Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Raining to Beat the Brennan

Banjo On My Knee (1936)
directed by John Cromwell
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
watched on Netflix Instant

Walter Brennan won the Oscar for Come and Get It in 1936 but enjoys himself more as a one-man band who lives in a "shanty" boat on the banks of the Mississippi River.  His son is bull-headed Joel McCrea, who falls in love with an equally stubborn Barbara Stanwyck.  Babs is from the "mainland," of course, much to long-suffering Katherine DeMille's chagrin.  The grass is always greener and the women more sophisticated the farther one gets from the water.  Everyone makes a bad decision impulsively, and then sets out to try and track down the person he chased away.

The squalid barges against the shore seem like a bad joke at first, as if a roomful of writers at Fox couldn't get enough of cracking each other up with increasingly degrading rural storylines.  But the atmosphere is too inviting, too pleasant.  Instead of a low-class jamboree, the principals participate in something more animated than but equally glamorous and exotic as a soiree on the docks of West Egg.

Everyone makes his way to New Orleans, eventually, where the melting pot of Louisiana culture is given its due.  Impatient with McCrea's dense repetition, Cromwell latches onto a down-and-out singer who falls in love with DeMille.  A straight shooter, he promises to do his best to provide for her, and it's a better offer than she'll get from Joel.  But she passes it up and breaks the singer's heart.  In some ways Banjo On My Knee is a movie about trying to get out of your hometown, and how tough that can be, and how the wrong sort of person - the person that could save you but doesn't - sometimes sticks you in the mud and leaves.