Sunday, January 20, 2019

THE 2ND REMEMBERING BARBARA STANWYCK BLOGATHON: Banjo on My Knee (1936)


Crystal of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood is reviving her Remembering Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon of 2016 with co-host Maddy of Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. The blogathon runs from January 20 - 22.


Everything starts at Day One and continues here.


"The Saint Louis Blues is the most beautiful music they is."
- Newt Holley played by Walter Brennan

Newt Holley is determined to serenade his son Ernie on the night of his marriage to Pearl Elliot, ensuring the grandbaby he longs to see. Newt and his bride were serenaded thusly almost 50 years earlier, and they had six sons, with Ernie the only one still living. The rest "was drownded." That's what comes from living in Shantyboats.


Shantyboats describes exactly what you would think; a shanty town on the water. Roughhewn, homemade houseboats on barges were affordable for a poorer population that tended to keep to themselves. Itinerant workers learned to like the life, and lived on the canals and rivers of America from the 19th century well into the 1930s, the setting of our story.

The history of shantyboats and a novel by Harry Hamilton published in 1936, makes an interesting setting for Banjo on My Knee, a likably improbable movie directed by John Cromwell for 20th Century Fox that same year.

Where the Lazy River Goes By
Jimmy McHugh and Harold Adamson

Ernie, played by Joel McCrea is marrying land girl Pearl played by Barbara Stanwyck. During the ceremony, Newt plays the Bridal Chorus on his one-man-band contraption while cousin Buddy, played by Buddy Ebsen dances and sings. After the ceremony, Pearl sings to her husband and fights with jealous rival Leota played by Katherine De Mille. Barbara Stanwyck has a pleasant and controlled contralto. For his part, Ernie's post-ceremony festivities include a fight with a land business acquaintance, Mr. Slade played by Victor Kilian. This Slade character wanted to kiss the bride and Ernie wouldn't stand for it.

Joel McCrea, Barbara Stanwyck

Ernie knocks Slade right into the water and when the body does not re-emerge it is assumed to be dead. Vengeful Leota goes for the sheriff and Ernie hightails it for New Orleans as he doesn't trust the land police. So much for any serenading this night!

It turns out that Slade wasn't dead so Ernie is free to return to his lovely bride. Of course, any serenading will have to wait until Ernie returns from roaming the seven seas on a freighter. Six months later Ernie is back with tattoos to account for his wandering. He talks to Pearl about the places he has seen including Aruba. Ernie thinks they should settle there and he'll go ahead and get a job and then send for everyone.

Pearl has waited six long months for Ernie's return and she is not open to the idea of his leaving again! We know by now that these are two hot-headed characters and they have a doozy of an argument. Ernie storms out. Pearl storms out. This time it is Pearl who is bound for New Orleans with a traveling photographer played by Walter Catlett. Catlett was pulling his line on Leota when Pearl swept him off his feet. Leota is not happy with Pearl.

Once in New Orleans, Pearl gets cold feet about working for the photographer and takes a dishwashing job at a restaurant run by Minna Gombel. She almost runs into Ernie there as he'd finally cooled off after their fight. However, they miss each other when Ernie runs into a former shipmate played by Milburn Stone and is off again.

St. Louis Blues
W.C. Handy

In her loneliness, Pearl sits alone at the docks listening to the Hall Johnson Choir and her Baby Face co-star Theresa Harris singing "the most beautiful music they is" and it breaks Pearl's heart. Note: The Hall Johnson Choir can lead me into any movie in which they appear.

Barbara Stanwyck, Tony Martin

You'll never guess who else shows up in New Orleans. Why it's none other than Newt! His contraption is a hit with the restaurant audience and this causes the resident baritone Chick played by Tony Martin to lose some of his considerable faith in himself. Eventually, Chick, Newt, and Pearl team up as entertainers at the restaurant and they are a hit. Even cousin Buddy hits the big town and joins the act.

Life couldn't be any better, especially when they learn that Ernie is on his way home. A celebration is planned, but when Ernie arrives he sees the peddling photographer, gets the wrong idea, and wrecks the joint. That's it! It's all over! Pearl is going to Chicago with Chick. Ernie goes back to the river and Leota.

Buddy Ebsen, Barbara Stanwyck, Walter Brennan

Here's where the special effects folks get into things with a finale involving all our leading characters and a major storm on the river. There are life and death situations, hilarious girl fight situations, and ... at long last ... some "serenading." If Ernie and Pearl can keep from fighting long enough, they may have time to raise some singing/dancing/fighting children.

Banjo on My Knee is the second of six films starring Barbara Stanwyck and Joel McCrea from 1934s Gambling Lady to 1957s Trooper Hook. I find them a very simpatico pairing in all their outings. However, Banjo on My Knee by far the oddest little movie in the grouping, with its comedy/drama/musical mix.

McCrea's character is so obstinate and so much the cause of the misunderstandings that you begin to wonder if he is worth all the trouble. Barbara Stanwyck is charming as a girl who longs for her home and her man but refuses to be pushed around. She creates a vulnerable character who learns through her experience. One wonders if McCrea's Ernie will ever grow up.


Bonus music:

Where the Lazy River Goes By from the film has been recorded by many artists and this version by Teddy Wilson reached #7 on Billboard. Tony Martin's solo in the movie, There's Something in the Air also charted.
















14 comments:

  1. When I wrote about this one I also noted Stany's singing voice; I thought it was decent, though I doubt anyone back then thought of her as a singer in the same fashion as, say, Jeanette MacDonald.

    How'd you like her duet with Tony Martin?

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  2. I thought the duet was charming. Tony had such a perfect voice and he knew how to sing with others without overpowering them.

    An endearingly odd little movie. Cromwell gave it some nice touches.

    Not recalling your "Banjo" piece, I rushed over and enjoyed the double bill.

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  3. Another movie that has escaped me so far. "An endearingly odd little movie" sounds like a good antidote to bleak Noirs.

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    1. It would at that and we all can use a little noir break once in a while. Although some of its nighttime scenes will make you feel like you haven't strayed very far from the mean streets.

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  4. Caftan Woman, you have unearthed another movie I knew nothing about! I had no idea that Barbara and Joel made so many movies together. She looks pretty young in that photo with Tony Martin!

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    1. Barbara is absolutely adorable in this movie. Her character is feisty, but doesn't have the chip on her shoulder attitude of some of her other 1930s characters. The singing in her own voice is a real plus. Enjoy.

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  5. I love Barbara Stanwyck and I enjoy her films with Joel McCrea. However, the one time I watched Banjo, I hated it. Maybe, it's time to give it another chance.

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    1. Well, maybe I'm just soft-hearted. As far as Stanwyck/McCrea movies go, I think of it like the runt in a litter of puppies. And the music rather appeals to me. You mind find it an interesting companion one of these days.

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  6. Wow, I had never heard of this film! Thanks telling us about it with this great article! I love that photo of Barbara and Buddy Ebsen!

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    1. Don't they look adorable? It is a treat to see this musical side of Barbara. She looks like she's having such fun here and kicking up her heels in Lady of Burlesque.

      I have read that when she made These Wilder Years with Cagney in 1954, the two old hoofers would put on records and dance during breaks. Now, that is what should have been filmed!

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  7. The best things about blogathons is that you discover new films. It also skipped my memory that she did quite a few films with Joel McCrea and I think they had great chemistry on screen. I think it's also easy to forget that she spent a lot of time on the stage kicking her heels before fame on the big screen.

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    1. Like Cagney, Missy may have thought of herself as a song-and-dance gal.

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  8. This one is new to me! I am eager to check out this charming sounding film. I didn't know that our Barbara could sing either! Love the Lazy River clip. Great review. Thanks for joining our blogathon, Paddy.

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    1. My pleasure, Maddy. I think you will find this quirky little movie to your liking.

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