“One of the best actresses I ever worked with.” –Joel McCrea
Over the course of twenty-three years–from 1934’s Gambling Lady through 1957’s Trooper Hook–Barbara Stanwyck and Joel McCrea starred in six films together. By all accounts, the two of them formed a supportive and friendly relationship; each spoke highly of the other in interviews, and on occasion even gave one another a boost professionally. The pair shared a warm chemistry onscreen, and played off one another in a deceptively easy manner. Their films together range from immensely watchable (1939’s Union Pacific) to merely entertaining (Gambling Lady, The Great Man’s Lady) to downright puzzling … as in the case of the 1936 mishmash Banjo on My Knee, co-starring Walter Brennan, Walter Catlett, and Buddy Ebsen.
Banjo features Stanwyck and McCrea (employing a thoroughly unbelievable Southern accent) as Pearl and Ernie, whose wedding opens the film. Pearl is a “land girl” from Tennessee, marrying into a family of “river folk” who make their living from their boats on the Mississippi. Ernie’s father, Newt (Walter Brennan), is ecstatic about the marriage, and can hardly wait for the pair to consummate their union and finally give him the grandson he has always longed for. But a series of strange circumstances and miscommunications delay the wedding night for months on end, and an increasingly frustrated Newt conspires to get the couple back together so they can finally “get it on.”
As you might imagine, the Production Code office had a fit about the content of this film; Joseph Breen sent producer Darryl F. Zanuck a letter finding the “excessive drinking” and sexual undercurrents of the film objectionable. Changes were subsequently made to the script to accommodate Breen’s objections. But the uncomfortable implications of Newt’s involvement with his son’s attempts to procreate are still present in the film. Newt sits outside his son’s bedroom, hooked up to a musical “contraption” he created (complete with drums, cowbells, piccolo, and banjo), waiting for the couple’s light to go out so he can serenade his boy as he gets down to business (so to speak). The film’s explanation of this strange behavior is that Newt was serenaded by the song “St. Louis Blues” on his own wedding night, and he feels it is a tradition that brings good luck to the couple as they start their family. A fine sentiment, but still–it’s undeniably, creepily odd.
“Odd” is the perfect word to describe the film as a whole. Banjo tries to be many things–a marital drama, a screwball comedy, a jaunty musical–and in the end, it is all of these things and none of these things. It is, as I mentioned before, a borderline nonsensical mishmash, and a pale (and obvious) attempt to capitalize on the success of the musical Showboat, which had premiered earlier that year.
In the grand tradition of screwball comedy, the plot hinges on two big misunderstandings. In the first, Ernie punches Slade (Victor Kilian), an uninvited wedding guest who attempts to kiss the bride, knocking the man overboard in the process. When the man doesn’t reappear and they believe him to have drowned, Ernie flees the police and goes on the run to Europe. But mere minutes later, Slade pops back up, having floated upriver in the midst of the chaos. Ernie, long gone by that time, stays away for six months. When he finally returns to his waiting bride, their reunion is delayed by another misunderstanding, as Pearl grows angry at Ernie’s ill-explained intention to go to Aruba and establish a home for them there. This time, it’s she who leaves, impulsively hopping on a boat to New Orleans with a lascivious photographer, Warfield Scott (poor Catlett, who’s subjected to a recurring gag in which he gets the snot beat out of him by various characters). Ernie goes after her–as does his father, contraption in tow–and even after ending up in the same restaurant (the Cafe Creole), where Pearl has taken a job as a dishwasher, they manage to miss one another, and he heads off to work on a barge to Havana. Before long, the constant miscommunication leads to Ernie being thrown in jail and Pearl running off to Chicago, with seemingly little hope for a wedding night to ever take place.
Of course, we know better, and understand that a happy ending is preordained, and that Newt will finally get through the “St. Louis Blues” while his boy … well, you know. It’s the getting there that presents the problem. In a good screwball comedy, the obstacles to that “happily ever after” act to whet the audience’s appetite for the inevitable reunion. In Banjo, however, this tactic fails miserably. The delays are frustrating and poorly conceived; the whole affair is rather joyless, the laughs few and far between. [The notion of postponed wedding-night gratification is played much more effectively (and to many more laughs) in the 1949 comedy I Was a Male War Bride, in which Cary Grant and Ann Sheridan suffer several obstacles on the way to consummation.]
There are a number of musical interludes in the film, many of which serve only to extend the run time rather than to add anything necessary to the plot. This is the first film in which Stanwyck both danced and sang her own tunes, and while she’s no Judy Garland, her voice is low and pleasing, the tone passable. When Pearl ends up falling into a job as a performer at the Cafe Creole, she has a lovely duet of “Where the Lazy River Goes By” with Chick Bean (Tony Martin), which serves as a reprise of an earlier solo performance in which she serenaded new husband Ernie.
But the most noteworthy musical performance in the film comes courtesy of Theresa Harris, who belts out her own heartfelt take on the “St. Louis Blues” (Harris co-starred with Stanwyck in the 1933 pre-Code Baby Face, and performed this song in that earlier film as well). In perhaps the most effective scene of the entire movie, Pearl listens to Harris sing at the docks, accompanied by the workers unloading the ships and the women doing the laundry nearby (credited as the Hall-Johnson Choir).
“I hate to see that evening sun go down,
Hate to see that evening sun go down,
‘Cause my baby, he done left this town.”
Stanwyck’s face reflects every emotion brought forth by the tune as if it were written in plain ink on her face, as Pearl’s loneliness and regret finally give way to tears of despair. It’s a searingly, painfully honest moment, one of the few given to Stanwyck in a film that otherwise wades through a sea of maudlin humor.
Indeed, there’s an almost inescapable sense of melancholy that drags down the entire film, largely due to the mopey nature of Stanwyck’s character, a persona that does not sit well on the fiery actress. Pearl is a lackluster part, a woman who ultimately lacks the proactive nature of some of Stanwyck’s most beloved heroines. Can you imagine her Jean Harrington from The Lady Eve (1941) waiting around for Hopsie to make up his mind? Or her Sugarpuss O’Shea (Ball of Fire, 1941) docilely allowing Professor Potts to decide when she’ll finally get some “yum-yum?”
It’s disconcerting to see Stanwyck play someone so largely passive. Even in the scenes in which her character spars with McCrea, the spark of combat is quickly smothered by Pearl’s “sit and wait” personality. Interestingly, her interactions with her main romantic rival are not nearly so benign. When she overhears Leota (Katherine DeMille), the “river girl” who longs for Ernie, snidely criticizing Pearl on her wedding night, Pearl initially defends herself before collapsing into tears and running to Ernie for validation: “Tell me you love me!” But later in the film, when Leota manages to maneuver her way into being a reluctant Ernie’s new bride, Pearl returns just in time to reclaim her man, slapping Leona silly (and stripping her of Pearl’s borrowed “kimona”) for good measure. It’s out of character for “good girl” Pearl, and does little to erase the memory of Pearl’s doormat-like behavior, but it’s a bit of welcome hilarity nonetheless.
The dramatic elements of the film are belied by the cartoonish caricatures that comprise the supporting cast, particularly Ebsen as a dimwitted hick who thinks a necktie is a strangely-shaped handkerchief, and Spencer Charters as a perpetually drunk judge who repeatedly passes out and falls into the river. Banjo is yet another in a long line of films that stereotypes Southerners as countrified clowns, a trope that is driven home by the film’s treatment of Newt. When he follows Ernie and Pearl down to New Orleans, determined to get them back to the business of baby-making, he finds work as a dinner-show performer at the Cafe Creole, manipulating his contraption through a medley of Southern staples including “Old Susannah” and “Dixie.” The patrons laugh uproariously at his antics, throwing nickels at him as he performs. But in the end, he’s little more than a circus attraction to them, not an artist–a novelty act, the ghost of the minstrel shows of old. This sense is heightened when Ebsen arrives and joins the show, singing the titular song and dancing a loose-limbed hoedown: an exaggerated Hee-Haw for the 1930s movie-going crowd.
Though it has a few entertaining moments, the film as a whole is a misfire. But as slight a film as Banjo on My Knee is in comparison to much the rest of the Stanwyck filmography, it nonetheless was an important one for the actress. Banjo inadvertently led to one of the defining roles of her career, for it was during the making of this film that Stanwyck first told McCrea of her desire to play the self-sacrificing mother in Stella Dallas (1937). Both stars were aware that McCrea’s boss, Samuel Goldwyn, intended to remake his own 1925 silent version of Olive Higgins Prouty’s popular melodramatic novel. As recounted in Dan Callahan’s recent Stanwyck biography, The Miracle Woman, Goldwyn initially sought Ruth Chatterton to play the lead, but she rejected the part. Stanwyck expressed to McCrea her fervent wish to play Stella and, as she later recalled, he “practically clubbed Sam Goldwyn into getting me into” the movie. Stanwyck never forgot how McCrea went to bat for her, and it cemented a lifelong friendship between the pair.
But really, how could McCrea not help push for her to get the coveted part? He, like everyone else in Hollywood–like so many of us still do–simply loved the hell out of Ms. Barbara Stanwyck.
This post is our contribution to the Barbara Stanwyck blogathon, hosted by Aubyn of The Girl with the White Parasol. Head on over to the site to see more Stany-loving posts from the past week.