Swanee River (1939)

Swanee River Swanee River Poster
Directed by Sidney Lanfield
Written by John Taintor Foote and Philip Dunne
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

First viewing/20th Century Fox Cinema Archives DVD


Way down upon the Swanee River,/ Far, far away/ That’s where my heart is turning ever/ That’s where the old folks stay — Lyric by Stephen Foster

I didn’t have high expectations  but I ended up enjoying this rather sentimental biopic.

This is a highly fictionalized account of the composer Stephen Foster’s sad life — Foster only visited the South once, on his honeymoon, and his wife Jane was from Pittsburgh, PA as Foster himself was.  Anyway, the story opens in antebellum Kentucky, where Foster (Don Ameche) is courting sweetheart Jane.  Foster is a dreamer who gets completely caught up in his music when inspiration hits him and repeatedly stands Jane up during the course of the movie.  Jane’s father objects to her marriage to a composer who is unlikely to be able to support her.

Foster finally sells a song, “Oh, Susanna!”, to windbag self-promoter Edwin P. Christy (Al Jolson) of minstrel fame for $15. The song goes on to make Christy a mint and, disillusioned, Foster goes to work behind a desk.  But later the hard-drinking Christy seeks Foster out and proposes a partnership with him.  Foster, who enjoys a nip himself, uses this success to marry Jane.  But, especially after their first child is born, Jane cannot live with his growing alcoholism.

There is something about Don Ameche that I find very appealing and I enjoyed watching him in this.  I don’t know if it was really Ameche singing “My Old Kentucky Home”.  If so, he has a very pleasant baritone.  I’m not a Jolson fan but in this case the material suited his over-sized personality.  This is nothing great but you could certainly do worse.

Louis Silvers was nominated for a Best Scoring award for Swanee River. This was Al Jolson’s last credited screen performance.

Jolson performing “Oh, Susanna” and “Swanee River” in blackface

6 thoughts on “Swanee River (1939)

    • According to the all-knowing Wikipedia, Jolson started performing in blackface on stage in 1904, so it was part of his act. I don’t get the appeal but Wikipedia says: “Performing in blackface makeup was a theatrical convention of many entertainers at the beginning of the 20th century, having its origin in the minstrel show. Working behind a blackface mask “gave him a sense of freedom and spontaneity he had never known.” According to film historian Eric Lott, for the white minstrel man “to put on the cultural forms of ‘blackness’ was to engage in a complex affair of manly mimicry…. To wear or even enjoy blackface was literally, for a time, to become black, to inherit the cool, virility, humility, abandon, or gaité de coeur that were the prime components of white ideologies of black manhood.”” Hmmmm. That explains what it might have done for the performer but what was the appeal to the audience?

  1. I believe that it is Ameche singing…….something in the back of my mind says that he sometimes sang on the radio.
    I read somewhere that Jolson’s personality could only be appreciated in person and that it did not translate well to the screen. Frankly, I find that hard to believe…..blackface aside, he was just too over the top for me and I fail to see his appeal. BTW, that Wiki article on blackface didn’t make a whole lot of sense, did it? Thank heavens, times have changed!!!

    • The Christy character in this movie suited Jolson to a tee – completely full of himself. I read he moved audiences to tears and can hardly believe it.

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