is
especially true of Will's satires of his screen contemporaries,
Uncensored Movies and its follow-up, Big Moments from Little Pictures.
The latter is the sharper and funnier of the two, but both will surely
be of interest to silent film buffs.
These lightweight satires were made at a time when Hollywood was still recovering from a series of ugly, damaging scandals. "Middle America" was especially outraged at the widely reported loose morals of Filmland's citizens, and this provided Rogers with an angle for Uncensored Movies. The premise is that Will, who has returned from a West Coast fact-finding trip, is here to deliver a report to his fellow townsfolk on the immoral behavior he found in Hollywood. At a public meeting he sets up his projector and shows what are supposedly clips from home movies he took on his trip, as well as scenes from scandalous works in progress at the studios. Somewhat surprisingly, considering Will Rogers' own down-home appeal, the townsfolk are subjected to as much ridicule as the Hollywood types; the villagers at this meeting are presented as low-comedy rubes and hayseeds, straight out of a Mack Sennett barnyard farce.
At any rate, the targets of parody include legendary cowboy heroes William S. Hart and Tom Mix, along with Rudolph Valentino in his persona as The Sheik; there are also passing references to other stars of the era. Will's impersonation of Bill Hart is dead-on, but unfortunately the sequence isn't especially funny, and it ends on a flat note. (Besides, Buster Keaton had already nailed Hart to the wall, satirically speaking, in The Frozen North.) The Valentino parody is mildly amusing, but it was all too easy to poke fun at Rudy, and all the satirists took a crack at him. The Tom Mix sequence is terrific, however, with some laugh-out-loud funny bits, including a gag employing rudimentary animation and a genuinely exciting chase. Will Rogers and Tom Mix were friends off camera, and perhaps the personal edge boosted the humor in this segment.
Maybe it's more of an artifact for film buffs than anything else now, but despite its uneven quality Uncensored Movies is still rewarding for viewers interested in the popular culture of the 1920s. It's no masterpiece, but the laughs are there.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The available Will Rogers shorts show off Will's great self-effacing comedy, and ability to takes pokes at big institutions; in this case, Hollywood. In this time, movies had to be passed through a checkerboard of state and local review boards with their own moral standards. So the idea of a local "Clean Screens Society" sending someone to "investigate" Hollywood morals is not that far-fetched. Will shows up "home movies" of what no doubt were many movie clichés he and other actors were already tired of, even in film's infancy. His William S. Hart parody is yet another edition of the bad man who still comes home to his "ma." And Will's expose of what "really" happens when the posse is always trying to bust down "that pine door" is likely not far from the truth: while the posse rounds up a log to batter the door of a saloon exterior, we peek behind the facade wall to see the abducted maiden calmly smoking a cigarette while the villain has his nose buried in a movie magazine. Sometimes the best part of a comedy film is how it shows us what its audiences laughed at at the time.
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