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Swanee River (1939)

Approved | | Biography, Drama, Musical | 5 January 1940 (USA)
More fictional than factual biography of Stephen Foster. Songwriter from Pittsburgh falls in love with the South, marries a Southern gal (Leeds), then is accused of sympathizing when the ... See full summary »


Sidney Lanfield


John Taintor Foote (screenplay), Philip Dunne (screenplay)
Nominated for 1 Oscar. See more awards »




Cast overview, first billed only:
Don Ameche ... Stephen Foster
Andrea Leeds ... Jane McDowell Foster
Al Jolson ... Edwin P. Christy
Felix Bressart ... Henry Kleber
Chick Chandler ... Bones
Russell Hicks ... Andrew McDowell
George Reed ... Old Joe, McDowell's Coachman
Richard Clarke ... Tom Harper
Diane Fisher Diane Fisher ... Marion Foster
George P. Breakston ... Ambrose
Al Herman Al Herman ... Tambo
Charles Trowbridge ... Mr. Foster
George Meeker ... Henry Foster
Leona Roberts ... Mrs. Foster
Charles Tannen ... Morrison Foster
Learn more

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More fictional than factual biography of Stephen Foster. Songwriter from Pittsburgh falls in love with the South, marries a Southern gal (Leeds), then is accused of sympathizing when the Civil War breaks out. Written by Ed Stephan <stephan@cc.wwu.edu>

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis

Plot Keywords:

blackface | See All (1) »


YOU"LL Thrill To the Songs...the Romances of STEPHEN FOSTER!! See more »


Approved | See all certifications »

Did You Know?


The last credited on screen performance of Al Jolson. See more »


In this movie, Stephen Foster marries a girl from the South, but in real life, his wife was from Pittsburgh. See more »


Stephen Foster: [he whistles a version of Oh! Susanna] That ending isn't right yet.
Jane McDowell Foster: You know, I think the Negroes would finish it like this
[she whistles the tune]
Stephen Foster: Why, that's right! How did you know?
Jane McDowell Foster: You forget, I was brought up on Negro music.
Stephen Foster: I wish I'd been. As I boy in Pittsburgh, I heard just enough of it to want to hear more. I'd a colored nurse you know. Sometimes, she'd take me down to their little church by the river, I heard "Sweet Chariot", "Roll Jordan", all the rest.
Jane McDowell Foster: There's nothing like them, is there?
Stephen Foster: ...
See more »

Crazy Credits

[prologue] This is the strange story of a Northern youth to whom the Southland brought immortal inspiration.....Though his stormy life is long forgotten, his simple words and simple music live on in the hearts of the whole American people. See more »


Remade as I Dream of Jeanie (1952) See more »


Gwine Down the River
Written by William 'Wee Willie' Davis (uncredited)
See more »

User Reviews

America's Premier Melody Maker
13 January 2008 | by bkoganbingSee all my reviews

The first time I saw this film was well over 50 years ago on WOR TV's Million Dollar Movie. It was almost a requirement in my house as my father was a big fan of Al Jolson and my mother happened to love the melodies of Stephen Foster.

Two years after Swanee River was out, Foster and other songwriters of his era had a revival of sorts as the American Society of Composers and Publishers got into a wing ding battle with the radio and record industry and banned its music from broadcast and vinyl. What was done was that a lot of music that was in the public domain got revived in all kinds of strange ways. Swing versions of various classic and folk melodies invaded the airwaves. Country type music got it's own licensing agent in Broadcast Music Incorporated set up as a rival to ASCAP. It all got settled before Pearl Harbor and the country moved on to more important disputes. But Swanee River as a film gave Foster kind of a leg up on some of his other public domain contemporaries.

Don Ameche, fresh from another biographical triumph in Alexander Graham Bell, makes a charming, talented, but weak of character Stephen Foster. The man who created some of the most beautiful melodies ever composed, was no businessman as other reviewers pointed out. He also suffered from alcoholism which led to his early demise. Andrea Leeds is his patient and loving wife for whom I Dream of Jeannie was composed.

As was also pointed out by another reviewer, there was no such thing as ASCAP to protect the creators of melody from exploitation. What Al Jolson's E.P. Christy did to Stephen Foster insofar as his first song hit, Oh Susanna is concerned was not only true, but quite the norm. What Christy did was also decide maybe he ought to cut Foster in on the profits to keep the creative spigot flowing.

Jolson as Christy was the premier minstrel artist of his day when that form of entertainment was acceptable and popular. Of course Jolson got his start in minstrel shows and damage to his reputation has come because he never would discard the black-face. This is the only time on film that Jolson plays a real life character and he sings the Foster songs with feeling and the inimitable Jolson style.

By dint of the fact that his songs were minstrel show material and some and only some glorified the old South, Foster himself has come down as damaged goods in these politically correct days. That's a pity because items like Beautiful Dreamer, Old Dog Trey, My Old Kentucky Home are the stuff of genius.

It's not the complete truth, but Swanee River still holds up as a nice account of America's premier melody maker of his century.

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Release Date:

5 January 1940 (USA) See more »

Also Known As:

The Life of Stephen Foster See more »


Box Office

Gross USA:

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Company Credits

Production Co:

Twentieth Century Fox See more »
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Technical Specs


Sound Mix:

Mono (Western Electric Mirrophonic Recording)


Color (Technicolor)

Aspect Ratio:

1.37 : 1
See full technical specs »

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