Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- A female spy is sent to scandalize Ambassador Bill (Will Rogers) and she undresses to escape and implicate him.
- There’s a drunk man wielding an axe, and Rogers retorts, “Here’s where you could really use a Dry right now!”
- The film is a political satire that’s not very generous in regards to leading American senators.
The Prime Directive
“It’s against American policy to mix in the affairs of another country.”
“You should tell that to the Marines.”
Will Rogers is a rarity– an entertainer who is worthy of note in every American historical textbook. Combining the Midwestern charm and wit of Mark Twain with the wide reach of radio and movies and some damn fine trick roping, Rogers was a national phenomenon, a man whose witticisms ring true to this day. He was a cutting edge satirist and natural movie star, representing what was best about the country when it was in the midst of an identity crisis.
Of course, I didn’t know that before I put Ambassador Bill on. All I remembered about him was as a footnote in said history books, with a couple of jabs from humorists who I’d read growing up. I was mortified that the movie would play something like one of those terrible Eddie Cantor movies I’ve been watching, where actor’s personality becomes a wet blanket on the mirth of the proceedings.
Luckily Rogers turned out to be the real deal. He plays the titular ambassador assigned to the made-up country of Sylvania. There he finds the country in turmoil with daily revolutions. The old king (Ray Milland) has be deposed, and the people seem to miss him. In his stead, his wife the queen (Marguerite Churchill) is running things with her young son Paul. The Queen is pretty useless without her husband around, so the vile Prince de Polikoff (Gustav von Seyffertitz) is running the show.
Unbeknownst to the newly arrived ambassador, the Prince has most of the embassy’s staff on the payroll as well including his secretary Monte (Edwin Maxwell), since he doesn’t want anyone interfering with the way he’s running the country.
Unlike some of the more broad satires of the time like Duck Soup, Ambassador Bill isn’t so keen as sending up the establishment but rather to take aim at the problems in a forthright manner. Like a great many comedian, some broad targets are painted and only Rogers’ combination of pluck and aw-shucks naturalism can save the day. This ranges from teaching the young Paul how to play baseball and treat his subjects fairly to attempting to wrangle a trade deal even when both governments seem against it.
Even when he’s got the company of the bombastic Senator Pilsbury (Ferdinand Munier) who’s been sent there to spy on him, Bill manages to be in the right place at the right time to help turn the tide in the uprisings and save the young prince from an angry mob while doing his part to restore the kingdom of Sylvania to peace and prosperity and getting that trade deal he was so keen on.
Muckraking and Politicking
“What side are you on?”
“I’m a Republican! I shoot at both sides!”
It’s generous to say at this point that Will Rogers was no stranger to politics by the time he stood in front of the cameras for Ambassador Bill. He’d already spent a decade as a commentator, and, in the pages of Life magazine, had already run for President in 1928. (The results of that contest being that he declared himself the victor and immediately resigned, fulfilling his only campaign promise.)
This being 1931 and the third year of the dismal Hoover administration, it’s not surprising to see the apparatus of state so thoroughly marked by Rogers and director Sam Taylor. Besides seeing the embassy as being filled with ineffectual cowards and crooks all easily corrupted, Bill’s constant headbutting with Senator Pilsbury is indicative of the trouble with elected officials. Pilsbury is a windbag of the highest order, sending crowds into fits of yawning at the opening of his mouth.
Ambassador Bill ends up being the smart one who saves the day due to his gentle nature and faith in the American way of doing things. Treating the royalty like they’re people and helping them to confront their problems in an unpretentious American style is affirming, a testament to a nation that sees its traditions of honesty and good nature as simple common sense.
Mind you, that’s still a nation full of the blowhards mentioned above, but like a lot of Rogers’ philosophy, it seems to believe in the wisdom of the common man, and a country’s ability, even at its low point, to be strong.
Some of the other aspects of the film’s politics are muddled. Watching Ambassador Bill work so hard to reinstall a King to the throne on behalf of the American people is frankly odd to see after a half century of Domino Theory and wars to liberate Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. It’s no less true, mind you– with our money and backing, America kept Hosni Mubarek in charge of Egypt for three decades, and plenty of other petty tyrants holding onto their grips thanks to our bribes.
But what this movie completely lacks is any idealism for democracy, which is fascinating and perhaps a little unsurprising considering when it was made. What sets Americans apart in this film is its immutable spirit, not any given thing to do with its government. I think I can give the same praise to the makers of Ambassador Bill while I’m at it.
Trivia & Links
- You can tell that Mordaunt Hall for the New York Times liked this one since it’s almost entirely plot recitation.
- And, yes, for those of you who were wondering why the name ‘Sylvania’ sounded familiar, that is indeed also the enemy of Freedonia in the Marx Brothers’ 1933 film Duck Soup. I can only imagine that the kingdom went through some tough times after this film and had to call upon the talents of Rufus T. Firefly to right the ship of state.
- Director Sam Taylor was unfamiliar to me until I checked out his IMDB credits, and it turns out that he’s the same hand who was behind the Harold Lloyd classics Safety Last!, The Freshman, and Girl Shy. That’s a pretty good track record.
- Will Rogers had what some would consider a lengthy career in pictures. He started in silent shorts in the 1920’s, and by the early 1930’s was headlining his own talkies. He was the industry’s most profitable and popular movie star by 1935, when, unfortunately, Rogers was killed in a plane crash in Alaska. The world mourned, and it’s hard not to try and imagine how America may have been different had he lived.
- I may be the only one, but Rogers’ rope tricks are still damned impressive today. Here’s a silent short of him doing a few: