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
The film was released shortly after Will Rogers' death on 15 August 1935 from an airplane crash near Point Barrow, Alaska. Originally, the ending of the film had him waving goodbye to the character played by Irvin S. Cobb, but the ending was changed to avoid the audience thinking he was saying goodbye to them, which may have caused them to leave the theater in tears. The review which appeared in Variety 25 September 1935 indicated the film had been "announced" as 102 minutes, but had been considerably shortened, which no doubt accounts for some problems in continuity and the abrupt ending. See more »
The actual last film that Will Rogers shot was this one, Steamboat Round The Bend. Doubting Thomas and In Old Kentucky which were released afterward were actually shot earlier. This is also the third and last film in which John Ford directed Will Rogers.
In this film Rogers is pure and simple a medicine show conman who has a floating museum on the Mississippi. That's just to lure the customers in, his money is made selling his particular brand of snake oil guaranteed to cure everything under the sun and where it doesn't shine.
Rogers has a nephew however whom he loves dearly and said nephew John McGuire loves a mountain girl Anne Shirley. In fact he killed a man who tried to take her away and there's only one witness, a crazy old revivalist Berton Churchill.
John Ford loved using Berton Churchill when he could and his most famous use of him was in Stagecoach as the banker Gatewood skipping town with the bank's assets. He's so different here decked out in a bedsheet with a long beard and calling himself 'the New Moses'. But this guy is the only one who can get McGuire off as he's the only witness to the homicide and the only one who can swear it was self defense. So Rogers is hunting up and down the river for him.
Which brings him into a steamboat race with a bunch of other captains and particularly a rival of Rogers, Irvin S. Cobb. Ford indulges in a little inside joke with Cobb who was a country humorist like Rogers himself. Will's steamboat is the Claremore Queen and Cobb has the Pride Of Paducah. Claremore, Oklahoma and Paducah, Kentucky were where both men hailed from respectively.
The Rogers films and also films like Young Mr. Lincoln are John Ford at his best. Early Americana was a period Ford loved and a lot of loving care went into Steamboat Round The Bend.
By the way that snake oil that Rogers peddles proves to have some real value after all. More I can't say.
Rogers is at his folksy best, but I did love Berton Churchill as the 'New Moses' who's also running his own con game. Steamboat Round The Bend is a wonderful introduction to Will Rogers. We've never seen his like again and who knows if we ever will.
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