“Heaven on Earth”: Shantyboats Go to Hollywood Again

Film director Russell Mack’s Heaven on Earth (Universal Studios, December 1, 1931), based on Ben Lucien Burman’s 1929 novel, Mississippi, reintroduced American moviegoers to the world of the Mississippi River poor. The movie was released eleven years after King Vidor’s silent shantyboat film, The Jack-Knife Man. When Mack scouted filming locations, Harry Pollard, director of the first movie incarnation of Showboat in 1929, advised him to avoid the Mississippi River for technical and practical considerations. For one thing, the river was considerably far from Hollywood. From a photographic standpoint at the time, filming images of the river reportedly did not conform to prevailing popular images of the “Father of Waters.” As in The Jack-Knife Man, the filming of river scenes in Heaven on Earth took place on the Sacramento River at Courtland, near Sacramento. Used in the filming was an old Sacramento River sternwheeler, The Flora.

To the best of my knowledge, film footage of Heaven on Earth does not exist, but Universal used some of the stunning action footage in the cliffhanger of the 1944 serial, Mystery of the Riverboat. At the heart of Heaven on Earth is the conflict between steamboats and shantyboats. Billed as a romance with comedy and dramatic action, the movie starred actor Harry Beresford as Captain Lilly, of the steamboat Morning Glory; Lew Ayres as States Etty, who was raised by Captain Lilly; and Anita Louise as Towhead, a young woman from the nearby fictitious shantyboat colony of Beaver Slough in the Lower Mississippi Delta. Elizabeth Patterson was cast in the role of pipe-smoking Aunt Vergie (Towhead’s mother), and John Peter Richmond (John Carradine) as Chicken Sam.

On the Morning Glory’s regular runs past Beaver Slough, Captain Lilly taught States over the years to despise its residents, but States moves in with Aunt Vergie and Towhead after finding out that Captain Lilly is not his biological father. In fact, States learns from Chicken Sam, whom he wounds in an exchange of gunfire, that Captain Lilly killed his biological father, who had fired a shot at the Morning Glory to warn it away from the shantyboat where States’s mother was in childbirth. She died while giving birth to States, and Captain Lilly adopted him, but Chicken Sam’s revelation poisons the father-son relationship.

John Peter Richmond (John Carradine) as Chicken Sam. Courtesy, icollector.com.
Courtesy, IMDB.com

When Captain Lilly learns that States and Towhead plan to wed, he does everything he can to prevent the marriage on grounds it will condemn States to a life of misery and squalor. The captain even arranges with a judge to put States in a reform school for a while, which worsened their growing estrangement. States, who vows to kill Captain Lilly, builds his own shantyboat and a breakwater to protect it from the wake, but Captain Lilly’s steamboat barreled through the barrier to destroy it, unaware that Towhead was in States’s boat behind the breakwater. Towhead was nearly killed at the time, but reconciliation comes at the end when Captain Lilly uses the Morning Glory in a dramatic rescue of Aunt Vergie and other residents of Beaver Slough during a flood and a break in the levee.

Elizabeth Patterson (Aunt Vergie) and Anita Louise (Towhead). Courtesy, imdb.com.
Anita Louise and Lew Ayres in the pilot house of the Morning Glory. Courtesy, Dave Thomson Steamboat Online Museum.

With few exceptions, the film opened to positive reviews. Waterways experts quibbled over aspects of the river staging scenes, but reviewers generally praised the freshness of the movie’s subject. Richard Murray, a Brooklyn reviewer who lauded the film as a first-rate production and performance, described its shantyboat subjects as “a lazy group, content to loll about the shores of the Mississippi, not caring a hoot about being labelled ‘white trash,’ voluntarily idle and liking it.” He complained that while women in waterfront colonies do most of the work, “The males shoot marbles and curse the cruising steamboats, which threaten their existence. This feud with the boat crew gives them a reason for living.” (The Standard Union, Brooklyn, New York, December 19, 1931, p. 23)

Reviewers praised the movie’s faithful adherence to Ben Lucien Burman’s Mississippi. Burman perhaps did more than any author to revive literary and film interest in the Mississippi River Valley during the Great Depression. Between 1929 and 1938, he published three popular novels on Mississippi River life—Mississippi, Steamboat Round the Bend, and Blow for a Landing—as well as the nonfiction Big River to Cross. All three novels were set in or near Beaver Slough. The first two became movies, and Universal bought the rights to a screenplay adaptation of the third but never produced a movie. Burman was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and Blow for a Landing won the 1938 Southern Authors Award. A World War II correspondent, he received the French Legion of Honor award for his reporting on the Vichy government’s collaboration with the Nazis. From the 1950s to the 1980s, he published a popular Catfish Bend series of stories about animal characters in the Mississippi Delta who tried to defend their habitat against the encroaching, corrupting forces of civilization.

Ben Lucien Burman on the Gordon C. Greene (formerly the Cape Girardeau), 1939. Courtesy, Dave Thomson Steamboat Online Museum.

Burman, born to Jewish immigrants in 1895 in Covington, Kentucky, attended Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, before the First World War interrupted his studies. A German shell shattered his left leg in France on July 21, 1918, but he resumed his education and graduated from Harvard in 1920. He taught government, history, and dramatic theater at the high school in Covington, where he survived efforts to fire him in 1921 because of accusations that he was teaching Bolshevism. Plagued by the war injury throughout his life, he took editorial positions with newspapers in Cincinnati, Boston, and New York City. The latter became his home. A gifted storyteller, Burman turned to steamboats on the Mississippi River for fictional characters and storylines after working as a cub pilot with Captain Dick Dicharry on the Tennessee Belle in 1927. As a song collector, songwriter, musician, and author of fiction and nonfiction, he traveled widely on the river, soaked up stories, and became well-steeped in anecdotal river lore with all its racist trappings. In the urbanized culture of spending and consumption of the 1920s, he turned to America’s rural past and became the leading interpreter of the Mississippi River for literary and film audiences. (Michael Sweeney, "Burman, Ben Lucien." In The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky, edited by Paul A. Tenkotte and James C. Claypool, University Press of Kentucky, 2009).

Tennessee Belle at Vicksburg, 1941. Courtesy, Dave Thomson Steamboat Online Museum.

Burman’s writings were filled with racist and class-based stereotypes. His shantyboat subjects and Black roustabouts were sentimentalized, childlike caricatures to be demeaned and poked fun at. Black roustabouts, like bales of cotton and sacks of grain, were mere props in Mississippi as well as Heaven on Earth. Burman acknowledged how hard they worked under difficult conditions, but he portrayed them as childlike characters who were bonded organically to the steamboat master and who were always good for a funny story about ghosts, mythical river alligators, snapping turtles, and other superstitions.

Young Black men from the Sacramento area showed up on the set of Heaven on Earth as extras to portray roustabouts on the Morning Glory. At a time when Black actors were limited to minor and typically demeaning roles, actor Madame Sul-Te-Wan, born Nellie Crawford in Louisville, Kentucky, played the character of Voodoo Sue, a name change from the novel’s character, “Nigger Sue.” The name change suggests at least a hint of racial sensitivity in the film adaptation.

Madame Sul-Te-Wan (Voodoo Sue). Courtesy, Wikipedia.

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