Friday, August 01, 2008


Just by glancing at an encyclopedia entry on inventor Robert Fulton, I can tell that this movie, about Fulton and the building of the first steamboat, is not grounded in the historical record; for starters, in real life Fulton was almost 40 in 1807 when the film begins, but he's played by the youthful Richard Greene, who was only 22 when he filmed this and at the most could pass for 25. Still, this is a fairly entertaining trifle. Greene comes to New York from Europe to secure funding for his steamboat experiment from Chancellor Livingstone (Henry Stephenson) and begin building, but many obstacles present themselves, including the fact that such prominent New Yorkers as Washington Irving and John Jacob Astor don't think that ships without sails are practical. Still, Stephenson finds a way to funnel some money Greene's way, and Greene hits it off with the Chancellor's niece (Brenda Joyce). Alice Faye plays an innkeeper who provides Greene with room and board, and also raises money for his ship, mostly because she develops a crush on him and deludes herself into thinking that he feels the same way. Fred MacMurray plays a shipbuilder who is sweet on Faye and jealous of Greene, but who reluctantly becomes part of his steamboat team. Ward Bond is a shipyard boss who, afraid that Greene's success might mean the end of his livelihood, sets out to sabotage the boat. A government embargo on ships arriving from Europe (something about an overseas war and neutrality concerns) leads to an exciting scene in which Greene and friends smuggle an engine off a ship at night. Of course, there's little suspense in the outcomes of either the shipbuilding (of course he gets it built) or the romances (of course everyone winds up with the right person). Greene's character is the focus of the narrative, but MacMurray and Faye are the real stars of the movie. Faye is fine playing against type as a blowsy roughneck gal, and MacMurray is surprisingly good as a similarly roughneck laborer. There's a strange little running gag in which Faye keeps almost catching her bartender (Ben Carter) stealing rum. Andy Devine plays the owner of a ferry boat line who plays a crucial part in the smuggling scene. The title is a bit misleading since we don't really see much of Old New York except the harbors. [TCM]

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