Cast & Crew
Pole Shattuck, the wealthy head of an old Kentucky family, goes to court to have Ezra Martingale, the cantankerous head of the family with whom the Shattucks have feuded for years, committed as a public nuisance because Ezra chased him with a shotgun. Steve Tapley, the Shattuck horse trainer, hides Ezra in his cottage on the Shattuck farm to help his friend Nancy Martingale, Ezra's granddaughter. Upon learning that the sheriff has ordered Nancy either to produce Ezra or put up a $2,000 bond, Steve pays the money without telling Nancy. Shattuck then fires Steve. Steve plans to train the Martingale horse Greyboy for free, but Nancy sells the horse to raise the bond money to Slick Doherty from Louisville, without knowing that Doherty is an agent for Shattuck. After Greyboy is slightly injured in a fall, Dr. Lee Andrews, whom Shattuck has hired because of his up-to-date training methods, tells Shattuck says that the injury is liable to be serious because he wants to help Nancy, to whom he is attracted. Shattuck calls the deal off, and Lee then begins to court Nancy, which irks Shattuck's snobbish daughter Arlene. Soon Greyboy is nearly back to normal, but Steve feels that the horse needs a muddy track to win a race. Ezra disappears in search of rain and returns with Pluvious J. Aspinwall, a self-touted rainmaker. At the ball before the race, Steve, seeing Shattuck brag about his horse Emperor, bets him that Greyboy will win and offers as stakes the strip of land over which Martingales and Shattucks have been feuding. Lee convinces Nancy that Greyboy should not race until his injury has healed, but when Steve hears of this, he decides to steal the horse with the help of his black servant, Wash Jackson. The next day, after Ezra has shot some more times at Shattuck, Steve is arrested for hiding Ezra, but Wash gets Greyboy to the track. At the jail, Wash visits Steve, who then applies burnt cork to his face and tries to switch places with Wash and leave. Ordered to dance by the sheriff's deputy, Steve successfully imitates Wash, but the sheriff arrives and recognizes him. Steve nevertheless gets away and heads to the track, where, to convince Nancy to enter Greyboy, Steve's friend, Dolly Breckenridge, falsely states that she overheard Lee bragging to Arlene that he got Greyboy scratched. Hurt by this, Nancy refuses to listen to Lee and tells Steve to do what he wants, but Shattuck has paid the Martingale jockey not to ride. Steve gets Nancy to ride before he is caught by the sheriff. By convincing the sheriff that Greyboy is a sure bet, Steve gets him to go to the betting window, where Steve is able to bet $500. During the race, Pluvious attaches dynamite to a bunch of balloons, and as Greyboy is losing, the balloons hit a water tower and explode, causing the track to become muddy. Greyboy quickly passes the rest of the field and wins, after which Steve confesses his lie about Lee to Nancy. When Ezra chases Shattuck and Doherty with a rifle, Nancy begs Steve to retrieve him, but Steve tells her that's Lee's job now. Pluvious finally gets his rainmaking device to work, and Steve is left in the rain, handcuffed to a fence, while the sheriff goes to collect his money.
G. Raymond Nye
Edward Le Saint
L. B. Dix
W. D. Flick
L. W. O'connell
In Old Kentucky
The film's putative source is the famed 1893 play of the same title by Charles Turner Dazey (1855-1938). Set in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the play concerns Madge Brierly, a poor and illiterate young mountain girl whose father was murdered years ago. A neighbor named Holten conspires to take away her family's land but Frank Layson, a well-to-do young Lexington man on vacation, intervenes. Madge falls in love with Layson and rescues his racehorse Queen Bess from a fire. Later, when Layson runs Queen Bess in a race in a desperate bid to rescue his fortune, she replaces his jockey at the last minute and brings the horse to victory. In Old Kentucky became one of the most popular plays of the era, running more or less continuously on different stages across the country for decades. It was revived in Stockbridge, Massachusetts in August 1935, shortly after Rogers' death and a few months before the film opened nationwide. Dazey later wrote the scripts for the Douglas Fairbanks vehicle Manhattan Madness (1916), the William S. Hart Western Wolf Lowry (1917), The Mysterious Client (1918) starring Irene Castle, and Shifting Sands (1918) starring Gloria Swanson. In Old Kentucky was adapted into film no less than four times: 1909, 1919, 1927 and 1935. The 1927 film version makes Madge's (living!) father Jimmy Brierly a returning vet from World War I.
George Marshall's 1935 version is set in the present and retains only a few of the play's basic plot elements: a feud over land, the young heroine who is a talented rider, the romance and a climactic horse race. Rather, the film serves mainly as a vehicle for Will Rogers' unique screen presence. Rogers had appeared in dozens of films since 1918, but it was really during the sound era that he was able to use his persona to full advantage. By 1934, he was the top grossing star in Hollywood and earned over $187,000 per picture. His natural, self-effacing acting style contrasts with the theatrical performances of the other players and his improvisations at times seem to flummox them, but his persona remains appealing even today. If the film's location looks suspiciously like Southern California rather than the Bluegrass territory of Kentucky, there's a good reason: in his May 12, 1935 newspaper column Rogers noted that the film was shot in California, partly at the ranch of Carleton Burke, then the head of the California state racing commission. The racing sequence was shot at the Santa Anita racetrack.
Besides Rogers, the other main reason to watch In Old Kentucky today is to see the great Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in action as Rogers' tap dancing servant Wash Jackson. Robinson had appeared previously in Dixiana (1930) and had starred in the race film Harlem Is Heaven (1932), but 1935 was his real breakthrough year, with roles in the Shirley Temple vehicle The Little Colonel, Hooray for Love, The Big Broadcast of 1935 (also known as The Big Broadcast of 1936), and In Old Kentucky. Although In Old Kentucky was not his first film produced that year, the role was considered significant enough that it earned a mention in the African-American newspaper Atlanta Daily World, which characterized it as "his best chance in motion pictures thus far." As Rogers himself acknowledged in a congratulatory speech that he delivered during a party held at Robinson's home, Robinson stole the show with his virtuosic dance numbers.
After Rogers' death, the Los Angeles Times reported that Twentieth Century Fox was "divided" on whether to release Rogers' last two films. While it had already invested a substantial sum in both productions and wanted to recoup the costs, it was concerned that the public might reject the idea of going to see Rogers perform in comedies after his death. Posthumous releases of films by other stars were typically unsuccessful, with a few notable exceptions such as Rudolph Valentino's The Son of the Sheik (1926). Ultimately they decided to release the films, but requested that the Los Angeles premiere engagements of In Old Kentucky not advertise the film until after Rogers' memorial service. Regardless, the film was well received by the critics. The reviewer in Variety characterized the film as "a delightful comedy" and "one of [Rogers'] best." He further singled out Bill Robinson for praise but also liked the other supporting actors as well. Frank Nugent of the New York Times wrote that "Mr. Rogers has seldom found himself in finer fettle or in more agreeable company." He especially admired Charles Sellon as the shotgun-toting grandpa and Etienne Girardot as the eccentric scientist Pluvious J. Aspinwall.
Producer: Edward Butcher
Director: George Marshall
Screenplay: Sam Hellman, Gladys Lehman, Henry Johnson
Based on the play by Charles T. Dazey Photography: L. W. O'Connell
Art Director: William Darling
Costumes: William Lambert
Music Director: Arthur Lange
Principal Cast: Will Rogers (Steve Tapley), Dorothy Wilson (Nancy Martingale), Russell Hardie (Dr. Lee Andrews), Charles Sellon (Ezra Martingale), Louise Henry (Arlene Shattuck), Esther Dale (Dolly Breckenridge), Alan Dinehart (Slick Doherty), Charles Richman (Pole Shattuck), Etienne Girardot (Pluvious J. Aspinwall), John Ince (Sheriff), Bill Robinson (Wash Jackson).
by James Steffen
"Bill Robinson wins role in Old Kentucky." Atlanta Daily World. April 26, 1935, p.2.
"Sepia film actors sorrowed by Will's death." Atlanta Daily World. August 29, 1935, p.2.
"In Old Kentucky" (Film review.) Variety. December 4, 1935.
Nugent, Frank S. Review of In Old Kentucky. New York Times. November 29, 1935, p.24. Scott, John. "Two last Rogers films give theaters serious problem." Los Angeles Times. August 25, 1935, p.A1.
Yagoda, Ben. Will Rogers: a biography. New York: Knopf, 1993.
The Writings of Will Rogers. Series IV/6 (The Weekly Articles: The Roosevelt Years, 1933-1935). Stillwater : Oklahoma State University Press, 1973-1983.
In Old Kentucky
This was released after Will Rogers' death in an airplane crash on August 15, 1935. Although it was produced before Steamboat Round the Bend, In Old Kentucky was released following that film, because Twentieth Century-Fox decided to release what they decided was the stronger film first, according to modern sources. New York Times commented about In Old Kentucky, "there is poignance and grief in the realization that there will be no new characterizations, no new plot structures for Mr. Rogers to animate."
According to information in the Twentieth Century-Fox Records of the Legal Department at the UCLA Theater Arts Libary, background material was to be filmed at the Kentucky State Fair in Louisville 10 September-September 15, 1934. It is not known if any of this material was used in the final film. According to a Film Daily news item, Bill Robinson was assigned to this film because of his work in the 1935 Fox film The Little Colonel (see below). According to a Daily Variety news item, some scenes were shot at the Santa Anita Racetrack, in Arcadia, CA. According to modern sources, in Will Rogers' column of May 12, 1935, he stated that some scenes were shot at the stock ranch of Carleton Burke, the head of California's racing commission. The legal records also include information about a suit in 1970 by Lincoln Perry, otherwise known as Stepin Fetchit, in which he charged that Twentieth Century-Fox conspired with CBS to invade his privacy and defame his character by showing scenes of his acting from two films, Stand Up and Cheer (see below) and In Old Kentucky in a television program entitled Black History: Lost, Stolen or Forgotten. Twentieth Century-Fox legal officials found no evidence that Fetchit had appeared in In Old Kentucky, and information about the disposition of the suit has not been located. In 1919, Anita Stewart Productions, Inc. produced a film based on the same source, directed by Marshall Neilan and starring Anita Stewart (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1911-20; F1.2153). M-G-M, in 1927, produced a film based on the same source, directed by John M. Stahl and starring James Murray (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30; F2.2688). Fox purchased the rights to film the story from M-G-M, who refused them permission to use any part of the negatives or prints from the previous versions, according to the legal records.