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Barbara Stanwyck - Star of the Month
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Banjo on My Knee

Seven months after the release of Universal's Show Boat (1936), Twentieth Century-Fox released its own Mississippi riverboat movie: Banjo on My Knee (1936). But unlike Show Boat, a musical based on a famous Broadway production, Banjofunctions more as an odd hybrid of rural comedy-drama with a few musical interludes tossed in. In fact, much was made at the time of the fact that Barbara Stanwyck sings and dances on screen for the first time here.

The story concerns a shanty boatman (Joel McCrea) who marries a Tennessee girl (Stanwyck), much to the delight of his father (Walter Brennan), who has high hopes for a grandchild. But before the wedding night has even begun, McCrea skips town after he thinks he has accidentally killed a man who got too friendly with his bride. In fact, the man survives, but McCrea spends months away not realizing this fact. When he returns, a myriad of quarrels and misunderstandings further keep the couple apart, and one crazy plot device even leads to Walter Brennan's character becoming a cabaret star.

The comic antics weren't enough to impress the critics, who complained of implausibility, a leisurely pace, over-plotting, and not enough genuine riverboat atmosphere, especially since the film's advertising promised "the setting of Tobacco Road with the mood of Steamboat 'Round the Bend." (Some backgrounds of Banjowere shot around New Orleans, but the bulk of the shoot was studio-bound.) Variety declared, "Banjo's story is a simple one, though every effort was apparently made to make it complicated... If there was anything left out of this picture, it's only because those concerned with the production couldn't think of it... As a biz getter, it looks only moderate."

Based on a novel by Harry Hamilton, Banjo on My Knee was written (and associate produced) by Nunnally Johnson, soon to be Oscar®-nominated for his adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Johnson would eventually become the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood, thanks to an illustrious writing career that included such superb and diverse credits as The House of Rothschild (1934), The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), Jesse James (1939), Roxie Hart (1942), The Woman in the Window (1944), The Dark Mirror (1946), The Gunfighter (1950), The Three Faces of Eve (1957), and The Dirty Dozen (1967).

According to Stanwyck biographer Axel Madsen, William Faulkner was hired to contribute additional dialogue to Banjo, but it was too dense and repetitive -- not good for movie dialogue -- and none of his scenes survived to the final script.

The main point of interest in Banjo on My Knee today is the powerhouse cast. This was the second of six films to co-star Stanwyck and McCrea, and they made an excellent pair, showing appealing chemistry on screen and becoming good friends in real life. When they first teamed up, on Gambling Lady (1934), Stanwyck could see instantly that McCrea was going to be a true leading man, and she reached out and helped to instill in him a sense of professionalism. A year later, when Stanwyck was loaned to Paramount for Internes Can't Take Money (1937), she specifically asked for McCrea to join her. "People began to like us together," McCrea recalled, "because they believed in us. We both kind of hit the same note; we were both sincere, we both weren't egotistical, we weren't afraid the other one was gonna have the best part. We were pros and we acted like pros."

When Stanwyck mentioned to McCrea how much she wanted to play the lead in the upcoming film Stella Dallas (1937), for which she would ultimately receive her first Oscar® nomination, McCrea talked to producer Sam Goldwyn about it. ("He practically clubbed Sam Goldwyn into getting me into Stella Dallas," Stanwyck said.) Two more McCrea/Stanwyck collaborations soon followed -- Union Pacific (1939) and The Great Man's Lady (1942). Fifteen years later, McCrea was cast in Trooper Hook (1957) and insisted that Stanwyck be hired to play opposite him once more. "I paid her back," he later said. "She was one of the most underrated and one of the best actresses I ever worked with... I learned from her."

Elsewhere in the cast are Buddy Ebsen, who scored raves for his eccentric dancing and singing, and Tony Martin (billed as "Anthony Martin"), who replaced actor Michael Whalen at the last minute because Whalen was not deemed versatile enough to sing badly. Martin's character is described in the screenplay as "a very incompetent crooner," and Nunnally Johnson explained at the time that "it requires a crooner at least as capable as Tony Martin to give a good characterization of a poor crooner."

Fans of Baby Face (1933) will also enjoy seeing black actress Theresa Harris in Banjo on My Knee, singing "St. Louis Blues," which was the key song in that earlier film. Unfortunately, Harris and Stanwyck never share the frame in Banjo-- a real shame given their excellent rapport in Baby Face and possibly a sign of the current "post-Code" times. Harris would later appear in one more Stanwyck picture, the film noir The File on Thelma Jordan (1950).

Banjo on My Knee received an Oscar® nomination for Best Sound, but lost the award to San Francisco (1936). Walter Brennan actually won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar® that year, but for a different film: Come and Get It (1936). Possibly, however, his excellent notices for Banjo helped a little.

According to studio publicity documents, there were several accidents on the Banjo set. At one point, Stanwyck fell into a muddy moat when a bridge plank gave way, and McCrea and Spencer Charters fished her out. At another, McCrea accidentally walloped Stanwyck on the forehead during a scene in which he ransacks a waterfront cafe. The press release stated that "the bruise narrowly escaped being serious." And Walter Brennan (described by the studio even in 1936 as the "youngest of the screen's favorite character old men") burned his foot when he tried to put out a cigarette with the sole of his shoe. "But the shoes stay, without repairs or reinforcements," said the report. "Brennan has worn them in character roles for the last 15 years."

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 Jeremy Arnold

Sources:
Dan Callahan, Barbara Stanwyck, the Miracle Woman
Axel Madsen, Stanwyck Patrick McGilligan, Film Crazy: Interviews with Hollywood Legends
Jerry Vermilye, Barbara Stanwyck
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