29 June 2011 | Steffi_P
"There's mighty fine people in the swamps"
Will Rogers was typical of popular 1930s stars, in that he wasn't a magnificent actor, but he was a great character. No-one wanted pure realism or chameleonic talent from someone like Rogers, just that he be himself in whatever role he assumed. Looking at a selection of his movies, you can see he took on a variety of parts, never literally playing the same person twice. But whether he was a country farmer, a small town doctor or, as here, a steamboat captain, he was always the same Will Rogers; an earthy, warm and trustworthy father figure, gently overseeing the lives and loves of the younger generation with the eye of experience. Such was the strength of his personality that he was able to break out of the character actor bracket and carry a movie on his own as an unconventional but well-loved lead man.
And a Will Rogers picture was typically populated with a fine crop of colourful supporting players. Anne Shirley and John McGuire ostensibly play the romantic leads, but their performances seem drab amid the likes of Eugene Palette and Stepin Fetchit. A few of these co-stars are deserving of special mention. First is Irvin S. Cobb, actually an author with few acting credits, but his cartoonish face makes him a great pompous villain. Then there is Berton Churchill, who normally played rather stern authority figures, here giving us the brilliant creation of a top hat-wearing, cigar-chomping preacher. Churchill's every line and gesture is a hilarious send-up of the type, and his is surely the funniest performance here. And finally we have Francis Ford, brother of director John. Francis played numerous bit parts for his little brother, almost always as a comical drunkard, but this is probably his most prominent performance. Sadly an alcoholic in real life, he does one of the few truly funny drunk acts to be seen in classic Hollywood, and it's lovely to see him getting the chance to shine he deserves.
It's no wonder really that these cheeky character actors come to the fore in Steamboat Round the Bend, because as a director Ford Junior always gave a lot of weight to such smaller players. While he didn't tend to do much screen writing, would often allow the comic relief scenes to play out with adlibbing, or simply hold the camera on the comedy actors for that little bit longer, such as that great shot of Churchill sauntering off after his first meeting with Rogers. Meanwhile he would shoot the more plot-orientated scenes with the minimum of fuss, making them seem brief and hardly relevant. This is not to say that Ford is unable to bring out the deeper emotions of a story. His masterfully economic expression allowed him to keep the human story going during simple exposition. For example, as the McGuire character explains his unintentional killing of a man, Ford keeps Anne Shirley, mutely hunched forward, clear in the background. Another poignant Ford trademark is the heartfelt singsong, in this case "Home Sweet Home" sung by the inmates of a prison. Like the improvised comedy scenes, Ford was willing to linger over sequences like this for the sake of tone over story.
Steamboat Round the Bend is among the best of all Will Rogers pictures, although it is sadly one of the last. By the time it reached theatres the actor had been killed in a plane crash. Still, even if his life hadn't been cut short, the early-to-mid-thirties would probably have been his career peak. The public's love of homely, irregular movie stars that had flourished in the depression was soon to dwindle. The age of such lively character actors was soon coming to an end as well, as audiences wanted more realism and more focused story lines, as opposed to the variety-show style movies that characterised the early talkie era. Still, touches of this older style would continue to crop up, in the pictures of John Ford up until the 1950s, and even today in, say, the Coen Brothers' more oddball productions, and this is very encouraging to see. And yet, nothing can ever replicate the experience of going back to these old classics, an age when personalities ruled the screen.