He's best remembered as ''the cowboy philosopher'' who never met a man he didn't like. But Will Rogers was once something of a movie star, playing variations of himself in Depression-era comedies. For generations who know Rogers only by reputation, four films just released on video provide a fascinating introduction. The two earliest ones, Ambassador Bill and A Connecticut Yankee (both 1931) are broadly contrived star vehicles that place the folksy Rogers in catfish-out-of-water contexts. More satisfying are the two later vehicles that keep Rogers closer to home, where he can serve up heaping helpings of that cowboy philosophy without a lot of cinematic fuss.
In Mr. Skitch, Rogers heads west with his family after the bank forecloses on their Missouri home. Along the road, they encounter a colorful cross section of fellow Americans, who embody Rogers' common-sense views on people and politics. The effect is of a gently comic Grapes of Wrath, offering sugarcoated social comment that seems all too applicable to the economic troubles of today.
Doubting Thomas places Rogers in even more natural surroundings: He's a small-town leading citizen whose wife (Billie Burke) gets carried away with a pretentious local theater group. While these utterly untalented amateurs stumble through rehearsals, Rogers comments on the proceedings with curmudgeonly observations. His main concern is keeping his wife in the kitchen. Alas, when it came to women's rights, Mr. Rogers wasn't even slightly ahead of his time.
But what comes through in each of these movies is the sly humor and downhome skepticism that made Will Rogers the common man's favorite pundit. As evidenced here, not all of his homespun wit and wisdom has stood the test of time. What's impressive, however, is how much of it has. Mr. Skitch: B+ Doubting Thomas: B