Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Barbara Marries Joel

Banjo on My Knee (1936) begins at the wedding of Pearl Elliott (Barbara Stanwyck) to Ernie Hollie (Joel McCrea).  Ernie and his father, Newt (Walter Brennan) live and work on the Mississippi, they are, as the introduction to the story tells us, part of a community of riverboat people who live outside of towns.  Pearl is an outsider (we are not told how she and Ernie met), just that she was a servant in her past life, has little education (she never got past the 4th grade, and can just barely read and write her name), and she loves Ernie dearly.  She is readily embraced by her new community, with the exception of Leota Long (Katherine de Mille), and it looks like all will be well.  But the arrival of Mr. Slade (Victor Kilian), a local businessman, creates a problem - he gets fresh with Pearl, Ernie decks him, and everyone thinks Mr. Slade (who fell over the side of the boat) is dead.  Ernie has to get out of town immediately.  Of course, Mr. Slade is fine, Ernie returns from 6 months at sea with money in his pocket.  And a plan - he is going to leave again (and leave Pearl) to head to Aruba, where he will set up a home for them.  Incensed, Pearl leaves him; first Ernie, then Newt go looking for her.  But Ernie is a man with a temper, who doesn't have the best judgement in the world, so finding Pearl becomes very complicated. 
Stanwyck's Pearl is an appealing character.  Despite her lack of education, she is intelligent and self-sufficient.  She didn't marry Ernie to support her - we quickly see that she is well able to take care of herself.  She is also honest and forthright.  When Warfield Scott (Walter Catlett) takes her to New Orleans to "work" for him, she arranges to pay back his expenses, rather than become his mistress.  Her relationship with her father-in-law also demonstrates the character's virtues.  In the long run, Newt is much more sympathetic to his daughter-in-law than he is to his son.  A little willing suspension of disbelief is needed in the film - though Stanwyck is supposed to be a poor girl, she's got awfully nice clothing (costumes by Gwen Wakeling). We also get the added treat of seeing Stanwyck, the Broadway performer.  She again is allowed to do her own singing, and dances a perky routine with Buddy Ebsen (Buddy).

Joel McCrea, on the other hand, has a fairly thankless role as Ernie.  Ernie is an immature idiot, and is not very good husband material.  In fact, we found Ernie to be very reminiscent of Ed, the character he plays in The Primrose Path.  Given the choice of Pearl ending up with Ernie or Chick Bean (Anthony "Tony" Martin), we were rooting for Chick, a much more attractive character.   

Joel McCrea very much wanted to work with Stanwyck again after they appeared in Gambling Lady (1934), and the feeling was mutual.  Stanwyck requested McCrea as her leading man in  Internes Can't Take Money (noted for being the first Dr. Kildare movie).  And McCrea returned the favor when her requested her as is his lead in Trooper Hook (1957), their final of 6 films together.  For more information on their partnership and friendship, visit these TCM articles.
The opening of the film is a bit slow, but once Pearl relocates to New Orleans, the action picks up.  William Faulkner was hired to do some of the dialogue writing on the film, but none of what he wrote survived; Nunnally Johnson gets the actual screenwriting credit.  The country background is always evident; even when Newt and Pearl go to the city, Newt's contraption is a constant reminder of his rural roots.  His determination to play "St. Louis Blues" to his son and bride on their wedding night calls up the idea of the country shivaree.

The film is full of notable character actors.  Walter Brennan, the man who was never young, plays Ernie's father, Newt.  Brennan, whose career would span from 1925 to 1975, with (according to the IMDB) 243 screen and television credits, is probably best known to some of us as the lead in The Real McCoys.  His film career is notable, winning an Oscar (the same year as this film) for Come and Get It, and appearing in such highly regarded films as Meet John Doe (1941), To Have and Have Not (1944), My Darling Clementine (1946),  and Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), to name a VERY few.  He was married for 54 years to his wife, Ruth (until his death in 1974 at the age of 80).  A noted conservative, he actually campaigned against Richard Nixon in 1972 for being too liberal.
Buddy Ebsen had nearly as long a career as Brennan, though he really made his greatest mark in television, most memorably in The Beverly Hillbillies and Barnaby Jones. His gangly looks and rubbery dancing pretty much typecast him as a country guy, though in his later years, his more distinguished appearance helped him to get more interesting parts.  He started his career in vaudeville, dancing with his sister Vilma.  He continued doing films throughout his career (for example, the role of Doc in Breakfast at Tiffany's), but by1951, he was devoting more and more time to television.  He famousy danced with Shirley Temple in Captain January (1936), his first appearance without Vilma (she appeared with him in one film: Broadway Melody of 1936, then retired).  He's also remembered for being the first choice for the role of the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, but the aluminum-based makeup landed him in the hospital and he was replaced by Jack Haley).  Like Brennan, he too was a conservative, and (though it was not in his home state), campaigned against his former colleague Nancy Kulp when she ran for a congressional seat in Pennsylvania in 1984. 

In a very small part is Theresa Harris, an African-American actress who has one scene - she sings St. Louis Blues in the New Orleans club.  If you've seen Baby Face, then you are familiar with her characterization of Chico in that excellent film.  She shares no scenes with anyone in this film (it probable that the number was inserted with the intent of removing it in the South).  But she would appear with Stanwyck one more time in The File on Thelma Jordan. This New York Times article discusses the career of Ms. Harris.

The Breen office was not entranced with the film, and demanded a number of changes, according to this AFI article.  They were especially concerned with what they saw as a preoccupation with Ernie and Pearl's wedding night festivities (or lack thereof).  Darryl Zanuck ultimately agreed to tone down the drinking and to make it more obvious that it is Newt's desire to serenade the couple (rather than his wanting a grandchild) that has him pushing them into bed.

So, while not a great movie, some excellent performances, and worth a look.  We'll end this week with Stanwyck singing "Where The Lazy River Goes By"

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