Shantyboats in Early Hollywood: The Jack Knife Man

Much of what we know about people who lived and labored on America’s waterways between 1875 and 1940 comes from contemporary novels, movies, songs, and travel accounts. Shantyboats were a major inspiration of dime novels and early Hollywood movies that were saturated with stereotypes of all sorts. Ellis Parker Butler’s popular novel, The Jack Knife Man (1913), is no exception, but critically acclaimed Hollywood producer King Vidor’s 1920 film adaptation, The Jack Knife Man, is the most sensitive, sympathetic, and realistic film portrayal of shantyboat culture in the 1920s and 1930s. Vidor, whose father was a Hungarian immigrant in Galveston, was known for his efforts to reach beyond popular stereotypes, particularly in Hallelujah (1929), a film about Black sharecroppers which featured an all-Black cast for the first time in a major studio production. For those who might like to watch The Jack Knife Man, I have provided a YouTube link at the end of this post. The added narration is in Spanish, but if you find it distracting, you can mute the sound.

Ellis Parker Butler (Dec. 5, 1869--Sept. 13, 1937), courtesy, Wikipedia

Butler was an Iowa high school dropout, banker, author, and humorist whose hometown waterfront in Muscatine was dotted with so-called “river rats.” His novel’s main character is a kind-hearted, elderly shantyboat dweller who lacks ambition and piddles away his time on the shoreline of the upper Mississippi River near the fictional town of “Derlingport.” In 1920, Vidor bought the rights to Butler’s novel and adapted it as a silent film. In the movie, which was shot partly on the Sacramento River near Stockton, actor Fred A. Turner starred as Peter Lane, the reclusive, rather shiftless character whose two most-prized possessions are his shantyboat and a tin alarm clock that he tinkers with every day. The widow Potter (Lillian Leighton), who lives on dry land in the nearby town, is romantically interested in him, but she prods him to have more gumption and to take pride in himself. He shies away from romance with her, although he saws a little wood and does other odd jobs for her in exchange for eggs, baked goods, etc.

A Muscatine family's houseboat and launch with a canopy. Photographer, Oscar Grossheim, ca. 1900
Levee Commission photo of Muscatine waterfront, 1926

During a furious storm one night, the door to Peter’s humble boat blows open and there stands Lize Merdin (Claire McDowell), a sick young woman with her hungry little boy, Buddy (Bobby Kelso). In a state of delirium, Lize, who collapses on the floor, begs Peter not to take her son away from her like he did in the case of her daughter Susie. “I’ll be decent,” she promises. “I’ll go straight from now on.” Peter does everything he can, including getting food for her and Buddy from the widow Potter without telling her the circumstances. In return, he agrees to saw wood for her in the coming winter, and he gives his tin alarm clock to her for collateral. Unaware of who Peter’s unexpected “company” is, the widow upbraids him for his shiftlessness and for pawning a prized possession to take care of vagabond strangers at his door. To pay for a doctor, he even sells his beloved shantyboat to a friend in the town who generously lets him continue to live in it. But it was all for naught! Lize dies shortly afterward in the shantyboat, leaving Peter to raise Buddy.

Lobby card for the movie, 1920, courtesy, Wikipedia

A strong bond grows between Buddy and Peter, who whittles and carves wooden toys for Buddy to play with. Soon, a carefree singer, songwriter and entertaining tramp joins them on the boat. Booge (Harry Todd), who tells Peter he once was married to a woman who was “no good,” helps to entertain Buddy by making up songs and cute rhymes on the spot. Buddy is showered with love and affection and enjoys life on the boat, but the nearby townspeople take a dim view of the arrangement. Child rescue agents generally were praised for their work in the early 1900s, but not by residents of shantyboat colonies or by Vidor, who casts them in a critical light on screen. As head of “Derlingport’s” Child Rescue Society, the character of Rasmer Briggles (Willis Marks) receives $20 for every child plucked from parents who cannot provide a good home.

Peter Lane (actor Fred A. Turner) and Buddy (actor Bobbie Kelso) in a scene from The Jack Knife Man

Peter is away from the boat when Briggles attempts to snatch Buddy, but Booge refuses to surrender the boy. When Briggles returns with a deputy sheriff to take Buddy and arrest Booge, Peter and Buddy escape in a skiff and later roam the countryside to avoid authorities. At a home kitchen restaurant where they stop for a bite to eat, the cruel, cranky woman who operates the kitchen barks at a little girl, Susie, to hurry out front to wash dishes. Susie recognizes Buddy as her little brother and begs Peter to take her with them when they leave. Lacking the wherewithal to take care of her, Peter sadly departs with Buddy but without her. When Briggles catches up with them, Peter surrenders Buddy and turns himself into the deputy sheriff.

Booge (actor Harry Todd) in a scene from The Jack Knife Man

Peter joins Booge as a prisoner on the county rock pile, where Booge quietly figures out but keeps to himself that Buddy and Susie are his children. By now, the widow Potter has learned of the entire affair and rescues Buddy by paying Briggles $20. During a church-sponsored fundraiser for orphans, Marsha Montgomery (Florence Vidor), a well-to-do New York clubwoman, is impressed by a sack of toys that ended up as auction items. Upon learning that Peter, now released from county jail, carved them with a jack-knife, she tries to persuade him there’s a market for children’s toys among orphans. At first, he shows no interest, emphasizing that he made them just to make Buddy happy. When she convinces him that thousands of orphans like Buddy would love to enjoy his toys, he agrees to carve wooden figures for the marketplace. Soon Peter enjoys a thriving business, selling toys in New York City and elsewhere. He cleans up, gets a fresh shave and haircut, buys a suit, and courts the widow Potter, who by now has rescued Susie, too. Peter proposes marriage, and the joyous widow accepts. Booge, released from the rock pile, comes upon a happy scene of the couple with Buddy and Susie. From afar with tear-filled eyes, Booge concludes that his children would be better off in the loving home of Peter and the widow Potter. He quietly slips away to continue his lifestyle as a hobo musician.

King Vidor (February 8, 1894--Nov. 1, 1982), courtesy Wikipedia

The movie and the novel were products of an era in which the “labor question” and issues of class and poverty were at the heart of American industrial life, politics, and reform movements. World War I led to working-class uprisings in Europe and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Amid labor unrest and the Red Scare in the United States after the war, Vidor’s film captured the stark realism of shantyboat poverty but offered a message of uplift and redemption, not through revolution but through a blend of charity, self-help, and humanitarianism from above. In the character of Marsha Montgomery, The Jack-Knife Man captured a more benevolent stream of paternalism that characterized the era. Club women like her played a dynamic role in the child-labor, woman’s suffrage, and other reform movements. Instead of punitive intervention by authorities like Briggles, Montgomery’s soft, guiding hand directs Peter to carve toy animals for mass numbers of orphans. In so doing, she steers him to respectability, financial success, and a happy future home, raising Buddy and Susie with the widow Potter.

At the very time Vidor was filming the movie, the governor of Texas declared martial law and sent the militia to Vidor’s hometown of Galveston after a working-class coalition of Black and white waterfront workers captured control of city government through the ballot box. Vidor denied that he self-consciously set out to produce films sympathetic to the down-and-out. “My concern was not conscious,” he told interviewers years later. “It was just a way I felt then, and still feel today. I know that I didn’t accept the glamorous, well-smoothed-over attitude about the rich or anything like that. It’s not in my character at all to be impressed by a Rolls-Royce.” (King Vidor:  Interviewed by Nancy Dowd and David Shepard, The Director's Guild of America and Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1988)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: