Steamboat Round the Bend (1935)

“If his life ain’t worth five hundred dollars, it ain’t worth nothin’!”

Synopsis:
A steamboat operator (Will Rogers) and a “swamp girl” named Fleety Belle (Anne Shirley) try to locate a key witness (Berton Churchill) before Rogers’ nephew (John McGuire) is unjustly hung for murder.

Genres:

Review:
Will Rogers’ final film (released after his tragic death in an airplane crash over Alaska) is similar in many ways to his previous two collaborations with director John Ford: once again, Rogers plays a down-to-earth, laid-back guy who is more than willing to go against social norms to do what’s “right”. His character isn’t quite as noble this time around — rather than a doctor (as in Doctor Bull) or a judge (as in Judge Priest), he’s initially a snake oil salesman (a fake “doctor”) hoping to transition into managing a steamboat — yet it’s impossible to find fault with him, particularly once he takes his nephew’s “swamp” girlfriend (a wonderfully wide-eyed Anne Shirley) under his wing, and puts his own dreams on hold to help save his nephew from the gallows of unjust death. Two dramatic highlights of this ultimately rather insubstantial film include Rogers demonstrating the educational merits of his newly acquired Wax Museum (!!!) to a group of small-minded Southerners, and the grand finale: a steamboat race down the Mississippi (guess who wins?). As with their previous two collaborations, Steamboat… ultimately doesn’t seem quite worthy of either Rogers’ or Ford’s talents, but it will likely be of minor interest to fans of either man.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Will Rogers as “Doctor John”
    Steamboat Rogers
  • Anne Shirley as Fleety Belle
    Steamboat Shirley

Must See?
No; check out Judge Priest (1934) instead to see Rogers in a (slightly) better Ford film.

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One Response to “Steamboat Round the Bend (1935)”

  1. Not must-see – and rather in agreement with the assessment given.

    What stands out here most is Ford’s direction (particularly in the two strongest sequences already noted). When dealing with so-so material, some directors (even normally great ones) can be prone to over-compensating by pushing too hard for effect, which tends to only make things worse. (Cukor occasionally did that – as did Mike Nichols, i.e., with ‘The Fortune’.) But here, Ford resists that temptation by focusing on what he does best (esp. individual character touches) – which results in at least a mildly entertaining, if still very ordinary film.

    The lengthy race sequence is genuinely a rather-thrilling standout – and it suddenly gives the film a much-needed boost. “Down with the demon rum!” becomes the film’s best line, as it leads to an unexpected few moments of real hilarity.

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