It's a little ironic that Will Rogers plays a homeless tramp in his first comedy for the Hal Roach Studio; ironic because Rogers was in severe financial difficulty at the time. He certainly wasn't homeless, but pretty close to broke. Rogers had been in the movie business since 1918 when he started acting in feature-length comedies for producer Sam Goldwyn. His pictures were generally successful, but when Will decided to turn producer himself and finance his films with his own money it proved to be a mistake. He lost his shirt, and quickly agreed to turn out a series of two-reel comedies for Roach. His biggest hit for Goldwyn had been Jubilo, a comedy-drama in which Will played a philosophical tramp, so it seemed appropriate that he would reprise the role in his first venture for his new studio.
It's apparent that a lot of effort was put into Jus' Passin' Through. At the helm was the Roach Studio's director general at the time, Charley Chase, an expert in comedy construction. (That's why this short is now available in a recently issued DVD set of Chase's early work.) The ensemble features a number of the studio's regular players from the period, everyone from Noah Young and Marie Mosquini to Jimmy Finlayson, who has a very brief bit as a drunk. The cinematography is quite good, with several deep-focus shots at a train station that are strikingly composed. Production values are strong and, happily, the print looks great in its new digital restoration. Despite all of this I have to confess I found the film a little disappointing on my first viewing, though I enjoyed it more the second time. Like a lot of Rogers' movies it's not a laugh-out-loud experience, more of a mood piece with a surprisingly serious undercurrent. The features Rogers made for Fox in the '30s often remind me of episodes of "The Andy Griffith Show," folksy and reflective, while his Roach shorts are generally more harsh in tone; but then, the '20s was a more cynical era. In any case, getting back to this short, director Chase keeps the tempo fairly brisk and provides a steady flow of amusing incidents, and offers some nice character turns by the supporting cast.
In his role as Jubilo our leading man enters the village of Santa Susana in a tattered suit, riding the rails underneath an incoming train. This is a town where tramps are definitely not welcome, but it's the day before Thanksgiving and Jubilo is hungry. Fortunately for him, the sheriff and his deputy are comically incompetent when it comes to catching vagrants, so the odds are good that he'll be able to score a Thanksgiving meal without having to pay for it, especially when he gains the sympathy of the sheriff's pretty daughter.
That's the premise, and it's noticeable almost immediately that Will's rendition of a tramp is closer to the real thing than the Charlie Chaplin version. Jubilo's clothes look genuinely shredded and dirty. Chaplin's Tramp is more of an eccentric misfit than a bum, and he'd usually work hard at a job if given a chance, but Will's Jubilo is proudly lazy, and even willing to break the law in order to get arrested when he learns that he'll receive a free turkey dinner in jail. In the Goldwyn feature Jubilo our protagonist is (deliberately) unsympathetic in the early scenes prior to his reformation, and it's gratifying to see him reform, but the Jubilo of this short comedy remains happily amoral throughout, right down to the final sequence. Perhaps this was part of the reason I wasn't entirely satisfied with the film at first; it takes a bit of an adjustment to accept this guy as the leading player. It's rather like seeing the early Chaplin comedies, back when the Tramp still had his rough edges. Still, like those early Chaplin efforts, Jus' Passin' Through is an interesting record of the culture and attitudes of its time, and Will Rogers manages to imbue his character with considerable charisma, despite his circumstances. This may not be the funniest product of the Hal Roach Studio, but it's offbeat and memorable in its quirky way, and definitely worth a look.
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