#26 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
Endings are important, and even in light comedies with adventure undertones, those endings end up helping to shape everything that came before it. I was a bit flustered by the first hour or so of John Ford’s Steamboat Round the Bend, finding things to like but frustrated at the extraordinary loose nature of the telling, but the ending brought everything together in rip-roaring fashion. Will Rogers’ final filmed role before his airplane crash that killed him ends up being a fancifully entertaining trip down the Mississippi.
Rogers plays Doctor John Pearly, a conman selling a tonic he says comes from a recipe by Pocahontas herself, but which is literally just rum, to people on the river as he makes his way up to find his own dilapidated riverboat, ready for him to refurbish and put back on the water. When he first arrives at his new home on the river his nephew Duke (John McGuire) arrives with a swamp woman in tow, Fleety Belle (Anne Shirley). Duke had killed Belle’s father in an act of self-defense after they had been seeing each other secretly for some time, but the only witness to the events that could possibly clear his name is New Moses (Berton Churchill), a bearded temperance preacher who travels up and down the river, converting wayward souls. However, before anyone can find New Moses, the law arrests Duke, and John forces Belle’s family away by lying and saying that Duke and Belle have married.
This was a strong start, and then the movie just kind of begins to flounder for a while. John takes Belle on his refurbished boat up and down the river nominally looking for Old Moses, but they take on a traveling museum of sorts, filling the hold with mannequins of famous historical figures with a lot of talk about how to Americanize the figures to help attract customers. Some small adventures, misunderstandings, and scrapes dominate the middle section of this film around the museum, and while most of it is very lightly amusing, it feels like the movie itself has gotten lost. There’s suddenly no urgency about Duke or his plight. It’s kind of odd.
After a brief marriage ceremony to make John’s lie of Belle and Duke a reality, Duke gets taken down to Baton Rouge for execution. John ends up chasing after Duke and gets caught up in a riverboat race, forced to join as the only way to go further south on the Mississippi and developing a rivalry with Captain Eli (Irvin S. Cobb), pilot of another steamboat. It’s here where the movie reclaims its focus and, more entertainingly, a strong sense of energy as the film becomes a race against the clock on two different fronts, the literal race against the other steamboats and the need to get to Baton Rouge before Duke’s execution. They may not have much more of a plan than that, but they have to go. In swift order, though, they encounter New Moses preaching on the side of the river, rope him in (literally), and speed off, burning more and more of the riverboat’s ephemera to fuel the engines from the lifeboats to, as the race becomes more desperate, the mannequins themselves. Watching New Moses in all of this is a treat, and when he discovers that John has a supply of the Pocahontas cure all on board, also that it’s just rum, he has the idea of throwing them in to heat the engine and propel them faster. It’s kind of wild stuff, and it’s a very fun comedic crescendo for the whole picture.
The film was apparently cut down by about twenty minutes after Will Rogers’ death, mostly in the ending, forcing a final shot of Rogers as John reclining on the deck of his boat. It’s a nice moment for the character as well as the actor.
This is the first time that Rogers worked with Ford where it felt like Rogers was actually playing a character instead of just himself, and it’s a nice change of pace. He doesn’t dominate the film like he does in the other two films (Doctor Bull and Judge Priest) to varying degrees of success, allowing the story to play through without completely overrunning everything else. He’s the central character for sure, but he allows space for Annie Shirley, as his primary counterpart, to shine in bright and cheerful fashion.
It really could have used a rewrite in its middle section, a section that dragged the film down a good bit, but that ending is really something else, a madcap race with real stakes and cut quickly for an all around good time. It really won me over by the end.