Will Rogers plays a medicine man turned steamboat operator racing to New Orleans to save his nephew from the gallows.
John Ford directs this well-produced entry that veers between farce and melodrama. Rogers opens peddling moonshine masquerading as a Pocahontas elixir. He keeps this huckster angle throughout the film, though his ample charisma and folksy demeanor keeps his character likeable.
Rogers comes into a steamboat, and early on wagers his boat against a more established boat in an upcoming race. Winner takes both boats. I thought I was in for a light comedy, with Rogers leading a rag-tag group of misfits to an improbable victory. But then the film shifts and we learn Rogers’s beloved nephew has killed a man. Rogers convinces his nephew to turn himself in, but a prejudiced judge sentences him to death in New Orleans. But, as plot would have it, a missing witness can prove the nephew’s innocence. Rogers just has to find him. And wouldn’t you know? The boat race finishes in New Orleans.
These overwrought narrative stakes aren’t necessary and drag down an otherwise entertaining comedy-adventure. Said Ford1:
Steamboat Round the Bend should have been a great picture but at that time they had a change of studio and a new manager came in who wanted to show off, so he recut the picture, and took all the comedy out.
The location photography still shines however, and the big race, with Rogers’s boat bellowing flame as it roars down river, remains an impressive sight.
Less impressive is Sephin Fetchit’s character, a racist caricature. His scenes proved hard to stomach, though he gets the film’s funniest line, when, after the crew has dragged a lassoed man aboard the moving steamboat, he mutters almost matter-of-fact under his breath, “Lucky he didn’t bump his head on that boat.”
- Peter Bogdanovich. John Ford (University of California Press, 1967), 57.↩