Registering the Registry 2021: Jubilo (1919)
Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! Today, early 20th-century America’s favorite multi-media entertainer delights in his earliest surviving film appearance, an adaptation of a Saturday Evening Post serial about a hobo who comes to love work and hate the dishonest. Starring Will Rogers, it’s Jubilo from 1919! Mosey on through the break to see what he gets up to and what it all means!
Will Rogers, for those not in the know, effectively conquered the American public experience. Born 1879 to mixed-blood Cherokee parents in what would eventually become Oklahoma, Rogers dropped out of school at a young age and struck out for Argentina to become a gaucho, only to find work there scant and instead bounced over to breaking horses in South Africa. Here he would get his start in showbiz under Texas Jack’s Wild West Circus as a trick roper, moving from outlet to outlet showing off his skills with the lasso and on horseback, until a New York City visit (apocryphally involving his heroically capturing a loose wild steer) found him a regular fixture of the popular Broadway Ziegfeld Follies, first as a rooftop act, then part of the main show. Needing some way to cover the inevitable mistakes and stumbles inherent to live performance, Rogers took to reading the daily papers and using their contents as fodder for laid-back, observational humor, which made him a big hit with audiences. By the early 1920s, Rogers had expanded his repertoire, not only performing on Broadway as a cowboy full of homespun joking wisdom and the skills to back it, but regularly starring in silent features, touring the national lecture circuit, writing weekly (and eventually daily) columns in magazines and newspapers, publishing his own books of shortform material, and eventually gaining his own weekly radio program. The man traded in the political arena as well, never fully camping with any party, yet sought after by both major aisles and well-beloved for his skewering barbs at the political establishment at fundraiser events — he even ran a mock presidential campaign in 1928 as part of the Anti-Bunk Party. Live performance, live speaking, films silent and sound alike, serialized writing, radio broadcasts, everywhere you looked in the early 30s you could find Will Rogers delighting American audiences, making his death in an aeroplane takeoff in 1935 at age fifty-five all the more tragic. Here’s an American who climbed every available media mountain and always sought further peaks til the bitter end.
Now, Jubilo makes something of an odd duck for discussing Will Rogers and related topics. It is, at present, his earliest surviving production, as both his first screen appearance (Laughing Bill Hyde) and his first collaboration with regular director Clarence G. Badger (Almost a Husband) remain lost. Director Badger has far larger films to his name already inducted into the Registry (notably 1927’s It), credited writer Ben Ames Williams has seen higher-profile adaptations of his work added (1945’s Leave Her to Heaven made it in 2018), and Will Rogers was not exactly a medium-conqueror in his silent days. As someone whose public persona stood on the strength of his distinct voice in either audio or extended print, the filmic medium prior to sound could only showcase his talents so far, and Jubilo contains practically none of the physical skills he honed before his humor and speaking voice. Little noted prior to its Registry entry, I can’t find anything to testify this or any other silent Rogers picture was much a hit compared to sound favorites like Doctor Bull or Judge Priest. By all accounts I can figure, today’s film draws its historical importance entirely from the circumstance of being the earliest surviving screen appearance of a man most famous for his later works, which puts me in a lil’ pickle when wrangling it for an appearance on Registering the Registry. If you want the long, rambling rumination over its importance to American film history, the best I can give is, “It’s Will Rogers for the qualified first time, before he actually added film to the list of mediums in which he was Number One.” Can’t go much further on the usual tract, unless we want to discuss the rumors Jubilo shot entirely without a screenplay as the cast and crew relied solely upon copies of Williams’ serialized short story from the Saturday Evening Post for inspiration, as means of discussing the magazine’s importance to American culture round this time. I don’t know, tho; seems a bit detached from the subject at hand, don’t it?
We, however, oughtn’t take Jubilo’s slim offerings as an artefact with deep ties to the world as it was on release as sign to slack off or despair. So it’s slight on these fronts? So what! All the greater opportunity to examine the film AS a film, separate from its impact. The qualifications for Registry induction do note aesthetics as important alongside cultural and historic contributions. So, Jubilo, the tale of a wandering hobo who witnesses a train robbery before finding shelter and work at a ranch whose proprietor owns a horse very much like one involved in the robbery. A story of a nogoodnik lazybones who learns the value in hard work, bettering himself just in time to defend his new family against a thieving sleazebag who’s blown into town, taken part in the robbery, and now looks to take revengeance upon Jubilo’s boss for reasons all his own. Standard western fare, following the beats of Williams’ serialized short well as a silent production from 1919 can manage — what’d we make of it?
The titling immediately stands out for the effort put into something that moves across the screen so rapidly. Rogers was known to write his own title cards during his silent days, and if this wasn’t one of his self-done jobs, whoever did make them was evidently proud of their work. Many a snatch of dialogue boasts a full-painted backdrop featuring art complimentary to the subject at hand, some of it recycled two or three times throughout the picture, others unique to a single line near as I can tell. There’s also a LOT of dialogue, whole conversations ruling the film for minutes at a time, which leads to the oddity inherent to these cards’ appearance. Jubilo only runs some fifty-five minutes at typical projection speed, so the title cards blitz across the screen to keep the runtime down and approach anything like a natural conversational rhythm, resulting in a strange pitter-pat cutting pace. Half a second on a face, a second on a title card, then another face, then a card, face, card, face, card, face, card — one can hardly process the actors’ expressions or read the text before we’ve moved on, much less take time to appreciate the painted backgrounds. To find the film such isn’t too big a surprise, for “Jubilo” the short story is heavy on discussion and internal dialogue, necessitating a performed version chatter beyond the typical amount of its time to communicate half so much information. It’s odd all the same, though, and leaves the faster scenes slightly uncomfortable.
Alternating fidelity to and deviation from the source material also mark a point of interest in Jubilo. The early going sees Rogers and Badger making efficient choices in narrowing down what’s absolutely necessary for a screen adaptation, capturing Jubilo’s journey from layabout to honest farmhand quite well, aided by Charles K. French and Josie Sedgwick as Jim Hardy and his daughter Rose. You encounter some strange bumps like a muted extended comedy sequence of Jubilo milking a cow (the archive.org copy is completely silent, so I suspect this works better with musical accompaniment) or Willard Louis’ sheriff visiting to grill Hardy multiple times over in a manner wholly redundant onscreen, but the values come through just fine. Jubilo only looks unkindly on the concept of hard work because he’s never tried it, and once he gets a taste (alongside a thrashing as punishment for shirking chores) he’s honest and hale a man as you’d like, transformed in totality by the halfway mark. When James Mason’s Bert Rooker enters the picture to stir trouble, however, the filmmakers choose plotting over continuing the story’s themes so they can get in under the line — compared against the print version, a lengthy description of Jubilo laboring all night to get a car restarted is replaced by a quip about Henry Ford’s political ambitions, a scene of Jubilo and Rose humiliating Rooker by exposing how little field exertion he can take vanishes entirely, and pretty much none of the self-talk about the hardest thing being owning up to your mistakes when you get too boastful makes the movie. Jubilo becomes a reliable farmhand, and suddenly the character has nowhere else to go — a weakness found in Williams’ print story too, but he works a better contrast between Jubilo and Rooker in addition to examining Jubilo’s moral character in the margins. Goes some distance to revealing the limitations of the medium at this time, or at least the limitations always imposed by commercial film’s tight deadlines and need to please an audience. What’s appealing and easy to write on page requires significant orders further effort to be a quarter so interesting onscreen, and so the film latches onto Williams’ talent for describing conversations and fistfights in a kinetic manner as backhalf fodder.
Accounting this likely necessary choice to focus on character action over contemplation of a man’s best nature, I’d argue Jubilo still gets you there on making the broad points of Williams’ story. Once we understand the guy has effected his transformation, it’s a valid choice to segue into seeing what he actually does when confronted by a problem like someone who SEEMS a guilty party without any concrete evidence. Rogers reacts well against Mason’s sneering screen villain, whether holding his tongue when Rooker has control of the scene or giving him a deserved beating for speaking too brashly about Rose in public, an appreciably marked change from the man who blithely sang about saving his own skin at picture’s open. When Hardy and Rooker finally confront one another and the truth comes out, the lightning-fast dialogue cutting properly matches the intensity of the scene, and actually communicates certain revelatory information in a tighter, faster manner than Williams’ preference for dolling it out across several sequences. The movie peaks at an appropriately climactic moment too, involving all active players in a game of Take the Blame as they spin lies and truths to save one another’s hides as Louis just stands there silently nodding his head before revealing he knew the truth well in advance. Despite its common classification as a comedy, Jubilo doesn’t contain too many attempts to get the audience yukking outside brief quips and the aforementioned cow bit, but the drama of the final encounter transitioning into the relief of everyone acting a touch silly in plays for nobility lands just right.
Jubilo the character would make a few minor reappearances throughout Rogers’ film career. In 1924 he featured for Hal Roach in an early Our Gang short, Jubilo Jr., which primarily finds Rogers playing himself in a framing device, reminiscing on his childhood days before we go into flashback where the usual kid cast can do comedy around failed odd jobs and a mini-circus, though it ends on a joke about Rogers filming a movie very much like Jubilo. He’d return to the part in full for the 1932 sound remake Too Busy to Work under John G. Blystone for Fox (with Marian Nixon and Dick Powell in the supporting roles), which would probably have made a wonderful compare-contrast against this film, if I’d learned about its existence any sooner than AFTER watching the 1919 film, and if any online sellers offering an old physical copy had them in stock. Scanning impressions indicate neither is much a major entry in Rogers’ filmography, either as hits in their own day or retrospective assessment, much the same as Jubilo — and perhaps this is appropriate. We already discussed the necessity of films capturing the ordinary last week, so considering Jubilo as an average tale of a man made honest by work without any grand splashy impact on its star or the world matches well to the spirit of its star, in and out of character. The United States, like all nations, contains its fair share of Jubilos, regular folks who’re given to keen observation and a love of labor when it comes by their own choosing towards their own gain, people with a song in their chest and an impulse to defend what they hold sacred. The country too houses many a successor to Will Rogers, good-natured people who excel in their little corner of the world and could bring a lot of happiness and insight to the larger stage if given a chance, humble and honest enough to not let fame go to their heads. Most of us ain’t much for brilliance, or looks, or big picture changing, but we are as we are, and we are the people Jubilo and Will Rogers alike embodied and championed.
The National Film Registry needs celebrate these average films with lesser artistic heights and not-so-transformative impacts on the larger culture, I should think. After 30 years, there remain a great number of great films left outside its halls, but when the majority of films won’t ever be counted amongst the greats, a project dedicated to comprehensively exemplifying what America makes and what makes America through film had best count a few films like Jubilo amongst its number. OK movies of some small importance to history, some small measure of enjoyment in the watching, endlessly valuable in reminding us we oughta pay the 6/10s some mind too. If I had to wager, I’d guess Will would be on my side with this one — no point flattering if the rich and poor alike don’t see their dues in equal measure, y’know? Hell, ninety-nine times out’ve one hundred, the poor could use the compliment more.
Well heck, we’re just about done again! Lemme know what you think down in the comments — about Will Rogers, about Ben Ames Williams, about cowpoke brawling, about the use of a slave song for the main character’s name, really anything! Meantime, I’ll catch you two weeks down the road for our next picture. Straight out’ve Jacksonville, Florida, our interest falls upon the only surviving feature from race film proprietor Norman Studios. From 1926, it’s the completely landbound airplane adventure The Flying Ace! Those of you with a Criterion Channel subscription can catch it there, while Retroformat Silent Films still hosts a livestream of the film on Facebook for everyone else. Catch y’all for discussion then!