Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Steamboat Round the Bend

Steamboat Round the Bend (1935) is basically a vehicle for the humorist and comedian Will Rogers to make witty, sometimes self-deprecating observations. Rogers in 1935 was such a low-key humorist as compared to contemporary comedians, who mostly eschew subtlety, that one might wonder what the ruckus was. Rogers was much respected and admired in his day, and when he died in the 1935 plane crash somewhere in Alaska with Wiley Post, the nation mourned--I am told that my great grandmother wept in sorrow. In the film, Rogers basically plays himself—he's not dynamic, he doesn't over act or under act, he just pronounces homespun witticisms, mumbles, bumbles and dodders, is generally likeable, and provides a genial presence that keeps the film going.

Set on the Mississippi River in the 1890s, on the borders of Louisiana and Mississippi, Steamboat Round the Bend tells the story of how Dr. John Pearley (he sells an elixir guaranteed to cure any pain or affliction), also known as Steamboat Bill, owner of the most decrepit steamboat on the river, takes part in a riverboat race in order to get to Baton Rouge in time to save his nephew Duke, condemned to death for a murder committed in self-defense. The only witness to the murder, a wild-eyed evangelist known as "the New Moses" (he has an uncanny resemblance to John Brown and to Orson Welles) has disappeared, and Steamboat Will looks for him as he makes his way down the river.

This film is mildly amusing and is interesting as a curious artifact of its times. It is shot as if it takes place on a stage. There are long silences as characters apparently struggle to decide (or remember) what to say, and the plot as a whole seems unimaginative and contrived.

The Will Rogers character Dr. Pearley is a snake-oil salesman—this is one source of humor. The Prophet is another such salesman—his rantings are one of the only forms of entertainment for people along the river. We briefly see his competitor, the "New Elijah." Although the film is set in the riverboat environment of the 19th-century South, it offers no genuine glimpse into the wild frontier of that world that found its way into much humor of the 19th century, including Mark Twain. The riverboat world of Steamboat Round the Bend is fully domesticated, though, admittedly, the wildest of the riverboat days occurred some fifty or so years before the 1890s.

Although this film takes place in the South, no one in it speaks with any kind of accent. The only real nod to the setting is the river, the steamboats, and an ongoing rivalry between the people who live in the swamp and those who live on riverboats—they don't like each other. Duke falls in love with a swamp girl, Fleety Belle, and this entanglement leads to the killing for which he is condemned. (Whether this rivalry has any historical basis, I don't know).

African Americans are also an aspect of the South in this film. A group of black prisoners sings at the wedding of Duke and Fleety Belle before he is slated to be hanged. Several mates on Bill's riverboat are black. But the most notable black actor in the film is Stepin Fetchit, who plays a clown-like riverboat mate whose clumsy, loud, imbecilic antics are intended as comic relief from a narrative that itself is supposed to be comic. Stepin Fetchit throws himself fully into this role--he understands the stereotype he is playing, knows what it will take to reap laughter from the white audiences of the film, and as sad and offensive (from our modern standpoint) as his character is, you can understand why he was popular in his day. He's not just going through the motions—there is no subtlety in his acting, but there is a lot of energy.

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