Thursday, April 9, 2009

Carnival Boat (RKO-Pathé, 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Carnival Boat, a 62-minute RKO-Pathé production from 1932 that TCM had recently shown as part of a tribute to the more obscure films of Ginger Rogers — though both Rogers’ presence and the film’s title are really deceptive as to its true contents. It’s actually a film about lumberjacking, starring William Boyd — the one who later became known almost exclusively as Hopalong Cassidy — and Fred Kohler as rival lumberjacks in the Pacific Northwest. Boyd’s character, Buck Gannon, is actually the son of the lumber camp’s boss, Jim Gannon (former silent-screen star Hobart Bosworth), and the elder Gannon is being threatened with dismissal by DeLacey (Walter Percival), the representative of the corporation that owns the logging operation and wants the rate of production sped up. DeLacey is convinced that the reason the forest isn’t being harvested fast enough for his employers’ satisfaction (this part of the plot seems modern now!) is that the lumberjacks are spending too much time roughhousing and clowning, and too little actually working — and it’s hard to argue with him based on what we actually see, especially a lot of annoying footage with Baldy (Edgar Kennedy) and Stubby (Harry Sweet), who are supposed to be a two-man saw team, only one of them isn’t handling his end of the saw and letting the other do all the work.

The carnival boat doesn’t enter until the film is about half over, and Jim Gannon is strongly opposed to its arrival — it’s really a floating casino and he senses (rightly, as it turns out) that its sole purpose there is to separate his men from their money. Rogers’ character is identified only as “Honey” and she does one number on the boat, “How I Could Go for You,” dancing in front of a chorus line and singing in the Betty Boop voice — depending on which source you believe, she was either the successor to Helen Kane in Paul Ash’s band in 1929 or actually originated the “boop-boop-a-doop” singing style even though Kane was certainly the first one to record it. (Supposedly Ginger was touring in vaudeville with her first husband, Jack Pepper, and singing that way when Kane heard them and decided to steal the style.) She’s also dark-haired, and one really has to look carefully at the face and the voice to recognize either as belonging to the Ginger Rogers we know — the Queen of Carioca with Fred Astaire and the tough but vulnerable screwball comedienne she became when she wasn’t dancing.

Her only plot function is to provide a focal point for the rivalry between Bill Gannon and Hack Logan (Fred Kohler — in a Warners film with this script they’d have been James Cagney and Pat O’Brien!), who in a spectacular final sequence end up rescuing each other from a logjam and the dynamite used to break it up, only to start beating the shit out of each other once they’re both out of the water and safe, and the film ends rather awkwardly when there’s a shot of the carnival boat (ya remember the carnival boat?) steaming away and Ginger Rogers appears on the scene, saying that she’s missed the boat and is ready and willing to marry Bill and settle down in the logging camp — while in the meantime Jim has successfully persuaded DeLacey to let him retire and appoint Bill as his replacement. Just about the only interest Carnival Boat really has comes from the spectacular footage of people actually doing logging — indeed, there’s so much logging footage and so little of it involves the principals that I wondered whether RKO-Pathé bought the rights to a documentary on logging and decided to build a fiction film around the existing footage.

The effects work needed to put the stars in with the logging scenes is sometimes quite good (as befitted the studio that was simultaneously working on King Kong) and sometimes embarrassingly bad — as in one scene in which Boyd and Kohler are on top of the screen while the logs go rushing past them in the river on top of the scene, and it’s one of the most obnoxiously obvious process shots of all time. I note from that the film had two working titles, Bad Timber and Timber Beast, either of which would have been better than Carnival Boat — at least the alternate titles would have told you this was a film about logging! — and the film, directed by Albert S. Rogell in his usual coolly efficient fashion and written by James Seymour from an “original” (quotes definitely appropriate!) story by Marion Jackson and Don Ryan, is a pleasant enough time-filler that doesn’t really work as drama but does have a lot of cool logging footage to watch.