Monday, August 1, 2016
I had neither seen nor heard anything starring the legendary humorist Will Rogers before I watched him in Steamboat Round the Bend, the second feature of the Fox 75th Anniversary Collection. Sure, I knew of him; who of my age didn’t? He’s got those famous quotes, that musical that ran on Broadway in 1991, and the foundation for which Marlo Thomas is a spokesperson. But I finally got to see him perform in this film, no doubt designed as a vehicle to showcase his homespun witticisms and affable everyman persona. I was not only surprised at how much I liked him but also the movie itself: an engaging story peppered with memorably quirky characters and a rousing race to the finish (literally) that must’ve been quite the crowd pleaser for its day.
Rogers is Doctor John, a “miracle-elixer” (alcohol) salesman, and recent co-owner, along with his nephew, Duke, of a disheveled riverboat. But all’s not rosy with the lad – he had taken up with Fleety Belle, a pretty but downcast “swamp girl,” and killed a man in a fight over her, with a temperance preacher, the New Moses, being the only witness of its justification as self-defense. John’s prediction that a judge would show leniency is disproven when Duke is sentenced to hang for his misdeed, so he and Fleety ride up and down the Mississip, raising money for a good lawyer by turning the watercraft into a floating wax museum of great historical figures. Their crew enlarges to include a few other wayfarers – and soon the money rolls in. But their appeal is rejected, and their only other option is to sail to Baton Rouge and appeal to the governor for a pardon, using Moses’ testimony, and aw hell why not compete in the boat race going on down that route while they’re at it. Happy endings for all.
Rogers is of course the star here, and he has a natural charm and charisma, but he gets some mighty fine support from his ensemble. Anne Shirley is perfectly beguiling as Fleety; sure she transforms from a backwoods rube into a refined young woman pretty fast (that dress helps), but she possesses that “it” which defined so many stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age. And Steppin Fetchit, the African-American actor from the 30s whose name nowadays serves as a metaphor for black stereotyping, is pretty damned funny. I like the way he rambles his lines and sort of trails off at the end – it sounds far more contemporary than the theatrical, pre-Brando histrionics of his co-stars. Call me politically incorrect but I didn’t see this guy’s performance as offensive, just refreshingly real.
Of course, wrangling it all together is director John Ford, commencing his long, illustrious career with Fox with this picture. One can detect his trademark affinity for the grandeur of nature with his lingering shots of the Mississippi River and the anthropomorphic steamboats that trundle on like stagecoaches on a long, dusty road. He also knows the value of clear, concise storytelling (Steamboats runs a brief 75 minutes, although I could’ve used a slightly longer concluding wrap-up, as well as a strong focus on character, character, character).
All these elements work in tandem to create a surprisingly involving Night at the Movies. Oh, and don’t miss the very beginning for one of the first uses of the 20th Century Fox logo, strobe lights and all. Of course, it’s not the true logo until the fanfare comes along… (for you, Star Wars fans).