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Banjo On My Knee could be considered a transitional film for the newly created 20th Century Fox. Before 20th Century Pictures merged with Fox Film Corporation in 1936, Fox films stock in trade were these rustic type movies that starred either Will Rogers or Janet Gaynor or both even.
When Darryl Zanuck took over the new studio he changed the look entirely and 20th Century Fox became known for some splashy musicals. Banjo On My Knee is a hybrid of both the old and new studio.
Barbara Stanwyck and Walter Brennan take on parts that would have been reserved for Janet Gaynor and Will Rogers previously. Stanwyck is a land girl and she marries Brennan's son Joel McCrea. Brennan and the whole clan live on a houseboat that is moored to a sandbar island in the middle of the Mississippi. These folks don't work, they just drop a line into the Mississippi for food a few times a day.
But the wedding night is eventful because before Joel and Barbara can get to the consummation business, Victor Klllian gets fresh with Stanwyck and McCrea knocks him into the river. Thinking he's killed Killian, McCrea skedaddles to New Orleans and joins the crew of an outbound freighter.
That sets in motion a series of events that keep Joel and Barbara from doing the deed. Not like there isn't other people interested in them. Barbara attracts the attention of Tony Martin in one of his early films and Joel already had a slinky and jealous Katharine DeMille, another river girl who'd like very much to move in where Stanwyck left off.
As for Brennan he wants these two to start kanoodling because he wants real bad to be a grandfather. They all wind up in New Orleans and then back up the Mississippi on their sandbar houseboat home.
I'm betting that Henry Fonda wasn't available so Joel McCrea was signed for this film. This is just the kind of part Fonda was specializing in doing in his early career. Others in the cast include Helen Westley as a pipe smoking grandma and Walter Catlett as a smarmy photographer who gets his clock cleaned several times for trying to move in on Stanwyck.
There were original songs written for this film by Jimmy McHugh and Harold Adamson, Tony Martin gets to sing a duet with Barbara Stanwyck who admittedly did not have much of a singing voice. Martin carries the brunt of that duet. Buddy Ebsen's presence is almost mandatory in a film about rural rustics and he contributes some dance numbers. Another player who specialized in rustic types is Spencer Charters and he was in Banjo On My Knee as well. I really did love the 'annulment' that he was ready to grant McCrea in order to marry Katharine DeMille.
I'm willing to make a small wager that Banjo On My Knee was a project that Fox films might have intended for Will Rogers with his role built up more than it is here. Right around the time that the studios were merging Rogers was killed in that plane crash in Alaska. Banjo On My Knee is not a bad film, but I'm betting that Will Rogers would have made it something special.
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