Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Steamboat Round the Bend (1935)

Director: John Ford

It may not be one of the best films by director John Ford,  but it did star perhaps one of America’s most well know icons, Will Rogers, as we are presented an adventure down the Mississippi in Steamboat Round the Bend. Ford, who would be best known for his grand westerns among his other directorial ventures, takes his time to present the down home stylings of humorist and social commentator, as well as all around performer, Will Rogers. It’s a sleepy film with little going for it as in the plot, but it supplies one of the last appearances of Rogers on film.

Steamboat Round the Bend is comedy/drama of a humble owner if the steamboat and his attempts to save his nephew from a wrongful sentencing for murder, along the way defeating his rival in a costly boat race down river. Doctor John Pearly (Rogers) uses all his earnings to partly own and operate a salvaged steamboat with his nephew, Duke (John McGuire). Duke, however surprises his uncle with news of a girl in his life named Fleety Belle (Anne Shirley), and word that Duke believes he killed a man protecting her. John convinces Duke to turn himself in, but is surprised to discover he is sentenced to death. John, with the aid of Fleety Belle, must race down river to find a preacher that witnessed Duke’s altercation as self-defense, then has to quickly travel back. Along the way Pearly is forced to enter a boat race that blocks the river pathway, challenging John’s rival Captain Eli in a winner take all bet in who will win. In the heated race John barely wins just in time to rescue his nephew with his key witness in tow.

The picture is peppered with moments of comedy, few moments of drama, and a less than edge-of-your-seat boat race that holds the fate of the boat and Duke in its hands. Overall the picture is rather weak and supplies a few moments were Rogers is able to ramble about this and that, a trait he is most known for. Even with the direction of the famed John Ford, who up to this point had made successful films such as Arrowsmith, The Lost Patrol, and his sleeper hit The Informer, had yet to become the huge western director that would best line the history of his career, making this picture a lazy affair that deserves to be a bit overlooked. For a Will Rogers picture, it has few great moments of Rogers, for who is the very reason the picture was made; a sad fact since it was one of his last motion pictures he would appear in.

Will Rogers was a Mark Twain-like figure in America for many years as his voice and comedy styling, driven primarily by the current events of the time, much beloved by many. With his success in motion pictures, he had become one of the highest paid and most recognizable actors in the world. Sadly Rogers would pass away a month before the release of Steamboat Round the Bend, making it one of the last times audiences saw something new from the beloved Rogers. A story of Steamboat Round the Bend was bought by Rogers himself in 1933 leading to this production and originally had a concluding shot of Rogers, as John, waving goodbye to camera, towards his rival Captain Eli. The studio though that perhaps with his recent death the audience would take the waving as his final goodbye and cause many to weep, thus removing the shot.

The film featured a young actress named Anne Shirley. Though Shirley was a new name to Hollywood, she was a veteran of the screen. Born Dawn O’Day, she was a child actress that changed her name after staring in 1934’s Anne of Green Gables, taking the name of the very character she portrayed in the picture. This would be a new start for the actress. Though this was a minor picture in her career, starring alongside of an American icon surely helped, as she would continue with a healthy career.

Fellow humorist and writer Irwin S. Cobb joins the cast as ironically Rogers rival Captain Eli. Author of many stories that would be adapted to the screen, Cobb would join his counterpart humorist in Rogers in one of only a few pictures he would actually appear in his career. Cobb even hosted the Academy Awards in 1935, before the picture was released, therefore he was far from being an unknown name in the business.

Of the remaining cast the most recognizable would have been Eugene Pallette, a usual supporting character actor, playing the role of the sheriff. His large, round shape and deep, raspy voice made his the usual authority figure in the pictures he appeared, of which many times he is rather likable

As John Ford liked to do, he would find a role for his older brother Francis. Here he plays a silly comedic relief character of Efe, a drunkard whose physical comedy parlays the wordy humor of Rogers. Also featured is an equally silly, a politically incorrect stereotyped character actor of Stepin Fetchit, an African American actor that used the lazy, uneducated black character-type to his advantage in creating a career. A good friend of Rogers, Fetchit plays Jonah, a backwoods black man that does anything for work, despite his slow nature, gaining his name after the Bible character he has to portray in a mannequin museum of Doctor John Pearly.

When looking back on the feature you can gain a good look on the surrounding times of humorists in the early part of the 20th century and the society. The picture itself is rather a poor story with as one of Ford’s lesser cinematic attempts. The picture is feels very contained in a studio and is vastly different in scope from the usual Ford creations. But with all that aside the film is really about Ford’s friend Will Rogers as one of his last pictures he was part of and released shortly after his untimely death in a plane crash. America lost a treasure, but he lives on in his works, including this one about doing what is right and following your heart and dreams. 

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