The best scene in Steambout Round the Bend is the wedding between Anne Shirley and John McGuire. Neither Shirley nor McGuire is particularly good in the film, but McGuire’s about to be hung and so they’re getting married. Steambout is often a comedy and Eugene Pallette–as the officiating sheriff–tells some really bad jokes at the beginning of the scene. Ford creates this devastating scene between Shirley, McGuire and Will Rogers (Rogers plays McGuire’s uncle). Pallette has ninety percent of the dialogue in the scene, Shirley and McGuire are almost entirely silent, but Ford captures their despondence beautifully. It’s an amazing scene.
Steamboat is often fun–that wedding scene doesn’t even come at the finish (there’s still got to be time for Rogers to try to save McGuire)–but it has a strange sense of humor. Stepin Fetchit plays one of Rogers’s crew members, so there’s some cheap racial humor… but the film also mocks white Southerners. Except Rogers is playing a Confederate veteran. Only white trash Southerners are acceptable targets.
So while that humor doesn’t work, the stuff with Pallette often does. Irvin S. Cobb is outstanding as Rogers’s nemesis.
The third act is too rushed, like screenwriters Dudley Nichols and Lamar Trotti needed more time to close gracefully. Oddly, the pacing’s weak throughout–their dialogue’s often outstanding, but the plotting is off. Steamboat doesn’t have room for subplots and it needs a couple.
Still, Rogers is appealing and Ford does a fine job. It’s problematic, but decent.
Directed by John Ford; screenplay by Dudley Nichols and Lamar Trotti, based on the novel by Ben Lucien Burman; director of photography, George Schneiderman; edited by Alfred DeGaetano; music by Samuel Kaylin; produced by Sol M. Wurtzel; released by 20th Century Fox.
Starring Will Rogers (Doctor John Pearly), Anne Shirley (Fleety Belle), Irvin S. Cobb (Captain Eli), Eugene Pallette (Sheriff Rufe Jeffers), John McGuire (Duke), Berton Churchill (New Moses), Francis Ford (Efe), Roger Imhof (Breck’s Pappy), Raymond Hatton (Matt Abel), Hobart Bosworth (Chaplain) and Stepin Fetchit (Jonah).