Steamboat Round the Bend (1935)
Director: John Ford
Cast: Will Rogers, Anne Shirley, Irvin S. Cobb
Synopsis: A Louisiana con man enters his steamboat into a winner-take-all race with a rival while trying to find a witness to free his nephew, about to be hung for murder.
Will Rogers’ final film and his third with director John Ford, Steamboat Round the Bend is arguably the best of the trio, although Judge Priest must run it a close second. In this one, Rogers is the captain of a run-down steamboat whose nephew (John McGuire) is facing the noose-end of a rope after killing a man attempting to rape his ‘swamp’ girl sweetheart (Anne Shirley). Rogers gives his typical laid-back performance, and acts everyone off the screen in the process. He really was a unique and remarkable talent, way ahead of his time in terms of his naturalistic performances, and must have been a little unnerving to work with for actors trained in more classical methods. Certainly Shirley and McGuire never get a look in when they share the screen with Rogers. Only the rotund figure of character actor Eugene Palette and his unforgettable foghorn voice manage to compete.
The era portrayed (described in the introduction simply as the ’90s, as if the producers hadn’t considered the possibility that the film would still be being shown in the 21st century) is pure Americana, but without the cloying sentimentality evident in so much of Hollywood’s contemporaneous output. It’s still an idealised version of America, in which sleepy jailer Palette throws down his keys to on-the-run Duke (McGuire) so that he can lock himself up, but the idealisation is never dwelled upon or forced down the viewer’s throat. Anne Shirley, just a year after her breakthrough role in Anne of Green Gables is admirably de-glamourised (if there is such a word) as swamp girl Fleety Belle, who enjoys a confrontational relationship with Rogers’ Doctor John Pearly before they eventually thaw toward one another, and Stepin Fetchit plays his usual sleepy-eyed simpleton. His roles were racist stereotypes to be sure, but there is something strangely mesmerising about his performances.
Like the steamboat upon which much of the story takes place, the film moves along at a steady old pace, never creating much of a sense of urgency as Pearly and Belle roam the Mississippi searching for New Moses, the only man who can save Duke from the noose, simply because it isn’t trying to. This film isn’t concerned with creating a suspenseful storyline so much as providing a showcase for Rogers’ low-key charisma to work its charm.
(Reviewed 12th August 2005)