13 April 2002 | wmorrow59
Will Rogers' swan song is Americana with a Dixie flavor
This movie was shown recently as part of a major comedy retrospective at Film Forum in New York, but it seemed somewhat out of place alongside the likes of the Marx Brothers and Mae West. Steamboat Round the Bend is an interesting and unusual film with occasional comic touches, but it's primarily a serious tale with elements of melodrama. The story is set in the 1890s, and rich period atmosphere is one of the film's strongest assets. Although it's not based on a Mark Twain story director John Ford captures that Old Times on the Mississippi flavor better than a lot of movies based on Twain's books. Ultimately, this is a rich slice of Americana with a distinct Southern bias. That's all well and good if you have an interest in American history as depicted in Hollywood films of this period, but viewers expecting non-stop laughs will be disappointed. Those of us who grew up watching TV in the '60s might find that Steamboat Round the Bend is reminiscent of The Andy Griffith Show: it has the same relaxed tempo, presents a similarly benign view of Southern life (with the stark exception of one sequence, which I'll discuss in a moment), and has as its leading man a very low-key guy.
Here, as in his other talkies, Will Rogers ambles through the proceedings in a seemingly casual fashion. He was unlike any other star of his time -- or since, really -- and viewers who've never seen one of his movies might find him a little odd at first. Like his friend W.C. Fields, Rogers refused to rehearse his scenes and insisted on doing a minimal number of takes, even if he fluffed his lines, which he often did. His acting is so offhand, and so unlike the polished Hollywood performance style of his day, a first-time viewer might mistake him for an amateur who somehow wandered onto the set. Once you adjust to his naturalistic style, however, Rogers' special talent becomes obvious, and it's the other actors who start looking theatrical and phony. Aside from the lead the most memorable performances in this film are given by the growly-voiced Eugene Palette, who gets most of the laughs, and bright-eyed Anne Shirley, who holds her own with Rogers in their scenes together.
Steamboat Round the Bend is probably best remembered as Will Rogers' swan song, the last project he finished before his death in a plane crash, but like much of his work it never had a legitimate video release in the VHS era, most likely because of the presence of the notorious African-American comedian Stepin Fetchit. When several Rogers movies were released on video a few years back the ones featuring Fetchit were skipped, probably because modern day audiences are uncomfortable with the his "comedy relief," and for good reason: watching Stepin Fetchit can be very discomfiting. Anyone who seeks proof of Hollywood racism need look no further than films of the '30s in which he was featured. For those who haven't seen him, it might help to explain that despite the sound of his name and what it implies, Stepin Fetchit was Hollywood's favorite lazy simpleton, a woozy scamp with a slow-as-molasses delivery that's difficult to decipher. He comes off as heavily sedated, or even mentally retarded. Who could laugh at this sort of thing today? In recent years a few film critics and historians (including some African-American ones) have taken a more sympathetic view of Fetchit's career, and have made positive assertions about what he was able to accomplish within the confines of the demeaning roles he was given. Well, whatever. Where this movie is concerned I'll note simply that Fetchit's screen time is mercifully limited, and that the film has only a minimal amount of racial humor. In fact, about halfway through there is a remarkable sequence in which attitudes of the Old South are satirized in a surprising fashion.
To set the scene: Rogers (playing Dr. John), with the help of Anne Shirley (Fleety Belle) is attempting to raise money to pay legal fees to save his nephew from the gallows. They are sailing up and down the Mississippi in his old steamboat with a small crew (including Fetchit as Jonah), carrying what's left of the dummies from a defunct wax museum, charging riverfront locals to come look at the statues. When they reach one particular backwoods village, a mob of men advance carrying torches, pitchforks, axes, and a vat of tar, determined to destroy the boat and punish the wicked theater folk who have brought sinful playacting to their community. Dr. John is slow to recognize the danger, so much so that our credulity is strained, but it's striking to note that Jonah appreciates the danger instantly: he knows a lynch mob when he sees one. Dr. John is eventually able to pacify the mob when he invites the men onto his boat, and convinces them that the wax figures are "educational." This impressive word plus the sight of the dummies in their tatty costumes reduces the locals to a state of slack-jawed submission. The punchline comes when Dr. John gives the signal to raise a curtain, revealing a moth-eaten statue of Robert E. Lee astride his horse. At another command, the figure salutes stiffly, and the now-awed rednecks salute in return. For the finale, Jonah, sitting at the calliope, plays "Dixie" and sings along raggedly in a screechy, off-key voice as the scene fades out. It's a startling sequence, bitingly satirical in a way we don't expect, and perhaps not in the way the filmmakers intended. At any rate, this film is well worth a look for viewers who are historically-minded, curious about Will Rogers, or interested in the mass media's presentation of race relations.
P.S. Summer 2006: I'm pleased to add that this film is now available on DVD, in a box-set with three other movies Will Rogers made during the last year of his life.