John Ford’s collaborations with Will Rogers are some of the more rewarding of the director’s work, particularly his work in the 1930’s. Light and airy with a touch of the poetic, they always remain profoundly humanist in the central character’s love for his neighbors—often in spite of them. The third and final film Ford and Rogers made together, Steamboat Round the Bend, is a wonderful illustration of this humanism in the sectarian South of the 1890s. It reveals the distinctive virtues that help Dr. John Pearly (Rogers) survive and find success in his attempt to save his nephew, Duke, from the gallows.
The two key characters in the film are Pearly and the self-proclaimed prophet against “the drink,” New Moses. Certain similarities unite these two men, yet their relationship is ultimately punctuated by a striking contrast. Both serve others. They both speak to crowds that gather to hear their message of healing. And they both have a set of followers. However, the key difference between them is in the type of service they provide. While Pearly offers his “neighbors” direct and tangible assistance, New Moses offers only “eternal” rewards. Because of this, New Moses comes off looking like a shyster, needing only the raised hand of a drunkard to dispense his “healing” gifts. No “real” or tangible help is necessary. No long nights spent with a man trying to kick a habit—only a sermon, a ribbon, and a passing of the hat to the sympathetic listeners. And when Pearly and his crew have a comedic encounter with “New Elijah” on the riverside, our suspicion of New Moses is confirmed.
Pearly on the other hand, dispenses tangible “medicine” in the form of rum. However, while that is played for comedy, Pearly proves himself over and again as he helps others throughout the film. He makes Duke turn himself in, even though the boy only acted in self-defense. He saves Duke’s young girlfriend from her abusive family. He earns money for Duke’s defense. He steams up and down the river looking for an eyewitness to Duke’s alleged crime. He tries to help Duke escape from prison when all looks lost. And of course, he competes in the race in a last ditch effort to save his nephew. As is made explicit near the end of the film, Pearly’s concern is saving a life, while Moses has been concerned only with saving souls.
Dr. Pearly wears various hats throughout the film—medicine salesman, museum entrepreneur, law-abiding citizen, and steamboat captain, to name a few. While several of the other characters possess their own shifting identities, Pearly has something else that helps him to transcend both New Moses and the other characters. He possesses good will toward others to such a degree that he will put himself out on their behalf. His service to others is tangible and observable. Pearly’s ability to shift to the changing needs of the moment helps him to survive. But his ability to do so while being guided by his care for others allows him to save a man’s life and earn the admiration of many.