Steamboats in the Movies, page 7


DELTA KING in "Huckleberry Finn" MGM 1960 on the Sacramento River

DELTA KING in the distance for the closing scene of "Huckleberry Finn" MGM 1960 filmed on the Sacramento River. Eddie Hodges as Huck Finn is on the raft waving farewell to Jim in the foreground played by boxer Archie Moore, a light-heavyweight prizefighter and World Champion in his weight class (175-pound limit) from 1952 to 1960.


Heaven on Earth - Lew Ayres Sacramento River

Lew Ayres 1931 leaning on the jackstaff of a steamboat on the Sacramento River.


In 1931 Universal Studios filmed an adaptation of Ben Lucien Burman's novel MISSISSIPPI, the movie was entitled HEAVEN ON EARTH.

Another of Burman's river novels, our "favorite" - STEAMBOAT ROUND THE BEND would be filmed under its original title in 1935.

HEAVEN ON EARTH was also filmed on the Sacramento River as was STEAMBOAT ROUND THE BEND.

As you can see from this photo of Lew Ayres as "States" and Anita Louise as "Towhead" this was taken in an actual pilot house, not a set as were the pilot houses interiors in STEAMBOAT ROUND THE BEND which were filmed on a sound stage with footage of the river rear projected on a screen behind the windows of the pilot house set.

Here in HEAVEN ON EARTH you can see a ladder, a smokestack and other steamboat hardware through the rear windows. All the details inside also give this location a historical realism with the "well used" look you expect these old boats to have after working on the river for a span of years. I also have a couple of the stylized floating "shanty boat" sets from this movie which I can scan and send.

Universal recycled the action footage from HEAVEN ON EARTH in a 13 episode "cliff hanger" serial called MYSTERY OF THE RIVERBOAT in 1944.

The most memorable action scene in HEAVEN ON EARTH is one of a steamboat deliberately plowing through the side of a shanty boat, cutting it in half.


Impressive Version of "Mississippi"

New York Times

December 19, 1931

At the Paramount is a worthy and earnest pictorial version of Ben Lucien Burman's novel, "Mississippi," which is known on the screen as "Heaven on Earth."

It is concerned with the poor whites of the lower Mississippi, who believe in spirits, sing their dirges and dwell on floating shanties.

This film, which was directed by Russell Mack, is imbued with an impressive atmosphere, which is heightened by the sincerity of the portrayals of all concerned, especially Lew Ayres, Anita Louise, Harry Beresford and Elizabeth Patterson.

It is a lethargic tale, for the most part, but one that reflects the mood of the people.

There are the shootings, the desire for vengeance, the sudden hatreds and the weird superstitions.

When criticizing the action in a scene, one is apt to reflect that the nature of the people has to be taken into consideration.

They have little imagination, except so far as their spirits are concerned, and one old woman says that the spirits are more accessible in the country than they are up by the court house, which means town to her.

They are uncouth, ragged, and when Towhead, the girl played by Anita Louise, falls in love with States (Mr. Ayres), she begs for help from the spirits.

As for States, he believes himself to be the son of Captain Lilly, of a Mississippi steamboat.

He shoots and wounds Chicken Sam, who then tells him that Captain Lilly killed his (State's) father and adopted him.

Armed with further proof, States forces an admission from Lilly, and the boy, who had been working on the steamboat, leaves his job and joins the folk on the floating shanty town.

The old Captain one day steers his boat for States's ramshackle home and smashes it.

There ensue other troubles, including a challenge to a duel to the Captain from States.

But the Captain, in the end, makes amends and Towhead and States leave the screen as happy as they can be under the circumstances.

HEAVEN ON EARTH, based on Ben Lucien Burman's novel "Mississippi"; directed by Russell Mack: a Universal Production. At the Times Square Paramount and the Brooklyn Paramount.

States . . . . . Lew Ayres
Towhead . . . . . Anita Louise
Captain Lilly . . . . . Harry Beresford
Vergie . . . . . Elizabeth Patterson
Merchant . . . . . Slim Summerville
Butter Eye . . . . . Air P. James
Preacher Daniel . . . . . Harlan Knight
Dr. Boax . . . . . Jack Duffy
Chicken Sam . . . . . John Carradine
Marty . . . . . Robert Burns
Andy . . . . . Lew Kelly
Buffalo . . . . . Jules Cowles
Maggie . . . . . Louise Emmons
Voodoo Sue . . . . . Madame Sul-te-wan



Lew as "States" with the man he believed to be his father, Captain Lilly (Harry Beresford) who had killed States' real father (a shantyboatman) and adopted States.

The photo of States and the Captain fishing off the side of the distressed deck of the steamboat was apparently from the idyllic stage of their relationship before States found out who is real father was.

The photo of States and the Captain in the latter's office aboard the steamboat must have been taken after States found out the truth about his parentage and joined the shantyboat community that the Captain despises.

At some point the Captain plows his steamboat into States' shantyboat to destroy it. So this photo may have been taken after that atrocity (States is holding a revolver in his right hand).


Anita Louise as "Towhead," Lew Ayres as "States" and Beans the dog as "Shoe Fly." This is a companion piece for the photo of Ayres and Louise in the pilot house in Heaven on Earth 1931 based on the 1929 novel, Mississippi, by Ben Lucien Burman. Filmed on the Sacramento River 4 years previous to Steamboat Round the Bend.

The movie's art director had prop shantyboats built with exaggerated rusticity.

I haven't seen any photos of actual shantyboats that look like hovels in some areas of the rural South in the mountains and on the flood plains during the Depression.

Usually the shantyboats looked like long narrow frame cottages with conventional doors and windows with porches "fore and aft."


BACK STREET 1941 Universal Pictures

Based on a 1931 Fannie Hurst novel and the previous 1932 film version, also made by Universal.

The film begins in the early 1900s in Cincinnati. Here Charles Boyer and Margaret Sullavan meet at the ticket booth for an Ohio River sternwheeler.

This elaborate full-sized set must have been built on a soundstage with the stern of the boat and paddlewheel visible in the background.

The steamboat seems to have been based on the Sacramento River style of nautical architecture.



Pa Walton in "The Mississippi" series '82 - '84

Actors aboard a small sternwheel towboat in the '80's TV series set on the Mississippi River and filmed in locales such as Natchez and Memphis. Somewhere I have at least one black & white 8 x 10 still of this cast which can be scanned and included if it turns up.

RALPH WAITE with co-stars LINDA MILLER & STAN SHAW in "The Mississippi" CBS TV 1983


The Mississippi is a legal drama television series which ran for 2 seasons from 1982 to 1984.

The series consisted of 27 episodes, 1 pilot, 6 first-season episodes and 17 episodes in the second season.

The series was written by Aubrey Solomon and starred Ralph Waite, Linda Miller, and Stan Shaw. Ralph Waite played Ben Walker, a successful criminal attorney who after retiring his law practice, sought a simpler life on the Mississippi River as the captain of a sternwheel river boat. But at every port where he would stop he'd find someone who needed a good attorney and he would end up defending them.

His "crew" consisted of Linda Miller as Stella McMullen and Stan Shaw as Lafayette 'Lafe' Tate, both of whom were more interested in helping people, fighting crime, and becoming attorneys than in running the boat.

Filming occurred in several cities along the Mississippi River including Natchez, Mississippi, and Memphis, Tennessee.

The episode "Old Hatreds Die Hard" was nominated for a 1983 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series.

Review by JOHN J. O'CONNOR
March 25, 1983

TONIGHT at 10, CBS starts a weekly series called "The Mississippi." The star is Ralph Waite, who has had the role of the father on "The Waltons" for the better part of a decade. This new project is a Ralph Waite Production, and the actor is also one of the supervising producers.

Mr. Waite is now playing Ben Walker, a nationally known lawyer, who gets fed up with urban high life and buys a sternwheel towboat to sail up and down the Mississippi River. Accompanying Walker, for reasons that are never made too clear, are Stella (Linda G. Miller), his mildly wisecracking, white protegee, and Lafayette (Lafe) Tate, played by Stan Shaw, a black Vietnam veteran who is street-smart and strong. Ben is the kind of guy who gets involved in cases because they interest him. Money has nothing to do with it. Lafe asks, pointedly, "Why don't you ever defend rich people?"

This evening, Ben is approached by a very young lawyer, who needs help in defending a man accused of killing the daughter of one of the community's more powerful citizens. It seems a lot of people are out to get this particular man because he is a troublemaker. He is an evironmentalist, a social activist and an antipolluter. Needless to say, Ben likes the guy and takes the case. In the end, he gets to remind the police chief, "Your job is to protect the people of this community, even the so-called freaks." Perhaps old-fashioned liberalism is due for a revival. Mr. Waite makes a solid salesman.


Heaven on Earth shantyboat movie still

Universal heavily stylized their shanty boats for this movie. I don't recall seeing any actual shanty boats that were this dilapidated. Guess they thought they needed to exaggerate their rough and tumble appearance to dramatize the poverty of the shanty boaters.


This photo shows a motion picture camera on the deck below the pilot house of the PORT OF STOCKTON on the Sacramento River. The PORT OF STOCKTON appears to have been decorated with "patriotic bunting" so this picture may have been taken during a Fourth of July event on the Sacramento River or the steamboat may have been used as a platform to film a scene in HEAVEN ON EARTH (1931) which was based on another Burman novel called MISSISSIPPI. In 1935 the PORT OF STOCKTON would be remodeled to play the PRIDE OF PADUCAH in John Ford's movie STEAMBOAT ROUND THE BEND starring Will Rogers.

Photo Courtesy of Murphy Library at the University of Wisconsin - La Crosse


One of those "iconic" lines from a "Down South" song called "When It's Sleep Time Down South":

"Steamboats on the river a coming or a going"

This song originated from one of the rejected titles that had been proposed for a 1930 stage production called "Under A Virginia Moon," written by Georgia Haswell Fawcett.

Billed as "A character comedy of Southern life," one of the proposed titles "When It's Sleepy Time Down South" was rejected but actor Clarence Muse, who had a part in the play, asked if he could write a song for a scene after the director asked him to sing something as an underscore.

Muse liked the title they had rejected (which was a line of dialogue in the play), and decided to use that as the title of his song.

When Muse went home, he got together with the songwriting brothers Leon and Otis René, and they composed "When It's Sleepy Time Down South" that night. The play had just a short run, but the song got a great response.

In 1931, it was used in two films: SAFE IN HELL (sung by the film's star Nina Mae McKinney), and sung by Clarence Muse on the soundtrack under the opening titles for HEAVEN ON EARTH (based on Ben Lucien Burman's novel MISSISSIPPI).

Jazz artist Louis Armstrong's instrumental/vocal version became identified with him: youtube

When It's Sleepy Time Down South
Written by Clarence Muse with Leon and Otis René

Armstrong's version of the lyrics to which he added some "scat"
between some of the lines that are not included in the transcript:

"Now the pale moon shining on the fields below
The folks are crooning soft and low
You needn't tell me boy because I know
When it's sleepy time down south
Yes, the soft winds blowing through the pinewood trees
The folks down there live a life of ease
When old mammy falls on her knees
When it's sleepy time down south
Yes, steamboats up the river comin' and going
Splashing the night away
Hear those banjos ringing, and the folks are singing
And they dance 'til the break of day, hey
Dear old Southland with it's dreamy songs
Takes me back there where I belong
How I'd love to be in mammy's arms
When it's sleepy time way down south

Good evening everybody!


Frame capture of the Sacramento steamboat CAPTAIN WEBER as the "Cumberland" in DIXIE 1943.
Bing Crosby starred as black face minstrel man Dan Emmett who wrote the popular song DIXIE, first performed in 1859 that became the anthem of "Southerners" during the Civil War to the dismay of Emmett who was a "Northerner." The scene this frame came from was recycled as "stock footage" 10 years later in the Tyrone Power "vehicle" MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER 1953. For more about the Mississippi Gambler boat, go here.