Strange as it may seem, during the first half of the 20th century, the conventions held by our two preeminent political parties actually served a practical purpose.
Unlike the carefully scripted infomercials of our time, those messier gatherings tended to be less predictable, though not necessarily more fun. To take one notable example, the Democratic National Convention of 1924 was a stupefying ordeal that dragged on for more than two weeks during a deadly mid-summer heat wave in New York’s Madison Square Garden. Delegates had to cast 103 separate ballots before they could determine who would have the honor of getting clobbered by Calvin Coolidge in the fall.
The prolonged process exasperated even career politicians and hardened reporters, but in the midst of it all there was one modest bright spot, a respite off ered to cheer the attendees for twenty minutes or so: a motion picture comedy short supplied by the Hal Roach Studio of Culver City, California, entitled Going to Congress. The film had a suitably political theme and its leading player just happened to be present at the convention, which he was covering as a journalist for the McNaught Syndicate. Will Rogers was a movie star who wrote for the newspapers, and he was more than that, besides.
Rogers had become a headliner in vaudeville with his novelty rope act, in which he would twirl a lariat and lasso a rider who would gallop past him repeatedly on a pony. His skill was impressive, but he soon found that audiences appreciated his personality and wry quips as much as his roping. Rogers, an Oklahoma cowboy with Cherokee blood, was himself something of a novelty. Typical stage comedians of the day tended to poke fun at recent immigrants, portraying them as greenhorns who mangled the English language, but Rogers, with his Indian heritage and first-hand experience of cattle drives, was the polar opposite of a foreigner; he was as American as it was possible to be. By 1916, when he was appearing in the Ziegfeld Follies, Rogers had dropped the roping from his routine and become a full-fledged stand-up comedian. His act, improvised fresh at each performance, consisted largely of topical humor, often with a strong political bent. One of his remarks is still regularly quoted: “I’m not a member of any organized party—I am a Democrat.” Less frequently cited is an observation from a 1933 radio broadcast: “When a Republican turns Democrat, that is just like a horse thief joining the church.”
Rogers made his film debut in 1918. Movies were still silent, of course, and as a humorist who relied on words he was clearly at a disadvantage in the medium. Plus, he was already middle-aged, a family man, and hardly a matinee idol in looks. Nonetheless, Will starred in several features for producer Samuel Goldwyn, usually playing a goodnatured hobo. Even voiceless, he was a moderately popular attraction. After the stint with Goldwyn came to an end, Rogers decided to finance his own films, but this proved to be a disastrous move. His three productions failed and he lost a bundle.
Hear Will Rogers address the American Bankers Association in 1922.
Then he was forced to scramble for new projects to work off his debts. At this unhappy juncture, producer Hal Roach offered Rogers a contract to appear in a series of two-reel shorts, which would be released during the 1923 – 24 season. In addition to starring, Will was encouraged to contribute title-card jokes in his familiar style.
Rogers worked hard, but was unhappy with his first efforts for Roach. He was uncomfortable with slapstick, and felt the films didn’t reflect his sense of humor. “All I ever do on the Roach lot,” he complained to a friend, “is run around barns and lose my pants.” After several comedies in which he played a hobo or a cowboy, and a pair in which he poked fun at Hollywood stars, Rogers decided to tackle the political scene, a topic ripe for satire but risky as well. At this time, the Teapot Dome scandal was red-hot and making headlines daily. Criminal involvement in oil drilling leases by government officials was the crux of the matter, but, like Watergate in a later era, the phrase itself came to describe a larger, pervasive pattern of corruption, deceit, and flagrant misconduct by elected leaders. It was an audacious time for Rogers to poke fun at politicians, but topical humor was the essence of his work. Going to Congress was the first of what would become a trilogy of comedies in which Will portrayed feckless hayseed Alfalfa Doolittle: candidate, congressman, and, eventually, ambassador. The series captured Rogers’ comic sensibility better than anything else from his silent era output.
“ALL I EVER DO ON THE ROACH LOT,” HE COMPLAINED TO A FRIEND, “IS RUN AROUND BARNS AND LOSE MY PANTS.”
“American politics is the most obliging thing we have,” reads the introduction to Going to Congress. “One hundred million people have six men in every state who make up their minds for them every four years.” To illustrate the point, we are shown several grubby-looking party bosses in a dark, smoke-filled room. They are seeking a candidate for Congress, someone squeaky-clean. (In an oblique reference to the oil scandal, one prospect is rejected because he once worked in a filling station.) Alfalfa Doolittle is selected mainly because “scandal has never touched his person.” Neither, it appears, has work. Our candidate, who seems to spend his days exchanging wisecracks with cronies in a general store, isn’t overjoyed when the offer arrives, but he chooses to run anyhow. On the campaign trail, Doolittle learns how to project false humility, claiming in a speech to a small-town crowd that he doesn’t wear a collar. (Formal shirt-collars were detachable then, and symbolized high- minded authority.) Yet when he reaches for a handkerchief to dab his face, a collar tumbles out of his pocket. The candidate is on safer ground kissing babies, and does so happily. He hesitates, however, when an African American infant is held before him.This dubious gag has been removed from some prints of the film, but whether it should be read as an expression of Rogers’ own sense of humor or a dig at the Alfalfa Doolittles of his day, is an open question.
At the height of the campaign, Doolittle debates his opponent. The other fellow promises lower taxes, protection for the poor, honesty in government, etc. Alfalfa promises rain. The voters decide that rain would be most welcomed, so Doolittle wins the election. In the film’s final scenes we meet the new congressman’s wife and daughter. We also observe that Alfalfa is getting a swelled head. He compares himself favorably to statesman William Jennings Bryan, and during the train ride to Washington, D.C., loudly remarks that he doesn’t want to keep the president waiting—which, as expected, causes heads to turn. On arrival, Doolittle is annoyed when he finds no reception committee. He is flattered to meet a fawning young lady who gushes over him, but she turns out to be a thief who steals his pocket watch. Even so, as our hero marches toward the Capitol building in the film’s final shot, ramrod straight and sporting a top hat, he appears perfectly clueless.
GOING TO CONGRESS WAS THE FIRST OF WHAT WOULD BECOME A TRILOGY OF COMEDIES IN WHICH WILL PORTRAYED FECKLESS HAYSEED ALFALFA DOOLITTLE: CANDIDATE, CONGRESSMAN, AND, EVENTUALLY, AMBASSADOR.
THE SERIES CAPTURED ROGERS’ COMIC SENSIBILITY BETTER THAN ANYTHING ELSE FROM HIS SILENT ERA OUTPUT.
It would be interesting to learn something about the reception accorded this film by convention delegates at Madison Square Garden, especially the office holders. In any case, Rogers and his colleagues were sufficiently pleased with the general response to continue Doolittle’s story. In the sequel, Our Congressman, we find the Doolittle family comfortably settled in Washington, but it is clear that power has spoiled them. Alfalfa struts before reporters and milks a cow for newsreel cameras while sporting a fancy morning coat and silk topper. When he examines his mail, we observe that his constituents are angry; along with a note reading “US FARMERS NEED HELP,” one disgruntled man has sent Doolittle a shoebox full of live locusts. Meanwhile, the congressman’s wife and daughter have succumbed to snobbery, turning away a group of folks while they make plans to attend a weekend party thrown by a wealthy couple, the Hemingway- Abbotts, at their estate Blah-hurst. His constituents are displeased when Congressman Doolittle is too busy to see them, then outraged when they subsequently find him on a golf course. His lame excuse that “some of our greatest questions are settled on the links” does not placate anyone. The delegation’s leader refuses to shake his hand, and the group indignantly departs.
Though the Doolittle women have become haughty, the climactic sequence indicates that Dad hasn’t quite gotten the hang of hauteur. At a formal dinner party, he struggles with his stiff collar, eats a valuable lace doily, and, for a finale, accidentally releases one of those locusts from his pocket, causing general havoc. Our Congressman, with its broad comic touches, illustrates how a freshman legislator is ruined by Washington high life and loses touch with his base; a theme that, unfortunately, retains its applicability today.
A Truthful Liar, the final film of the trilogy, differs from its predecessors in several ways. Perhaps Rogers and his cohorts realized that the harsh tone of the first two films could not be sustained indefinitely, and that, moreover, their central character was far from likeable. Thus, the Alfalfa Doolittle of A Truthful Liar is a decidedly more appealing fellow, charming, admirable, and downright heroic. How can this be? Very likely it’s because the story is narrated by Doolittle himself, in flashback. And as the title makes plain, he is not an entirely reliable narrator.
As the film opens, Doolittle returns to his hometown after finishing his government service. (Although Doolittle’s home state is never named, Rogers’ connection with Oklahoma was well established in the public mind; significantly, most of the local men we see in A Truthful Liar wear cowboy hats.) Sitting among eager listeners, Alfalfa spins his yarn. We learn that in the recent past, Doolittle was appointed ambassador to Cornucopia, a European kingdom where riots are common and radicals plot against the king. Soon after the new diplomat’s arrival at the embassy, he’s informed that his predecessor was assassinated while sitting in what is now Alfalfa’s office chair.
Doolittle’s subsequent adventures have an almost dreamlike, surreal quality. At odd moments he is confronted by a bearded man, apparently an anarchist, who travels in a bizarre, boxy motorcycle. In the throne room, Alfalfa, wrapped in a cape, is formally presented to the king; he removes the cape to reveal that he’s wearing full cowboy regalia, complete with kerchief and chaps. The king is charmed, and Doolittle’s standing is assured when 1 he rescues the king from a bomb attack by the mysterious bearded man; Alfalfa lassos the crank and turns him over to the authorities. That night the ambassador takes the king to a Western-style saloon, where he teaches him to eat hot dogs and challenges him to a game of poker. Doolittle returns home to his angry wife in the wee hours after an all-night card game and presents his daughter with the plunder he has won: the king’s crown.
A Truthful Liar is the most entertaining entry in the Doolittle series, but, for whatever reason, it was also the last. Rogers completed his commitment to Roach soon afterward, and moved on to other projects. Like most short comedies, the Doolittle films were regarded as ephemeral products, briefly enjoyed and soon forgotten. But there is a postscript of sorts. While working at Roach’s studio, Rogers befriended a young gag writer named Frank Capra. Some 15 years later, Capra would direct the classic comedic drama Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in which a hick becomes a U.S. senator and is shocked to find Congress deeply corrupt. Unlike Mr. Doolittle, Mr. Smith maintains his moral compass and, ultimately, triumphs in the face of general malfeasance. Capra’s 1939 film was perfectly timed for a nation on the brink of war, as it reminded Americans that, for all its defects, our form of government is worth fighting for. The Doolittle comedies, on the other hand, were the product of a more cynical age, and express a darker view of our political system. Ironically, it’s the Doolittle trilogy, silent and technologically primitive, whose sensibility is more closely attuned than Capra’s classic to the prevailing attitudes of our own era.
Charles Morrow was born in Tulsa, lived there for twenty years, and fondly remembers Pennington’s, Bell’s Amusement Park, and Mazeppa. Since 1999 he has worked at the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center, in NYC. He’d like to thank Steve Massa and James Bigwood for their research assistance on this article.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4, Issue 12. June 1, 2013.