Life Begins at Forty
Comedy | 85 Mins | Released: 1935
Director: George Marshall
Starring: Will Rogers, Richard Cromwell, George Barbier, Rochelle Hudson, Jane Darwell, Slim Summerville, Sterling Holloway
Our Rating: 7
Black & White
In Life Begins at Forty, Will Rogers plays small-town newspaper editor Kenesaw H. Clark in the lightweight comedy. Kenesaw involves himself with the lives and problems of his hometown residents who respect his wisdom and follow his advice. He befriends Lee Austin, an ex-con who was falsely accused of robbing the local bank, owned and operated by the curmudgeonly Col. Joseph Abercrombie. When he gives Austin a job at the newspaper, Abercrombie threatens to call in the loans Kenesaw had taken out to buy the latest printing equipment. Refusing to be bullied, the editor quits his position at the Plain View Citizen and starts a rival newspaper, the Wildcat, with Austin. Helping the pair to get started in their new venture are neighbors Ida Harris, Adele Anderson, and a screechy-voiced teen named Chris. Romance quickly blossoms between Lee and Adele, which sparks the jealousy of Abercrombie’s hot-headed, irresponsible son, Joe, Jr.
In the meantime, Kenesaw decides that lazy, good-for-nothing T. Watterson Meriwether should run for school-board president against Abercrombie, Sr. Meriwether, whose large brood and overbearing wife give him good reason to pass the day sleeping at the newspaper office, objects to Kenesaw’s plan–and work in general–but warms up to the idea after receiving a newfound respect from his friends and neighbors. Abercrombie tries to maneuver Meriwether out of the race, while Joe, Jr. slanders Adele in the Plain View Citizen to invoke the ire of Lee Austin. After Lee springs to Adele’s defense and slugs Joe, Jr., the unlucky young man lands in jail. Kenesaw proceeds to untangle his friends from their troubles by setting the supercilious, self-important Abercrombies straight.
Life Begins at Forty is typical of the type of story associated with Rogers in the sound era, and Kenesaw H. Clark closely follows the star image of “the most popular man in America,” as the world-famous entertainer was called at the time. The Rogers vehicles were generally set in small-town America, where residents all know each other, and picnics, hog-callings, and hayrides are the order of the day. The bucolic settings evoke nostalgia for an idealized time or place that never really existed. Americans have always associated their heritage and identity with small-town life–but never more so than during the Depression. Rogers’ films embraced and exaggerated the small-town ideal to the point of mythmaking.
Rogers generally played a bachelor or widower, because he genuinely disliked participating in stories or scenes involving romance for his characters. Instead, he tended to stage-manage the romances of the secondary characters just as he orchestrates the relationship of Adele Anderson and Lee Austin in Life Begins at Forty. Rogers played fair-minded men of some authority who were trustworthy, reliable, and supportive of ordinary folk. Rogers’ characters took on tyrants, hypocrites, wealthy autocrats, and liars, all the while offering commentary on life, love, and politics as the town’s front-porch philosopher.
Social commentary had made Will Rogers famous, but by the time he was appearing in sound films, he had altered the nature and tone of his observations and criticisms. As a star of the Ziegfeld Follies during the Roaring ’20s, Rogers dressed as a cowboy to offer pointed political commentary and critical social observations while twirling a lariat. Called the Cowboy Philosopher, Rogers affected a rural or western persona that differentiated him from the modern urban world and linked him to traditional America during a period of great social change and unprecedented economic prosperity. After the stock market crash, Rogers became less critical of the government and softened his caustic or flippant tone. While he no longer performed in vaudeville at the time of the crash, he was in great demand as a public speaker, appeared in movies, and wrote a nationally syndicated column. He evolved from the sharp-tongued cowboy commentator to the archetypal everyman, who–like many Americans–was baffled by the machinations of politicians and tycoons. Rogers did not shy away from pointing out the lunacy of government policies, the hubris of the wealthy, or the inequities of society, but during the Depression, he saw himself as a ray of optimism whose purpose was to reassure America that they could weather the storm. In his sound films, that reassurance took the form of reminding viewers of traditions and values associated with their country’s agrarian heritage and small-town roots.