Witness an amazing steamboat race to save a life in this 1935 film directed by John Ford.




This is a still from the movie, Steamboat Round the Bend. In this scene, Doctor John (Will Rogers) and Engineer/First Mate Efe (Francis Ford) survey the newly-acquired Claremore Queen. Efe's badge says "Down with the demon rum!" (a gift from The New Moses).

"Doctor" John Pearly buys an old steamboat and names it the Clarmore Queen. He plans to refurbish it to run for profit with his nephew Duke (John McGuire I), who is a steamboat pilot. Doctor John sells an elixir that is nothing more than run and he runs a side show - a wax museum he picked up from some friends. One of the figures in the museum is a large whale head. The Stepin Fetchit character rolls out of the whale's mouth and so Doctor John dubs him Jonah.




The Claremore Queen; banner says "Doctor John's Floating Museum."




Another shot of Doctor John's Floating Museum.

On the way to join Doctor John, Duke befriends Fleety Belle (Anne Shirley) a beautiful young woman from the swamplands of Louisiana. On the way to meet John, Duke is forced to kill a man to protect Fleety Belle from rape. Duke talks it over with the only witness to the unfortunate incident: The New Moses (Berton Churchill). The evangelist roams the river country baptizing people and preaching against the demon rum. The New Moses tells Duke that his violence was in self-defense and not a crime, but that it would be best if he would turn himself in to the authorities.

In one of the first scenes, John is cooking supper on the boat when Duke arrives with Fleety Belle. Duke explains his situation, so John takes him to the sheriff's house. The sheriff (Eugene Pallette) has already retired for the night, so he tosses John the prison keys and says to leave them on his front door knob after he's dropped off Duke.

Duke ultimately looses his trial, probably due to a personal feud between the attorney and the judge. The attorney once sold the judge a parcel of land in the flood zone and they have hated each other ever since. John and Fleety Belle try to save Duke, but the judge has condemned him to death by hanging and the court denies an appeal. Duke and Fleety Belle are married in a rapidly-prepared ceremony.




John and Fleety Belle take the Claremore Queen up the river to look for the New Moses, the only person who can attest to Duke's innocence.

Unable to find the New Moses, Doctor John and Fleety Belle set off for Baton Rouge to try to meet the governor and plead for clemency.

John finds the Mississippi River blocked by a great steamboat race and must enter the race to get down the river.




Will Rogers sees his old nemisis Captain Eli (Irvine S. Cobb), owner of the Pride of Paducah, and they make a bet. Whoever wins the race takes both boats.




This still shows Irvin S. Cobb, Captain Eli, at the wheel of the Pride of Paducah.




The steamboat race begins.




Another shot of the steamboat race.




The Pride of Paducah in between takes.


The Claremore Queen starts out well, running neck and neck with the Pride of Paducah. Suddenly Fleety Belle spots the New Moses on the shore. She manuevers the boat over, then John lassos the New Moses and drags him onto the boat. The New Moses is righteously alarmed that the innocent Duke is to be hanged, and he joins in with the rest of the crew, Efe (Francs Ford), and Jonah.

As they run out of firewood, they start burning anything they can - furniture, wood from the deck - nevertheless, the Pride of Paducah passes them. With no other option, Doctor John gives the okay to use the wax museum for fuel. When he obtained the museum, the figures were dressed as heroes of the North: Ulysses S. Grant, etc. To make the museum more appealing to Southerners, he took the cigar out of Grant's hand and dressed him as Robert E. Lee. They sacrifice the wax figures as if to fulfill some strange Biblical prophecy from Matthew 13.42: "They will throw them into the fiery furnace," but without the "weeping and gnashing of teeth" mentioned in the verse (probably because they are only wax figures). Despite sacrificing the statues, the Pride of Paducah is still ahead.

Down in the boiler room, the New Moses catches Efe taking a swig of Doctor John's elixir. He checks it and noting that it contains rum, he hurls it into the furnace. The alcohol sends out a burst of flame and that gives the rest an idea. They discover plenty of Doctor John's elixir and begin throwing the bottles into the furnace. The boat picks up speed and flames shoot from the smoke stacks, as if to warn Captain Eli that he's about to lose his boat. The Claremore Queen wins the race.

The governor himself is to hand out the award, so Doctor John and the New Moses explain their story to the governor. All three rush to the gallows where Duke is about to be hanged. They arrive just in time to save him. In the final scene, Duke and Fleety Belle are piloting the Pride of Paducah as Doctor John watches the foam fly from the paddlewheel.




Here Doctor John, Will Rogers, is seen talking to the New Moses, played by Berton Churchill.

The movie is based on a novel by Ben Lucien Burman, screenplay by Dudley Nichols and Lamar Trotti.

Director John Ford made three movies that year: "The Informer," "The Whole Town's Talking," and "Steamboat 'Round the Bend."

Critics have called Steamboat 'Round the Bend one of Ford's "unjustly neglected and loveliest masterworks."

Will Rogers died in a plane crash before the film's debut.

Actress Anne Shirley's real name was Dawn Paris and had performed under the stage name Dawn O'Day until she played Anne Shirley in "Anne of Green Gables" in 1934, at which point she took the name of the character.

The race was staged on the Sacramento River in 1935.

Art Director William Darling was probably the one responsible for outfitting local steamboats with two stacks to make them appear more like their Mississippi cousins.

The steamboat that played the Claremore Queen's real name was the Leader.




Dave Thomson points out that the smoke in this shot may mean that there's a real fire, possibly due to special effects that got out of hand. He points out that you can see two men running up the sidewalk at left wearing uniforms that don't match the period costumes. They could be a fire marshal and a security guard running towards the boats to investigate.


click here to see large stills from the movie