BANJO ON MY KNEE (20th Century-Fox, 1936), directed by John Cromwell, teams Barbara Stanwyck and Joel McCrea for the second of six times on screen. It may not be the first motion picture in which Stanwyck sings and dances (barely), but her initial one to be classified as a musical. Following the pattern taken on the idea from Edna Ferber's story, "Show Boat," later a legendary Broadway musical followed by two screen based versions (1929, 1936), BANJO ON MY KNEE, based on the novel by Harry Hamilton, has a pattern all its own.
Opening title: "Island Number 21 is little more than a sandbar in the Mississippi River, but to the shanty boat people moored there it is the world. Of what happens on shore they know little or care less. Shanty boat people firmly believe that if God had intended folks to live in towns, He would have created towns at the same time He created rocks and trees and rivers." The story opens with on a shanty boat on the Mississippi River where Judge Pope (Spencer Charters) officiates the wedding for bride and groom, Polly (Barbara Stanwyck), a "land girl," to Ernie (Joel McCrea), a "river man" and son of Newt (Walter Brennan), whose biggest wish before he dies is to become a grandfather. Among those not present at the wedding is the jealous Leota Lang (Katherine DeMille), Ernie's former girlfriend. Following a ceremony where Buddy (Buddy Ebsen) does some dancing, Mr. Slade (Victor Kilian), one of Newt's biggest buyer of animal feed, arrives, wanting to kiss the bride. The forceful kiss forces Ernie to sock Slade into the river. Fearing that he has drowned, Leota, seeing her chance to ruin Ernie's wedding night, notifies the police so he can be arrested for murder. The police arrive, forcing Ernie to leave his bride and swim away to shore. Not soon after Ernie's escape, the soaked and dripping Mr. Slade reappears, having survived drowning by floating upstream. Six months later, after traveling around Europe, Ernie returns to Pearl only to get into a heated argument causing Pearl to walk out on her "bullheaded" husband. After Pearl goes away with photographer, Warfield Scott (Walter Catlett), on a promise of a job in Louisiana, both Newt and Ernie go after her. During their search, Pearl encounters a new career and partnership with Chick Bean (Anthony "Tony" Martin), singer at the Creole Cafe.
While the words and music by Jimmy McHugh and Harold Adamson are far from Oscar Hammerstein's immortal songs from "Show Boat," the songs are satisfactory for easy listening. The motion picture soundtrack includes: "With a Banjo on My Knee" (sung by Buddy Ebsen and Walter Brennan); "Where the Lazy River Goes By" (sung by Barbara Stanwyck to Joel McCrea); "There's Something in the Air" (sung by Tony Martin); W.C. Handy's "The St. Louis Blues" (sung by Theresa Harris/the Hall Johnson Choir); "Four Leaf Clover" "Oh, Susannah" (by Stephen Foster/ played on "contraption" by Walter Brennan); "Swanee River" (by Stephen Foster); "Where the Lazy River Goes By" (reprised by Stanwyck and Martin); "With a Banjo on My Knee" (sung/danced by Ebsen)"Swanee River" (danced by Ebsen and Stanwyck); and "With a Banjo On My Knee."
Though not in the same level as Universal's second presentation of SHOW BOAT (1936) starring Irene Dunne and Allan Jones, nor the curiosity of the seldom seen MISSISSIPPI (Paramount, 1935) featuring the likes of Bing Crosby and WC Fields, BANJO ON MY KNEE is routinely done. Song interludes provide good showcases for its performers, and a great surprise for many getting a glimpse of Stanwyck singing a song or two in ballad style, and dancing with Buddy Ebsen. Of the many tunes, Tony Martin's rendition of "There's Something in the Air" comes off best. The "St. Louis Blues" number, done in black spiritual style, begins in a similar fashion of "Ol' Man River" from SHOW BOAT. There's no Paul Robeson to stop the show here this time around, but Theresa Harris sharing her vocals with the Hall Johnson Choir, and quite effectively, too. Another highlight is Walter Brennan playing an assortment of old time tunes on his "contraption," and Walter Catlett constant avoiding a sock on the jaw.
In support is Helen Westley, through her limitations, stands out as the old granny in a rocking chair smoking a corn cob pipe and screeching a hideous laugh in the manner of an old hag. Then there's Minna Gombell, whose characterization is a close reminder of Gladys George. In the role of Ruby, a tough talking café girl, she becomes romantically involved with Ernie (McCrea) at one point, unknown that he's a married man.
Even during the broadcast TV generation of the 1960s and 70s, BANJO ON MY KNEE had its limitations, especially when last seen on the afternoon movie presentation in the New York City area where it was last seen as far back as 1970 on WOR, Channel 9. I didn't get to see this one again until the early stages of American Movie Classics cable channel prior to 1988, where it hasn't been revived since. BANJO ON MY KNEE did have some broadcasts in later years on the Fox Movie Channel. Even with occasional revivals, particularly Turner Classic Movies (TCM premiere: December 12, 2012), it's still not enough to become a well-known factor of thirties cinema.
BANJO ON MY KNEE may not win any merits as the finest musical with the most original story ever put on film, but does benefit greatly from some fine atmospheric settings depicting both Mississippi and Louisiana, folksy humor and fine chemistry between Stanwyck and McCrea to make this rarity something to consider. (*** banjos)
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