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Dr. John Pearly is an affable, turn-of-the-century con man who sells a patent medicine whose primary ingredient is whiskey. He resurrects a broken down steamboat with a makeshift crew and challenges the respectable but arrogant Captain Eli to a winner-take-all river race. Pearly hopes his nephew Duke will serve as pilot, but the young man stands accused of murdering a 'swamp rat' who threatened the honor of 'swamp girl' Fleety Belle. After Duke is arrested, Pearly tries to raise money for a lawyer by charging admission to a wax museum aboard his ship. Ultimately he gambles it all in the river race to Baton Rouge, where he hopes to find a witness whose testimony will free Duke. Written by
Steamboat Round the Bend is one of 3 collaborations between director John Ford and actor Will Rogers, and was shot in 6 weeks in the Sacramento River Delta.
The commentary by Scott Eyman, on the 2006 DVD, is worth having apart from the film. Eyman is author of two books on director John Ford: Print the Legend, and John Ford: The Complete Films. His commentary is among the very best I have ever heard.
Standout scenes: An exquisite wedding ceremony brings tears even to Will Rogers's eyes, and he is not acting. Anne Shirley as Fleety Belle is stunning in her delicate beauty throughout. The "New Moses," Berton Churchill, is memorable in his role as a full-of-himself blowhard, as he was playing the prosecuting attorney in the 1934 "Judge Priest," another Ford-Rogers collaboration. Another reprise from Judge Priest is John Ford's brother Francis, again playing a drunk with amazing aim when he spits. A final highlight is supercharging the Claremore Queen firebox with the Pocahontas Remedy.
Some viewers are disturbed by Lincoln Perry's (Stepin Fetchit) character, but more disturbing to me was the lassoing of Moses! Scott Eyman gives a superb analysis of the dull and slow character played by Stepin Fetchittranscending the kneejerk politically-correct reaction of today, and placing Fetchit's characterization (and that of Hattie McDaniel in other films) in a larger context. He says "might I offer a modest proposal: Is it not now time to look past the stereotypes these actors portrayed-- and look at the art, and the warmth, with which they played them." Two other films with Rogers have the same charm and image of 19th Century American values; one is the Ford Rogers collaboration Judge Priest, and the other, also released in 1935, is In Old Kentucky.
Commentator Eyman says "taken together, the 3 Ford-Rogers films (Judge Priest, Dr. Boles, and Steamboat) rank with Ford's finest achievements." After Rogers's tragic death, 50,000 people filed by his closed casket, and 12,000 movie theaters went dark for two minutes.
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