>> Sunday, October 17, 2010
USA/B&W-81m./Dir: John Ford/Wr: Dudley Nichols & Lamar Trotti/Cast: Will Rogers (Dr. John Pearly), Anne Shirley (Fleety Belle), John McGuire (Duke), Berton Churchill (New Moses), Francis Ford (Efe), Irvin S. Cobb (Captain Eli), Eugene Pallette (Sheriff Rufe Jeffers), Stepin Fetchit (Jonah)
Fame is indeed fleeting. In the 1920’s and 30’s, Will Rogers was one of the best known and most loved American personalities. He charmed audiences with his rope tricks, witticisms, and homespun political satire (think Jon Stewart with a touch of Jeff Foxworthy); and he rose to entertainment’s highest ranks in vaudeville, on Broadway, as a newspaper columnist, and eventually in the movies. Between 1918 and 1935, Rogers starred in 40 feature films and dozens of short subjects; and his movies were so popular that theater owners named him the number one box office attraction in 1933. Yet today his films are virtually unwatched and unremembered.
In recent years, a handful of Rogers features have been released in DVD boxsets, allowing new audiences to discover the comedian. Amongst these releases is Rogers’ penultimate film, Steamboat Round the Bend, which turns out to be more alcohol-fueled than the riverboat comedies of W.C. Fields, Tillie and Gus (1933) and Mississippi (1935). The film, set in the early 1900’s, stars Rogers as Doctor John Pearly, a dealer of extremely alcoholic patent medicine. Doc decides to give up the booze-pushing business and buys a rundown steamboat, which he fixes up with the help of an engineer (Francis Ford) who is addicted to Pearly’s potent brew. Pearly bets his fixed-up tub against the best steamboat on the Mississippi in a winner-take-all race, but he gets sidetracked when his nephew Duke (John McGuire) is sentenced to hang for murder. With the help of Duke’s betrothed, Fleety Belle (Anne Shirley), Doc searches the river for the one witness who can prove that Duke isn’t guilty, a prohibitionist preacher who calls himself “The New Moses.” Can Doc and Fleety Belle save Duke from execution in time to win the big steamboat race? What do you think?
Audiences of the Thirties were drawn to Steamboat Round the Bend due to Will Rogers’ celebrity (and due to morbid curiosity, as the film was released after Rogers’ unexpected death in a plane crash), but the movie is of most interest to film scholars today because it was directed by John Ford. Although Ford was not a filmmaker noted for producing comedies, the film has a pleasant, easygoing style that meshes well with Rogers’ homespun humor. This was actually the third film Rogers and Ford made together, and the partnership would have likely continued if not for Rogers’ untimely death.
While the film is a good introduction to Rogers’ relaxed comic delivery, it is far from his best film. The movie is overstuffed for an 81-minute comedy, containing con-man patter, liquor-laced humor, murder, a few musical numbers, possible execution, revivalist preachers, and a big boat race. Modern audiences may also be turned off by stereotypical depiction of African-Americans, especially the character of Jonah, portrayed by Stepin Fetchit. However, it is important to remember that Will Rogers was fairly progressive for his day; and he insisted that Stepin Fetchit be hired as a supporting actor in his movies because they were good friends from his vaudeville days.
Will Rogers’ comedies may seem a little too laid back for today’s audiences, but if you come to Steamboat Round the Bend in the proper frame of mind, you’ll find plenty to like. Especially fun are Francis Ford (the director’s brother) as the constantly inebriated steamboat engineer and the film’s climactic steamboat race, in which booze is used to win the day.
Drinks Consumed--Whiskey-based patent medicine, rum, and Mint Julep
Intoxicating Effects--Staggering and slurred speech
Potent Quotables--NEW MOSES: Raise your right hand and take the pledge. Brother, what do I see in your hand? Don’t be a hog. Cast the enemy away! Bury demon rum in the waters of the mighty Mississippi! Fling it away, I say! I swear henceforth, liquor shall never touch my lips.
EFE: Me too.
Video Availability--DVD, as part of either the Will Rogers Collection, Vol. 1 or the Ford At Fox Collection: John Ford's American Comedies (Fox)
Similarly Sauced Cinema--W.C. Fields also got involved in a riverboat race in Tillie and Gus (1933).