Obituary: Charles `Buddy' Rogers
Monday 26 April 1999
I met him several times, and was surprised at the difference between the screen character - a boy of rather delicate charm - and the real Buddy Rogers. He had exceptional charm - his friend Douglas Fairbanks Jnr joked "Sometimes you wish he'd be a son of a bitch, just to break the monotony". One could sense a slight similarity with Fairbanks senior - he was athletic and outgoing and had a similarly outsize personality.
His father, B.H. Rogers, was a judge who also owned a weekly newspaper in Olathe, Kansas. As a boy, Buddy delivered newspapers and movie posters and was given a free pass to the local movie theatre. He saw three or four films a week, yet he was far more fascinated by the musicians accompanying the movies than by the action on the screen.
While taking a journalism course at the University of Kansas, in 1926, his father phoned to tell him that Paramount were sending a crew to test college students for possible entry to a School of Acting. Most such schools were phoney; the Paramount School, however much of a publicity stunt it may have been, was backed by the studio.
But Rogers was having a wonderful time at college. He had a five-piece jazz band, he was living at the fraternity house with all the football players and he did not want them to see him putting on make-up. His father had to beg him to make the screen test. "I did it for Dad. I didn't have any talent. I had no feeling for it. But I did make the test and a couple of weeks later I received a telegram to come to New York."
He went to Astoria Studios, New York, where the Paramount School of Acting had its headquarters. "I remember the first day, they taught us to roll downstairs without hurting ourselves. They thought that was important. We didn't take it too seriously. It was more exciting watching Richard Dix working in the studio than learning to be an actor." After three months he was taken to a golf course on Long Island to meet W.C. Fields, and was cast in Fields's picture So's Your Old Man (1926), directed by Gregory La Cava. The Paramount School produced only a handful of successful players - including Thelma Todd and Josephine Dunn - but Paramount ensured that the entire class of 10 boys and 10 girls appeared in Fascinating Youth (1926) along with Adolphe Menjou and Clara Bow.
The most exciting moment of Rogers's life came at his graduation when the head of Paramount, Adolph Zukor, broke the news that he had been selected to play Ronald Colman's brother in Beau Geste, to be directed by the great Herbert Brenon. En route to California, he stopped off in his home town and paraded along the main street wearing Foreign Legion uniform. "When I was met in California, Jesse Lasky said `Sorry, Buddy, you're not going to be in Beau Geste after all.' And I said `But I wore the costume in my home town!' I was embarrassed about returning to Kansas." (The London- born actor Ralph Forbes got the part.)
As a consolation prize, Paramount gave him the lead in Old Ironsides - a sea story. Then he heard that he had lost that part as well - to Charles Farrell. Rogers went to the head of production and said "Mr Lasky, I wasn't brought up this way. I really believe I'd be happier to go back to Kansas, and work on my father's newspaper.'
Lasky said, "As a matter of fact, Billy Wellman's making an aviation picture. He's looking for boys to play young pilots. Would you lunch with him tomorrow?" Reluctantly, Rogers met Wellman - and was given the lead in Wings (1927). It went on to win the first Academy Award for Best Picture.
It made a star of Buddy Rogers - but he went through a far more gruelling initiation than he ever got from the School of Acting. William Wellman, a former fighter pilot, was one of the toughest of all taskmasters. (Rogers admired him extravagantly.) He couldn't stand studio fakery and he ordered the actors to take the airplanes up themselves.
Before I learned to fly solo, they would strap a camera on the front of the engine cowling. A second lieutenant called Van would take me up and then get down in his back seat so he couldn't be seen and I'd take the stick - now I was the actor, the director and the cameraman - for 400 feet. I'd have to find the German planes and get the right clouds behind me and I'd fight the Germans and when I'd run out of film, Van would sit up and he'd land the plane. This went on for six months until I was able to control the plane myself.
"Van" was Hoyt Vandenberg, a four star general in the Second World War who now has an air force base named after him.
Wellman felt extreme methods were necessary in the Folies Bergere sequence:
He got me drunk. Here I am, this little boy from Kansas, never had a beer or champagne. Billy says "Champagne's good for you - it'll relax you". So he relaxed me - and relaxed me - and all of a sudden he had me doing a drunk scene. He more or less hypnotised me. "You see all those champagne bubbles?" I said "Yes. I see the bubbles!" Well, the bubbles were in my mind but later on they animated bubbles over the scene. So that was my first good binge.
Nineteen twenty-seven was perhaps the most extraordinary year in Rogers's career. He was cast opposite Mary Pickford in her enchanting film My Best Girl, directed by Sam Taylor. He had felt affection for Pickford since boyhood, but Norma Shearer was his favourite. However, the great star impressed him:
She financed all her own pictures, but on the set she was just one of the cast. Lights would fall and mistakes would be made - she never lost her composure once. But after she'd seen the dailies, she had group meetings every night. And I was in one of them. She explained to the electricians and the cameramen what she expected the next day. She was in complete control of her production. But you would never see her showing her authority on the set.
The film's cameraman, Charles Rosher, said he first noticed something between them during the shooting of a love scene with the couple in a packing crate. When the scene was over, he couldn't get them out. The Fairbanks-Pickford marriage was under strain, due to Fairbanks's affairs. Yet Rogers remained friends with both.
He played opposite the "It" girl, Clara Bow, who had been his love interest in Wings, in Get Your Man (1927), directed by one of Hollywood's few successful female directors, Dorothy Arzner. He said:
Clara Bow was so filled with excitement and fun and romance and sex. And she so wanted to prove this to the world that she just gave of herself. She gave so much that her body and brain couldn't stand it. I'll always think that she would be with us today had she been more relaxed and more calm while she was making her films.
Rogers was now typecast as the charming college boy, and was inundated with fan mail - reportedly 20,000 letters a month. He was cast in a film that turned out to be another tremendous success, Abie's Irish Rose (1929), directed by Victor Fleming, as the Jewish ex-serviceman. The Irish girl was Nancy Carroll and the Rogers-Carroll partnership was so popular that they made three musicals together. Rogers stated:
As I look back, it was easy to be a silent star. The relaxed days of the motion picture were over the minute dialogue came in. Not only did the director want the dialogue his way, but so did the dialogue director, the sound man and six or seven other technicians. It was quite different.
Although he made his most outstanding pictures in the silent days, the arrival of sound gave Rogers's career - and his musical talent - a boost. Paramount also cast him in a sequel to Wings called Young Eagles (1930). It used outtakes from Wings, but was not in the same league. Rogers always regretted that despite the number of pictures he made - 42 in all - he never topped the success of Wings.
Some of his pictures, inevitably, were bad and music was his ideal escape route. "When I got bad reviews, I'd say `Oh, yeah, I'll show you.' Rudy Vallee told me `Buddy, get an orchestra. Travel. There's nothing like it.' Then I'd get a good band. Have it for years."
Mary Martin was one of his vocalists and Gene Krupa his drummer. His band, the California Cavaliers, was featured in movies on the radio and even on Broadway. He devoted most of the 1930s to music, but he kept up a number of film appearances - some in England. In Dance Band (1935), directed by Marcel Varnel, with June Clyde, critics were astonished at his ability to play almost every instrument in his jazz orchestra:
I got tired of being known as "America's Boyfriend" and just making love to a different girl each time. I would have loved to have played a villain. Although a villain is hated, he is also admired as he has real acting to do." The nearest he came to it was as a murder suspect in The Lawyer's Secret (1931).
In 1936, a few months after her divorce from Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford announced her engagement to Buddy Rogers. They were married on 26 June 1937. They adopted two children - Roxanne and Ronald - and the famous mansion Pickfair was thrown open for parties for servicemen in the Second World War. Just before Rogers joined up in 1942, he played with Laurel and Hardy in The Dancing Master (1943). "During my four years in the Naval Air Corps," he revealed, "I met not one, but thousands of young men who said `You are responsible for me being a flyer. When I was a little boy, I saw you in Wings'."
After the war, he and Mary Pickford produced such films as Sleep My Love (1948, with Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche) for her company, United Artists:
She could sit in a business meeting with ten men and come up with an idea faster than any of them. She could make a speech without working on it. She knew how to start, how to get a tear, how to get a laugh and how to end. She never rehearsed, never studied, never took notes. Amazing. She never had any formal education whatsoever.
Rogers had never cared for his boyhood nickname, Buddy, but now it came in useful to distinguish him from another producer called Charles Rogers.
He entertained the troops with his band during the Korean War - at one point his helicopter came under anti-aircraft fire. In the late 1950s, he acted on the stage with his friend Mary Brian, another veteran of the silent screen. He made his last film in 1957 - he also produced it - and devoted himself to the Mary Pickford Corporation, which made substantial donations to charities. He made many television appearances, and took over as guest presenter on the top-rated Ed Sullivan Show.
Marriage to Pickford must have become a nightmare when she turned more and more to drink. But he stood by her loyally. He administered her charitable foundation, winning the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1986. (Hersholt had played his father in Abie's Irish Rose.) With his friend Matty Kemp, Rogers was also concerned with the preservation of the surviving Pickford films. Mary Pickford died in 1979, aged 86. Two years later, he married the real- estate agent Beverly Ricondo. They sold Pickfair - it was demolished by Pia Zadora - and moved to a new house they built on the estate.
Charles "Buddy" Rogers, actor and musician: born Olathe, Kansas 13 August 1904; married 1937 Mary Pickford (died 1979; one adopted son, one adopted daughter), 1981 Beverly Ricondo; died Rancho Mirage, California 21 April 1999.
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