Banjo on My Knee
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Ernie Holley runs away to New Orleans on his wedding night because he thinks he has killed a wedding guest. The Beverly Hill Billie's patriarch, Buddy Ebson, makes a memorable appearance. Shown in 4:3 full frame presentation.
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The real tragedy of the movie is that the magnificent and incomparable Theresa Harris isn't given top billing--actually she is given no billing at all. As a fan of black & white movies, I know that Black actors are rarely if ever going to be acknowledged. But it is a particular shame here because Harris truly was the scene stealer in this film. She is the reason I gave the movie 4 stars instead of 3.
The film is curious in that the director and editor don't proceed at a snappy pace, but give stars and supporting actors more than ample time to show off. Especially Walter Brennan (without his upper denture), who spouts off at length in his countrified accent and repeatedly plays his contraption. Family friend Buddy Ebsen, too, drawls, sings, and dances in his unique countrified style. Otherwise, accents are a stew, notably Barbara of Brooklyn and Joel of California.
On-the-make Walter Catlett, in his trademark glasses, does his trademark mugging. Katherine de Mille (Cecil B. DeMille's adopted daughter) wants Joel for her own. She's somewhat beefy, and is allowed only one dress, kinda Sadie Thompson style. But she does get to heat up the film with her black stockings, and finally is stripped down to an industrial-strength slip. Helen Westley is demoted to a cackling grandma in a rocking chair.
Banjo on My Knee and Saint Louis Blues pop up here and there in the film, and also get full treatments. (By the way, this film was an Academy Award nominee for Best Sound Recording; the soundtrack is well preserved, sharp at times. And the print is good, but may profit from a crankup of Brightness.)
1. [on the shanty boat] Banjo on My Knee. Ebsen sings and dances.
2. [ " ] When the Lazy River Goes By. Stanwyck does a short subdued solo to McCrea. The refined delivery suggests it's dubbed.
3. [Cafe Creole, Latin Quarter, New Orleans] There's Something in the Air. Spotlighted Tony (credited as Anthony) Martin sings to the folks at the tables. He's prettified, especially his penciled brows, greased hair, he slips deftly around the floor, dark jacket, light pants, and knows he has a voice to die for--with tremolo. He looks like he's passing for straight.
4. [facade of three-tiered apartment house for blacks, with a courtyard] Saint Louis Blues. This is the big production number, with the Hall Johnson Choir on the soundtrack, and stealing the picture, Theresa Harris, seated immobile and serious, doing full justice to that Saint Louie woman with all her diamond rings. (This pretty, trim performer did many films, occasionally singing and dancing but mostly playing maids.)
5. [Cafe Creole] Brennan and his contraption do a suth'n medley: Way Down upon the Sewanee River, Dixie, etc.
6. [ " ] When the Lazy River Goes By. The long version in a duet by Barbara, using her own voice, and Tony, plus dancing.
7. [ " ] I Go Right On Singing with a Banjo on My Knee. Ebsen sings and dances.
8. [ " ] Sewanee. Barbara and Buddy dance.
The fresh songs are by composer Jimmy McHugh and lyricist Harold Adamson. (They also wrote Comin' In on a Wing and a Prayer; I Couldn't Sleep a Wink Last Night.)
AS THE END NEARS...
...the Special Effects Department takes over the Mississippi River. Boy! you really got a lot for your dime in 1936.
P.S. Tony Martin's character is named Chick Bean (because he's from Chicago). Well, that's better than Chick Pea, eh ?
Subtract a half star for a story that has a two-fisted ditsy blonde as its male lead and another half star for a production that casts the affable Joel McCrea in that role. (Frank Nugent, who gave the original release an overall positive review in The NY Times, was "thoroughly irritated by the stupidity of Joel McCrea's Ernie.") Ernie can share a bit of his subtraction with the relentless Leota, Stanwyck's rival and a character as unpleasant as Ernie himself. Whether that's due more to the script or more to Katherine DeMille's one-note performance, I'm not sure. But, hey, it's a musical.
Subtract another half star for a script by Nunnally Johnson that shifts awkwardly from homespun humor in its shanty-boat first act (girl loses boy) towards conventional melodrama in its second (lovelorn suitor tempts girl) towards ham-handed screwball comedy in its third act (girl gets boy -- though it's hard to imagine anybody but Leota wanting him). But, hey, it's a musical.
Add a full star for Walter Brennan, who makes his character, Newt, a delight and binds the disparate acts together. Add another half star for Buddy Ebsen, who invests his small part with amiable charm. Another star goes to any movie with Stanwyck in it, and let it be said the former Ziegfeld Follies dancer is clearly having a ball when she gets a chance to hoof. The brief score by Jimmy McHugh and Harold Adamson leans hard on Stephen Foster and W. C. Handy (whose St. Louis Blues is done proud by the Hall Johnson Choir and its uncredited soloist in a scene right out of Gershwin's Catfish Row). The original tunes in the score work well in context but have never come close to entering the American Songbook. In this movie that's Stanwyck's voice you hear when she sings (see Ella Smith's study for details). In fact, part of the film's charm is that there's only one trained singer in it (Anthony Martin as act 2's lovelorn suitor). For the rest, the singing is not unlike that found in Peter Bogdanovich's At Long Last Love (or its offspring, Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You). The dancing, on the other hand, is Broadway quality throughout. All in all this is a frothy diversion, ultimately no more believable than an Astaire-Rogers flick, even though the source material is closer to Steinbeck than to imaginary high society. If the last five minutes showed Leota successfully dragging Ernie away to live aggressively ever after, the film would have a sizable cult following.
I had wanted to see this film for years but couldn't bring myself to spend the oodles it would have taken to get the Japanese DVD. So hurrah for Cinema Archives, a way of distributing films that might otherwise not be commercially available in the U.S. I've picked up three. All are simply but nicely packaged DVD-Rs, and mine play on DVD and Blu-ray machines just the same as any other DVD. The print of Banjo is not Criterion-perfect, but it's really quite good. Banjo on My Knee was originally noted for the excellence of its sound, and, again, the sound on the DVD-R is also quite good. The difference in quality between this DVD-R and the wretched YouTube file of the movie is huge. Somebody at Cinema Archives cares.
If you like 30s musicals, you'll enjoy all or large parts of this, though it's not likely to become your very favorite. 3 1/2 stars.