So, my enjoyment of THE PRISONER OF ZENDA led me to investigate the often-overlooked John Cromwell a bit, flipping through my heap of unwatched discs to see what I might have of his lying about. BANJO ON MY KNEE came up — Stanwyck, McCrea? What’s not to like? Walter Brennan in support? Screenplay by Nunnally Johnson? All good.
Plus Walter Catlett in the role of Harold Lloyd’s dirty uncle.
It’s not all good, though, but it has definite pleasures. It begins with a wedding, and the impetus gained by starting with the leads already tying the knot gives a sense of plunging right in. The story world is a novel one — the main characters are Mississippi river-folk, dwelling on boats anchored to tiny islands in the great river. The only unfortunate thing about this is it brings in a lot of rowdy humour of the kind Johnson would supply to John Ford, a little of which goes a long way. As the movie goes on, preventing McCrea and Stanwyck from consummating their wedding takes quite a lot of plot ingenuity, and where that fails, the movie resorts to making McCrea an obnoxious lout. Now, it takes quite a lot to render the laid-back McCrea dislikable, but at times this movie definitely manages it.
Brennan fulfills his allotted role as Mr. Entertainment, playing McCrea’s old dad, lugging around his one-man-band “contraption,” and there’s amusing support from Buddy Ebsen and the sullen, feisty Katherine DeMille (adopted daughter of Cecil, wife of Anthony Quinn). Tony Martin suddenly turns up. “Who the hell is that?” asked Fiona. “A bar of soap,” I suggested. But do you know, by the end, we quite liked him. But, just when he’s become more of a hero than McCrea, the movie forgets he’s there.
Brennan’s contraption and Martin’s crooning combine to make this a kind of stealth musical. All the numbers are diegetic, performed in situations where they might be performed, and the plot to some extent revolves around Brennan’s desire to serenade his son and daughter-in-law on their first night of passion, that he might become a grandfather. The biggest number, and the one that feels most on the verge of breaking the fourth wall, is a rendition of St Louis Woman by the great Theresa Harris. I swear you can actually see the splice where this whole scene could be removed for screenings in the south, so that residents of the film’s locales wouldn’t have to be offended by the sight of a black person being talented.
In a way, music goes beyond being a feature in the film and becomes a theme, a plot point and a character.
Cromwell’s skill with striking compositions is much in evidence, so even though the surly hero and incessant brawling get you down a bit, the visuals and the music and the players sustain interest and provide lashings of entertainment, with a slightly unusual flavour. And Katherine DeMille, in a magnificently mean and moody supporting role, produces a surprising burst of wet slip action which puts Annabella in the shade. Or it would if Annabella stood next to her and crouched. Seems to be a Zanuck fetish.