Monday, March 17, 2014

Apparently, I haven't blogged about Banjo on My Knee before

FXM, or what's left of the Fox Movie Channel, is airing Banjo on My Knee tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM. I thought I had blogged about it, but apparently not. It also doesn't seem to be available on DVD, so I'd better blog about it now.

Joel McCrea stars as Ernie Holley, who at the start of the movie is living with his dad Newt (Walter Brennan) on a sort of houseboat on the Mississippi River as part of a "Shantytown" of houseboats where the locals have their own peculiar culture. It's a happy day for the Holley family, though, as Ernie is about to get married to landlubber Pearl (Barbara Stanwyck). She's willing to live the river life, and since Ernie and Pearl love each other, it's presumably a match made in heaven. Except that it's not going to work out that way. After the wedding, Slade (Victor Killian), who purchases the fish that the Shantytown people catch wholesale, tries to kiss the bride. Ernie doesn't like this, so he gives Slade a slug, and he falls off the boat into the river. Ernie fears that he's drowned Slade, and to make matters worse, his former girlfriend Leota (Katherine DeMille) is willing to call the police to have him arrested and ruin his life. If she can't have him, nobody will. So Ernie makes a quick escape, leaving poor Pearl behind.

Ernie shows up six months later, having worked as a sailor, and offers Pearl a plan: he's going to take her to Aruba, beyond American jurisdiction. But Pearl doesn't like that idea, nor the idea that Ernie should be making all the decisions for the couple. She she up and leaves for New Orleans, where she's been offered a job in a photography studio. The photographer turns out to be a lecher, however (he probably really would have been a pronographer, but they couldn't say that in a 1936 movie), so Pearl leaves him and takes a job at a small restaurant washing dishes in order to make ends meet. Ernie shows up at the photography studio looking for Pearl, but can't find her, of course, so he goes off again. Eventually Newt and another of the Shantytown folk, Buddy (Buddy Ebsen) find her, and try to get Ernie to make up with her. In the meantime, though, the restaurant's entertainment, singer Chick (Tony Martin), has fallen in love with Pearl and is willing to marry her. We know that Ernie and Pearl are really right for each other, but will they ever be able to get back together and find that true happiness?

Banjo on My Knee is an odd little movie, at least in the sense of its subject matter. As talented as both of the leads were, neither Stanwyck nor McCrea seems quite right to play the part of people almost outside regular society, living off the river and only interacting with the civilized world as required. Yes, I know McCrea did a somewhat similar role in Bed of Roses, and Stanwyck played outsiders in movies such as Baby Face, but these characters seem like they're supposed to be the river version of hillbillies. Still, Stanwyck and McCrea aren't as glaring errors in their parts as many other stars would be. (Try imagining William Powell and Myrna Loy playing these roles.) They're also helped by Brennan and Ebsen, who both it their roles quite well. The story is nothing particularly special, as it seems like a plot that could fit in a whole bunch of different settings. Overall, Banjo on My Knee is a very interesting, if somewhat imperfect, film, but one that's well worth a view. It's a shame that it isn't known better.

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