Steamboats in the Movies, Page 1


RKO Studio
65 Minutes

8 x 10 publicity still:

At the pilot wheel is Walter Catlett as Colonel Jeffrey "Smitty" Witherspoon, far right Leon Errol as Cap'n Matt Lindsay and at center is Joan Newton as the Captain's niece Midge.

Turner Classic Movies has a detailed synopsis on RIVERBOAT RHYTHM, the first 8 sentences shed light on what's going on in the photo taken inside the pilot house set:

As soon as impoverished showboat captain Matt Lindsey pulls into his latest river town stop, he is confronted by Mr. Porter, the town clerk, who demands fifty dollars for a license.

Fast-talking Matt buys Porter off with a bottle of hair tonic, but just before the boat's show is to start, Porter, furious that Matt's tonic has rendered him bald, returns with Sheriff Martin.

The sheriff closes down the show and tries to arrest Matt, but is thwarted by an old Southern gentleman who pushes him into the river.

While the sheriff struggles in the water, the boat chugs off to safety.

Later that evening, however, the gentleman, who calls himself "Smitty," gets drunk at the helm and accidentally runs the boat aground just outside the town's swank hotel.

When angry hotel owner Norris confronts Matt about the grounding, Smitty insists that the boat belongs to him and introduces himself as Colonel Jeffrey Witherspoon.

After Norris calls the sheriff, he learns that Witherspoon is a rich eccentric who owns half the county, but whose face few people have ever seen.

Witherspoon then startles Matt by giving him enough cash to pay for a tugboat and leaves for the next town to find one.

Found a Western online with Roy Rodgers called HEART OF THE GOLDEN WEST (1942) in which a steamboat is used to haul cattle. They used stock footage of the CLAREMORE QUEEN for a few "in the distance" scenes of the steamboat which appears to be named SOUTHERN BELLE as near as I could tell in another frame. The over-the-top mustache on the Captain and/or Pilot in the attached frame from one of the last scenes in the movie looks like it belongs in a silent movie comedy. Maybe it belonged to the uncredited Captain or the make-up department got carried away making that darned thing to stick on above his upper lip. They may have built the pilot house set from plans for the CLAREMORE QUEEN's because it has the same curved front.

recent acquisitions

From the DVD of Warner Bros.' 1934 film Mandalay are 6 frame captures of the Sacramento River near Stockton with the Capital City playing the "Sirohi" on the Irrawaddy River in Burma. Palm trees were brought in to give the illusion of an exotic locale and Asian extras playing "the natives." The second frame at center right is of the interior of the Capital City's engine room, where the pitman arm was moving and has just gone out of frame at the bottom.

Warner Bros. used the footage whose first frame is in the lower left left corner as the main title background for The Adventures of Mark Twain in 1944.

John Fryant kindly reminded me that the film "Mandalay" was probably inspired by the following lines from Rudyard Kipling's poem "The Road to Mandalay":

"Come you back to Mandalay, where the old flotilla lay. Can't you hear their paddles chunkin' from Rangoon to Mandalay?"

The route the steamboat "Sirohi" travels in the movie "Mandalay" is from Rangoon to Mandalay.

recent acquisitions

From the 1946 MGM movie version of Marjorie Rawlings' best selling novel "The Yearling" here are four representative frames from the one minute long steamboat sequence off the DVD.

Some of the movie was filmed in Florida's Ocala National Forest where The Yearling Trail is located.

The Ocala National Forest is bordered by both the Ocklawaha and St. Johns rivers.

Novelist Marjorie Rawlings lived for years among the backwoods folks in this region and based her novel on stories they told her and she used the geography while changing the names of the people and the islands but not the rivers which she mentioned by name in the book.

The portion of the film with this village and the steamboat was shot up at Lake Arrowhead in the San Bernadino Mountains where my family used to spend the end of our summers while I was in high school.

I didn't know in those long-ago days how many movies had been filmed at the lake, including Paramount's 1938 adaptation of Mark Twain's "Tom Sawyer Detective."

This boat, which appears to be a fair approximation of a Florida steamer of the post-Civil War era was built by Eddie Jaun over a barge he owned on Lake Arrowhead.

MGM must've paid him a fair amount to do this job but I doubt the replica was preserved for very long after filming was wrapped.

Jeff York playing Oliver Hutton in a pilot's uniform in the still and YouTube video, would play keelboat legend Mike Fink for Disney in two Davy Crockett shows filmed in 1956 along the Ohio including the second episode shot at the old river pirates' lair Cave-in-Rock.

Gregory Peck - Ezra
Jane Wyman - Ory
Claude Jarman Jr. - Jody
Jeff York ...Oliver Hutto

From The Yearling by Marjorie Rawlings
opening of Chapter XII

Jody heard the freight and passenger steamer pass the Hutto landing about daylight. He sat up in bed and looked out of the window. The lights of the steamer were pale under the early morning sky. The paddle wheels churned thickly through the water. The steamer blew its thin high whistle at Volusia. He thought he heard it stop and then go on up the river. Somehow, its passing concerned him. He could not go to sleep again. Outside in the yard old Julia growled. Penny stirred from his sleep. Watchfulness lived sentinel in his brain. Sounds no heavier than the wind aroused him.

He said, "The steamer stopped. Somebody's comin'."

recent acquisitions


The GORDON C. GREENE as a steamboat called simply "STERNWHEELER" (now who thought that one up?) filmed on the Green River in Kentucky for the 1955 epic THE KENTUCKIAN directed & starring Burt Lancaster. En route to Texas from Kentucky during the 1820's, Burt as frontiersman Elias Wakefield has plenty of exciting adventures including getting tangled up with riverboat gamblers.

The G.C. GREENE is almost completely anachronistic to the 1820's period of course with its swinging stage and enclosed lower deck etc. but it's nice to see her on a widescreen and in Technicolor.


Action stills of Burt Lancaster in THE KENTUCKIAN

Two action stills of star/director Burt Lancaster in the 1955 movie THE KENTUCKIAN filmed aboard the GORDON C. GREENE after she had been renamed the RIVER QUEEN on the Ohio River in Kentucky.

This caption accompanied these photos in a studio press release dated August 20, 1955:

"When Burt Lancaster appears to do some daring stunt in a motion picture, it's really Lancaster doing it, not a stunt man. So it is in The Kentuckian starring Lancaster. In the course of the United Artists picture, the actor throws his small son off a river steamboat then jumps in after him to escape gamblers who pursued him. Father and son make it ashore, Burt clenching a bag of money in his teeth, money that he had won from gamblers aboard the boat."

Cotton Palace


Still of the actors and musicians rehearsing on the Cotton Palace under the direction of Cap'n Andy (Otis Harlan). This was a combination of a silent and "talkie" version of Edna Ferber's novel but did not include the songs written by composer Jerome Kern and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II for the 1927 stage musical produced by Florence Ziegfeld.

Show Boat (1929 movie version)
Directed by Harry A. Pollard
Produced by Carl Laemmle
Written by Charles Kenyon

A melodramatic moment from one of the Cotton Palace Floating Theatre's repertoire of thrillers. This is a stage set especially designed at Universal City for its production of Edna Ferber's "Show Boat." At the center of the stage is Cap'n Andy, played by Otis Harlan, vigorously rehearsing the troupe.

Reading from left to right: Neely Edwards, Max Asher, Theodore Lorch, Alma Rubens, Elise Bartlett, Otis Harlan, George Cheseboro, Harry Holden, Jack Query, Joe Mills and Grace Cunard.


Here is the latest just in . . . from SHOW BOAT 1929, the reverse angle on the 2nd of 2 photos of the COTTON PALACE and MOLLIE ABLE on the river on MOVIES 1. This goes AFTER those 2 photos and BEFORE the one of Irene Dunne on stage with a banjo from the 1936 SHOW BOAT.

The attached photo is from the point of view of the roof of the "pilot house" on the COTTON PALACE with "Parthy" Hawks "twisting the arm" of her then young daughter Magnolia for some imagined "misbehavior" near the center of the photo at the front end of the showboat's deck.

The caption was included in the margin of the attached photo . . . from the popular 1927 song "HERE COMES THE SHOWBOAT" music my Maceo Pinkard and lyrics by Billy Rose that was incorporated into the musical score for this '29 film version. Ethel Waters had introduced the song in a '27 Broadway revue called AFRICANA. Composer Pinkard was an African American born in 1897 in West Virginia and is best down for writing the music to "SWEET GEORGIA BROWN" in 1928.

After a long musical introduction the lyrics of this song are included in the following version by Jean Goldkette's jazz orchestra:

Jean Goldkette "Here Comes the Show Boat" (1927) Youtube


"Joe" (Stepin Fetchit) playing the banjo in the kitchen of "Queenie" (Tess Gardella) aboard the "COTTON PALACE" showboat as the young "Magnolia Hawks" (Jane La Verne) sits by appreciatively eating a piece of pie in the 1929 Universal version of Edna Ferber's SHOW BOAT.

This movie was part silent and part talkie and didn't include music or songs from the Jerome Kern Broadway musical score but instead used new songs and I imagine some traditional songs and music as well.

The review off the imdb site tells more about it. I don't remember much of what I saw of the movie that was cobbled together on TCM.

The owners of the actual showboat "COTTON BLOSSOM" on the Mississippi wanted a large fee for the use of the name of their boat so in the two Universal SHOW BOAT adaptations the showboat was called the "COTTON PALACE."

I like the nostalgic ambiance of the set and Stepin Fetchit's expression and pose here. "Fetchit's" real name was Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry. - Dave


The COTTON BLOSSOM with chorus girls on the Natchez wharf from MGM's SHOW BOAT

From MGM's 1951 SHOW BOAT with the Cotton Blossom in the background and chorus girls in the foreground on the wharf at Natchez warming up the crowd to lure them into attending a performance on the showboat that night.

Show Boat Universal 1936 matte shot and set River Queen

On the left is a frame capture from the 1936 Universal Studio film adaptation of Edna Ferber's novel SHOW BOAT.

The shack on the left, the cotton bales, roustabouts, main and boiler lower decks of the packet "RIVER QUEEN" were a full sized set but the rest of the steamboat and the cloudy sky behind it were achieved with a "matte painting.

On the right is a detail from an 8 x 10 still of the full sized set with Allan Jones as the gambler Gaylord Ravenal disembarking from the RIVER QUEEN, destined to soon meet his future wife Magnolia Hawks on her father Cap'n Andy's show boat.

The art directors based this steamboat detail on another set Universal had built 10 years earlier which replicated the lower deck of the KATE ADAMS (as LA BELLE RIVIERE) in Universal's 1927 silent film adaptation of UNCLE TOM's CABIN.

Excerpted from the novel, these short sentences are only "the tip of the iceberg" - there is a lot more to it at the Gutenberg link where in the full chapter 12 the heartlessness of those white Southerners like "Haley" who bought and sold slaves before the Civil War dramatize the cruel and underhanded things they did like lifting a baby out of its sleeping mother's arms and selling it. Its mother awakes to find that her baby has been sold to strangers.

UNCLE TOM'S CABIN or Life among the Lowly

By Harriet Beecher Stowe

Select Incident of Lawful Trade

The La Belle Riviere, as brave and beautiful a boat as ever walked the waters of her namesake river, was floating gaily down the stream, under a brilliant sky, the stripes and stars of free America waving and fluttering over head; the guards crowded with well-dressed ladies and gentlemen walking and enjoying the delightful day.

All was full of life, buoyant and rejoicing;—all but Haley's gang, who were stored, with other freight, on the lower deck, and who, somehow, did not seem to appreciate their various privileges, as they sat in a knot, talking to each other in low tones.

. . . It was a bright, tranquil evening when the boat stopped at the wharf at Louisville.


This is a detail from an unidentified photograph which probably dates from 1929 during the filming of the part silent/part "talking" movie version of Edna Ferber's novel SHOW BOAT. It was an adaptation of Ferber's novel, rather than a filming of the Jerome Kern stage musical that Florence Ziegfeld produced on Broadway.

The "RIVER QUEEN" appears to have been remodeled from an existing Sacramento River boat, probably at Stockton, California. Twin "stacks" have been substituted for the larger single stack which the boat would have been built with.

In this version of SHOW BOAT the "RIVER QUEEN" may have been the steamer upon which the gambler Gaylord Ravenal arrived in Natchez where he was drafted by Cap'n Andy Hawks to play young leading men in melodramas performed aboard the showboat that was given the name Cotton Blossom by Ferber in her novel.

You can see pretty much all of the sternwheeler in the distance behind the River Queen and on the far right the front end of the "Showboat" which I think was called the "COTTON PALACE" because the owner of the actual "COTTON BLOSSOM" back on the Ohio River had a copyright on the name and wanted some cash compensation for his permission to use the name.

The carriage and horses in the left foreground and the guys waving in the right foreground are in soft focus, guess the photographer's lens wasn't equipped for that much depth of field. Am pretty sure that is Stockton on the Sacramento River rather than the city of Sacramento. Ocean going ships sail all the way up the river to Stockton, it's an "Inland Port." The concrete embankment on the far side of the river may have been a levee/flood wall to keep the river from inundating the town during high water.


Two stills taken on the Sacramento River during the filming of the part silent/part talkie 1929 Universal adaptation of Edna Ferber's novel SHOW BOAT. The '29 version did not include the music and lyrics that Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote for the stage musical, the first version based on the successful musical wouldn't be made until 1936, also at Universal and directed by James Whale.

The little towboat pushing the show boat is named MOLLIE ABLE which was the same name that Ferber gave it in her novel that she evidently got from the St. Louis - New Orleans sidewheeler MOLLIE ABLE built in 1864 at Jeffersonville, Indian and destroyed on 8 March, 1871 in the Great St. Louis Tornado. The show boat itself in this movie was named COTTON PALACE, not COTTON BLOSSOM, because the owner of the actual show boat by that name apparently wanted an extravagant fee for the use of the name which was short sighted on his part because if it had been used it would have given free publicity for his floating theatre.


Beautiful still from the 1936 Universal studio film version of SHOW BOAT 1936 directed by James Whale who was especially proud of the movie although he is best remembered for directing the Universal "horror movies" FRANKENSTEIN, BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and THE INVISIBLE MAN.

The interior of the "Cotton Palace" (named "Cotton Blossom" in Edna Ferber's novel) as seen from "back stage" provides a convincing facsimile of the floating theatres (big structures built on barges essentially and pushed by towboats) that tied up on the waterfronts of towns and cities along the Mississippi River and its tributaries to entertain the citizens of those communities.

The actors from left to right in the far left foreground on stage are:

Sammy White as Frank Schultz
Queenie Smith as Elly May Chipley
Charles Winninger as Cap'n Andy Hawks
Helen Westley as Parthenia Ann "Parthy" Hawks
Irene Dunne as Magnolia Hawks

Irene Dunne with banjo is performing "Gallivantin' Around," one of the additional songs written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II for the 1936 film version of SHOW BOAT.

The name of Miss Dunne's birthplace is mentioned in the opening line of the song:

"Liza Matilda Hill, visiting friends in Louisville . . ."


Irene Marie Dunn was born on December 20, 1898 in the Ohio River city of Louisville, Kentucky, to Joseph Dunn, a steamboat inspector for the United States government, and Adelaide Henry, a concert pianist/music teacher from Newport, Kentucky.

Irene Dunne would later write, "No triumph of either my stage or screen career has ever rivaled the excitement of trips down the Mississippi on the river boats with my father."

Irene was only eleven when her father died in 1909. She saved all of his letters and often remembered and lived by what he told her the night before he died: "Happiness is never an accident. It is the prize we get when we choose wisely from life's great stores."

After her father's death, Irene, her mother, and her younger brother Charles moved to her mother's hometown of Madison, Indiana on the Ohio River.

Remembering Miss Dunne's fondness for steamboats, Walt Disney chose Irene to dedicate the steamboat MARK TWAIN on the opening day of Disneyland on July 17th, 1955.