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Rolling Down

The Cinematic River

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Image by Thegreenj and used under a Creative Commons license.
Taking A Cruise Along The Mississippi In A Classic And Vintage 19th Century Steamboat While Watching Film Classics Was, For Our Reel To Real Storytellers, A Treat For Both Lovers Of Film And Those That Love The Big Muddy


By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine

Oct. 20, 2014 — One of the upsides of a career in entertainment journalism – especially if you’ve had the good fortune to interview heavyweights from the Golden Age of Hollywood – is that sometimes ancillary benefits accrue to reporters beyond column inches in newspapers or those visits being resuscitated again in book form.

We’ve been fortunate to give spiels about our encounters with celebrities like Fred Astaire, Lucille Ball, James Cagney, Frank Capra and Cyd Charisse (among hundreds of others) on cruise ships that navigate oceans all over the world.

In early October, we stepped out of our usual cruise-ship comfort zone and boarded a different kind of ship – a boat, really – the American Queen; the world’s largest steamboat that plies the waters of the “Big Muddy” from St. Paul, Minn., (our hometown) all the way to New Orleans.

For us, there was a certain wonderful symmetry talking about how director Frank Capra, on a visit to Minneapolis, asked us, his chauffeur tour guides, to cross and re-cross the Mississippi so he could contemplate the eddying waters of “Mark Twain’s River,” as he called it. We imparted this anecdote to an audience gathered in the Grand Saloon Theater of the American Queen as she made for her mooring in, of all places, Hannibal, Mo. – Mark Twain’s storied hometown and that of his legendary characters, Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher.

And there really is nothing like showing the 1951 MGM musical Show Boat starring Howard Keel, Kathryn Grayson and Ava Gardner while on a showboat traveling down the Mississippi. As we steamed by channel islands that seemed to have bald eagles perched on branches in every other tree, the thrilling bass-baritone of William Warfield singing “Ol’ Man River” was something to savor.

Most of all, the enthusiastic audiences bore witness to the richness of America’s film heritage with every passing river mile we traversed. Indeed, many recalled seeing the actors mentioned in our lectures when the films in which they starred were first released in theaters.

That was the kind of intimate connection we had hoped to make; one suffused with nostalgia for a simpler era when time seemed to pass unhurried like the gentle, inexorable tide of a great river.

On the American Queen, we got that!

David Fantle & Tom Johnson have been entertainment journalists for more than 30 years and co-authored the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV. Fantle teaches film and television at Marquette University in Milwaukee and Johnson is a former senior editor for Netflix. They can be reached at
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