Movie Stars: Rogers, Will–Folk Hero in the Depression Era

Will Rogers was the most popular star during the early Depression era. His untimely death in 1935 in an aircrash terminated his career at its height.

Rogers was much more than a movie star, he was a folk hero, an icon. Previously a vaudeville performer, newspaper columnist, and radio personality, Rogers functioned as a homespun philosopher, or as the noted critic Andrew Sarris noted, “a combination of Norman Mailer and Woody Allen, from a somewhat broader base of audience identification.”

The impressive volume of Rogers’ film output (between 1930 and 1935, he appeared in 19 films) enabled him to repeat his philosophy with a good deal of coherence and consistency. An ambassador of rural America and spokesman of common folk, Rogers was often cast as a small-town judge or doctor, individuals who lived a simple life. He cherished the American Way of Life with his two foremost weapons: acerbic humor and commonsensical wit.

As biographer Wiliam R. Brown observed, Rogers embodied three symbols of the American Dream at a time when it was increasingly hard to believe in such values: The dignity of common individuals; democracy as the guarantee of equality; and the ethics of hard work. In his films, Rogers stood against “governmental corruption, financial greed, and changes in morals. These values were extremely important when farmers were suffering a severe decline in their power (and prestige), and when farming was gradually incorporated into the vast technological market economy.

At a time when the American system might have been redirected, with the old values deemed inadequate, Rogers showed there was still vitality in the traditional values.

Rogers’ political commentary (in films, radio programs, newspapers) was instrumental in helping F. D. Roosevelt win the 1932 Elections. “There was something infectious about his humor,” Roosevelt said in his eulogy, “In a time grown too solemn and somber, he brought his countrymen back to a sense of proportion.”