Saturday, July 3, 2010

When a film's auteur is not the director

John Ford is that most wonderful paradox in film theory, the man who confirms both the virtue of audience-oriented studio filmmaking and the consummate auteur, in full control of all the tools of filmmaking, and employing them in a purely personal expression.

The Will Rogers vehicle Steamboat Round The Bend (1935) proves the limits of that theory. Unlike any other I have seen, the film boasts few if any Ford compositions or other visual clues of his authorship. It has some busy physical comedy toward the end, but it is not the trademark roistering Irish slapstick. There is a Fordian mix of sentiment and somewhat black comedy in the partly improvised gallows-side wedding sequence, but that mix could stem from Rogers as much from Ford.

In fact this film doesn't much resemble other Ford films, except for his others with Rogers, and its clearest antecedent is the W.C. Fields vehicle Tillie and Gus, about the effort to rescue a ferryboat. (Harold Lloyd even did a movie about rescuing a trolleyline, Speedy.) W.C. Fields was indisputably the auteur (and usually the literal author) of his films--we have not seen Andrew Sarris form an Eddie Cline or Norman Z. MacLeod cult--and Rogers was an even more popular and well-known figure. (It is entirely possible that they influenced each other while in vaudeville and the Ziegfeld Follies. Both Fields and Rogers began as silent or near-silent novelty acts, juggling and rope tricks respectively, and over the years bled into verbal comedy to the point where the physical comedy dissipated into thin air.)

And more importantly, Rogers was more important and popular than Ford in 1935, even with Ford's Oscar for the overrated The Informer. Not to mention, Ford seems to have liked Rogers very much and seemed to be content to point the camera toward the performer while he was talking and let Rogers's charm and wistful humor carry the day. Besides the aforementioned wedding sequence (which does seem Fordian), there is the converted wax museum, in which Northern heroes have been converted to Southern ones to please the locals. And there are some bankside shots of the riverboats passing, although most of the time on the river is executed via rather indifferent process work.

In the theater, author William Goldman posits a theory of "The Muscle," the person with the influence, reputation and market power to exercise dominance in the direction a project will take. It is sort of a rough term, implying a combat, which was probably not the case with Steamboat, but Rogers was indisputably the muscle, and the film is built strictly to embody his characterization and point of view. It does that admirably; but attempts to place it in the Ford canon seem strained. Can't a great man have a holiday?

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