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Barbara Stanwyck - Star of the Month
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Banjo on My Knee

When New York Times film critic Frank S. Nugent reviewed Banjo on My Knee at the time of its release, in 1936, he seemed to be expecting a realistic, gritty depiction of life on the Mississippi as experienced by impoverished river hobos. "If we are to believe...Banjo on My Knee - and there isn't an earthly reason why we should - the picturesque shanty-boaters of the Mississippi are nothing more than song-and-dance men in the rough, homegrown crooners, players of one-man bands or torch-singers of limited range and a tendency to grow moist-eyed whenever they hear that old American folksong, 'The St. Louis Blues,'" Nugent wrote huffily. He then went on to decry the picture's "unsettling premise," calling it "disillusioning and unthinkable." Nugent didn't realize, apparently, that Banjo on My Knee was supposed to be fun - and it is fun, though in places it's also brushed with an air of melancholy, a sense of the seeming impossibility of getting young love to stay afloat.

Barbara Stanwyck and Joel McCrea star as Pearl and Ernie, a dewy-eyed young couple who tie the knot in the picture's first scene. Ernie has lived on the Mississippi River all his life, a member of the proud "shanty-boat people" who know little of life on dry ground. Pearl is a "land girl," as tough, conniving shanty-boater Leota (Katherine DeMille) disdainfully calls her, and thus she's unaccustomed to the simple ways of the river folk. But Pearl is determined to be a good wife to Ernie, and her new father-in-law, Newt (Walter Brennan), a chipper old salt, is greatly looking forward to the grandbabies he's sure the happy couple will produce.

But these sweet, straightforward plans go awry when local troublemaker Slade (played by Victor Kilian) tries to force a sloppy kiss on the new bride, and Ernie leaps to her defense. He decks Slade and knocks him overboard, and, believing he's killed the man, escapes up the Mississippi, vowing to send for his wife as soon as possible.

What follows is a tale of separation, reunion and multiple misunderstandings, capped off by a happy ending that clicks into place practically at the last minute. Banjo on My Knee was directed by John Cromwell, who had previously made Spitfire (1934, with Katharine Hepburn) and Of Human Bondage (1934, with Bette Davis); at least partly because of those credentials, Stanwyck, according to her biographer Axel Madsen, was eager to work with him. The script was by renowned Hollywood wit Nunnally Johnson (adapted from a novel by Harry Hamilton), with additional dialogue by William Faulkner, though none of Faulkner's scenes survive in the finished film - he was given to long, convoluted flights of dialogue that didn't necessarily work well on-screen.

Still, there's an earthiness to Banjo on My Knee that suggests Faulkner's contributions may have lingered in the film in small, subtle ways, and Stanwyck's performance shows her usual subtle mix of boldness and vulnerability. Pearl and Ernie bicker and spar constantly when they're together; when they're apart, they pine for each other deeply. Pearl is at times extremely deferential to Ernie, swearing that she's willing to wait for him forever. But when he crosses her, assuming that he can make decisions for the both of them, she goes off in a huff with a lecherous photographer (Walter Catlett) - that's where the Stanwyck feistiness really kicks in. And even when Pearl is simply cuddling up to Ernie, Stanwyck still manages to imbue her with an aura of confidence and self-sufficiency. As Cromwell said of his lead actress, "Stanwyck had great star presence. Sometimes the word 'personality' is interchangeable with 'presence,' although they aren't the same thing. But the principle applies."

Banjo on My Knee is also the first film to feature Stanwyck's singing and dancing, though she had done some hoofing, early in her career, in various stage reviews including the Ziegfeld Follies. She's not half bad at the song-and-dance thing, either: Her musical numbers have an unstudied charm, particularly the one she performs with the lanky, bodaciously appealing Buddy Ebsen, who has a small role in the film.

Stanwyck is perhaps at her best, though, when she's sparring with her sturdy leading man, McCrea. The scenes between the two aren't necessarily racy - their interplay shows more enjoyable stubbornness than outright eroticism. Still, the director of the Production Code Administration, Joe Breen, found reasons to object to the movie's script. Because the characters are always reaching for a swig of corn liquor, he found the "excessive drinking" objectionable. He was also dismayed by the "suggestive" running gag in which Newt tries to find ways to get Pearl and Ernie to consummate their marriage, so they'll give him the grandchildren he longs for.

Darryl Zanuck, the head of Twentieth Century-Fox at the time, took umbrage at Breen's complaints and defended the movie staunchly. "Your reader has injected smut and sex where none was ever intended," he wrote in a letter to Breen. "We are telling a beautiful love story laid among a certain type of river people that exist on the Mississippi today. They are not drunks; they are not whores...[Newt] tries to get [Ernie and Pearl] together; he tries to stop them from quarreling....He wants them to be in love with each other because he knows that if they are, eventually they will have children and he will have an heir. In God's name, what is wrong with that?"

In the end, the studio did tone down the drinking scenes, and it somewhat downplayed Newt's cupid act. But Banjo on My Knee maintains a rustic, unpretentious charm. It's not a slice of realism, as Frank S. Nugent may have wanted. But it paddles along with great spirit nonetheless.

Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Director: John Cromwell
Screenplay: Nunnally Johnson (screenplay); Harry Hamilton (novel)
Cinematography: Ernest Palmer
Art Direction: Hans Peters
Music: Charles Maxwell (uncredited)
Film Editing: Hansen Fritch
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck (Pearl Elliott Holley), Joel McCrea (Ernie Holley), Walter Brennan (Newt Holley), Buddy Ebsen (Buddy), Helen Westley (Grandma), Walter Catlett (Warfield Scott), Anthony Martin (Chick Bean), Katherine De Mille (Leota Long), Victor Kilian (Mr. Slade), Minna Gombell (Ruby)
BW-95m.

by Stephanie Zacharek

SOURCES:
IMDb
The New York Times
AFI Catalog of Feature Films
Axel Madsen, Stanwyck, HarperCollins, 1994

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