Steamboat Round the Bend

How about taking a trip down the Mississippi River on the Claremore Queen?

The “actual” floating on the river took place 80 years ago, mind you, but we can still join Will Rogers as he takes his Steamboat Round the Bend.

Directed by John Ford, the 1935 movie was Will’s 21st sound movie. Because of the sad circumferences surrounding it, the Fox Films Corp. production wasn’t a huge success when first released.

The beloved humorist was killed in an Alaskan plane crash along with friend Wiley Post only months before. Fans around the world were just not willing to turn him loose. Movies were made for entertainment. Fans didn’t want to tell him good-bye for the final time.

It took some time but the same fans could not stay away. Today Steamboat Round the Bend is considered by many of Rogers’s admirers and moviegoers as his best film.

A cowboy, vaudeville performer, social commentator, newspaper columnist, radio humorist, and actor, Will was the most famous star in the 1920s-30s. Born in Rogers County in 1879, he would become a friend to people from all walks in life.

No one could match his homespun, straightforward, good-natured humor.

In addition to all his careers and achievements, Will Rogers quickly took over Hollywood when he decided to go into “…the moving pictures business.”

His movie career totaled 36 silent films, the 21 with sound, and 12 in the travelogue series. In each he was the leading player.

It is said his movies helped save Fox and later Fox-Twentieth Century Studios from going bankrupt in the early 30s. He and a small heart-stealing actress named Shirley Temple were by far the studio’s most popular stars.

Like in most of the John Ford directed movies to follow, Steamboat Round the Bend paints a beautiful and colorful story despite being filmed in black and white. It is a complete American folk tale that offers humor, warmth, suspense, and drama all in one during the 91-minute running time.

While Will could carry a whole movie on his own, Ford surrounds his off-screen friend with a full cast of delightful characters.

The cast includes a young Anne Shirley, veteran actors Irvin S. Cobb and Eugene Pallette, Berton Churchill, and Stepin Fetchit.

In his role as Doctor John Pearly, Will is at his philosopher best. Dr. John is the captain of a rundown paddleboat that features a floating wax museum. While going up and down the Mississippi, he also fills the need as a medicine man.

The popularly of his bottled patient medicine is helped by having 85 percentage of alcohol in its content.

The main plot is a down river race between Dr. John’s “Claremore Queen” and a rival’s newer and faster steamboat. The glory days are way behind Dr. John’s paddle wheeler, but she is still his pride and joy.

Before the race gets underway, a key sideline plot takes place. Dr. John’s nephew Duke accidently kills a man in fight over pretty Fleety Belle. She is an orphaned swamp girl that finds a home on the “Claremore Queen.”

On his uncle’s advice, Duke turns himself in to the local sheriff. Apparently justice is swift along the river. A quick trial is held and Duke is found guilty and sentenced to hang.

Only the testimony of a missing key witness can save his trip to the gallows. An itinerant evangelist calling himself “New Moses” has left the community and is said to be preaching his way to New Orleans.

Oh yes, we can’t forget the matter where Duke and Fleety Belle are permitted to get married while Duke is waiting for his sentence to be carried out.

Only director Ford can emphases the “till death do us part” theme with the witnesses growing maudlin over the ceremony and turn it into a comedy scene.

Can the “New Moses” be found? Will his testimony save Duke from the hangman’s noose? Does Fleety Belle become a widow before her honeymoon?

And last but certainly not least, can Dr. John and his dear “Claremore Queen” win the important race?

These questions will remain unanswered here in respect for all movie fans that have not seen Will’s final screen performance.

Thanks to the Will Rogers Museum, Steamboat Round the Bend is shown on a regular basis along with several others of his movies. Check with the Museum for dates and times.

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