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Swanee River (1939)

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 »


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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 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


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) »


The Story of Stephen C. Foster - The Great American Troubadour See more »


Approved | See all certifications »






Release Date:

5 January 1940 (USA) See more »

Also Known As:

The Life of Stephen Foster See more »


Box Office

Gross USA:

$285,100, 17 January 1940
See more on IMDbPro »

Company Credits

Production Co:

Twentieth Century Fox See more »
Show more on IMDbPro »

Technical Specs


Sound Mix:

Mono (Western Electric Mirrophonic Recording)


Color (Technicolor)

Aspect Ratio:

1.37 : 1
See full technical specs »

Did You Know?


"Lux Radio Theater" broadcast a 60 minute radio adaptation of the movie on April 2, 1945 with Al Jolson reprising his film role. See more »


The film's final scene is wholly inaccurate; there was no performance by E.P. Christy on the day that Foster died. In reality, Christy actually died nearly two years before Foster; he committed suicide by throwing himself from a window at his home in New York City in May 1862; Foster himself died in January 1864. 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 ...
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 »


Version of Harmony Lane (1935) See more »


Gwine to Rune All Night
aka "De Camptown Races"
Written by Stephen Foster
See more »

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User Reviews

The last moment was ridiculous
22 May 2005 | by theowinthropSee all my reviews

I am giving this film a "6" because of my fondness for Stephen Foster's melodies (and my pity for his fate), and because - whatever one thinks of his racist "blackface" act, Al Jolson was a wonderful singer. If it had been shot as a concert film of Foster's best tunes, it would have been worth an "9" or even a "10". Instead it is tied to one of those idiotic Hollywood composer biographies. It is a sub-set to Hollywood biographies, all of which have fact problems. Here it is trying to concentrate on Foster's alcoholism (a fact), but not on the business problems he confronted in his career.

Foster was the first American composer of lasting merit (although his contemporary Louis Moreau Gottschalk came close). His compositions were totally composed by him (including lyrics). But he never had any business abilities, so that while tunes like "Old Folks At Home", "Beautiful Dreamer", "The Camptown Races", "I Dream of Jeannie" and "Oh Susannah" were massive popular hits, Foster got remarkably little of the profits. Added to his problems were the lack of efficient copy-write protection in the U.S. (or on the globe, for that matter) to prevent pirating of his work. He was also the first composer who tried to live on the successful profits of his compositions. Had he been frugal, and not a drinker, it just might have worked (for a few years he did prosper), but he fumbled it. His last years were spent still composing, but living as a Bowery derelict. His end is not quite the melodrama of the film - he fell in his room cutting himself (not cutting his throat). Due to his alcoholic condition weakening his body, he died a few days later in Bellevue Hospital.

Don Ameche is a terrific actor, and does what he can here - but it reminds us of an extended development of his Edward Salomon (Lillian Russell's doomed composer husband) in the Russsell biography. He is talented - greatly so - but drink and ill health doom her here. No new extension of his acting range as Foster.

By 1939 I wonder if there was increasing criticism by African - American groups regarding stereotyping in Hollywood. Probably not too much yet, or at least enough for the industry to take notice. Films about D.D.Emmett (DIXIE), and other films with minstrel segments in them would still appear within the next decade. It really is not until the end of the 1940s and into the 1950s that an effect of World War II is felt - a dislike for the disparate treatment of African Americans - and begins to have an impact. So the minstrel portions, historically correct (unfortunately), were totally acceptable in this film in 1939.

Oddly enough, given the accidental tragedy that ends this film, the fate of E.E.Christy is overlooked. Christy apparently had a nervous breakdown in the 1860s, and threw himself out of a window. One would not know that watching Jolson's performance, based on this script.

The concluding moment of this film always stuck in my craw. Tragically announcing the death of Foster at what was supposed to be the benefit to resurrect his career, Christy/Jolson announces the first performance of Foster's latest and greatest tune. He starts singing "Old Folks At Home" (renamed "Swanee River" - as in the film title), Jolson starts singing it (remember for the first time). When the music reaches the chorus, "All the world is sad and weary..." the whole audience arose and sang it's chorus lines. Remarkable example of massive psychic transference, or poor screenplay writing: I leave it to the viewer to guess which.

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