Rathbone plays Oliver Courtney, a successful composer. But for some
has not been able to find the inspiration to write either music or lyrics.
To keep up his public image of success, Courtney hires two ghost
writers: Bob Sommers (Bing Crosby) to write the tunes and Cherry Lane
(Mary Martin) to write the lyrics. Neither Bob nor Cherry realize that
they both work for Courtney.
Oscar Levant, a musician known for his wit on the radio show
Information Please, plays Billy Starbuck, assistant to Oliver
Courtney. He displays his witty personality in this film as well.
According to Hollywood magazine,
"Oscar began acting his role in the picture by reading from the script,
but soon dropped that to improvise his own speeches. Many of his lines in the
film were thought up by him on the spur of the moment. He also originated some
of the comic scenes."1 Here
is one comic scene, in which Courtney tries to explain why he can no
It's no use. I haven't been able to write a good song of my own since
"Good-bye to Love."
And a good song must come from the heart.
Not with your ears.
My heart just stopped singing when she died.
She didn't die. She got fat.
Why try that sentimental drool on me? You know as well as I do she
married a guy from Naples who ran a one-armed spaghetti joint.
I prefer to think of her as dead. There will never be another like
Baloney. There's one born every minute.
Following a series of humorous encounters, Bob and Cherry discover the
truth that Oliver Courtney hasn't written anything in years. Bob and
Cherry are the ones responsible for Courtney's hits.
Bob and Cherry then form their own songwriting team, leaving Courtney to himself. But
publishers won't buy their songs because they sound just like Courtney's!
They think Cherry and Bob are half-baked imitators.
Oliver Courtney finds that he cannot get along without Bob and Cherry, so he finally
agrees to give them full credit for the songs. At a club, Courtney
announces that the three of them will be collaborating on songs for a
Mary Martin, Bing Crosby, Basil Rathbone
Basil Rathbone and Oscar Levant
The story has nothing to do with a river, but the title
Rhythm on the River is an improvement on the working title, which
was Ghost Music.
entertaining musical comedy is punctuated with seven songs. One of
"I Don't Want to Cry Anymore,"
was written by the director, Victor
Schertzinger (and sung by Mary Martin).
The other six songs were written by
Johnny Burke and James Monaco:
"That's For Me"
(sung by Martin)
"Ain't It a Shame About Mame" (sung by Martin)
"What Would Shakespeare Have Said?"
(sung by Crosby)
"Rhythm on the River" (sung by Crosby)
"Only Forever" (sung by Martin and Crosby together)
"When the Moon Comes Over Madison Square"
(sung by Crosby)
Mary Martin and Bing Crosby are wonderful singers, of course, and they
do a great job with the songs. Especially noteworthy is the pawn shop jam
session featuring Wingy Manone on the trumpet and Bing Crosby playing the drums. Rathbone is
delightful in his comedic role.
Interesting bits of trivia include the following:
John Scott Trotter, who plays himself in
the film, was the orchestra leader on Bing Crosby's radio show.
A few days before shooting started, Mary Martin had eloped with Paramount story editor
Paramount hired Ouida Rathbone
as technical advisor for the party sequences.2
Rathbone stares at the portrait of the woman who left him.
Following the August 1940 premier of the film, reviews were very favorable:
"Paramount will certainly please Bing's fans with
Rhythm on the River."
Parsons, Los Angeles Examiner
One of the best of the films with which Crosby ever has been identified. The
tunes and the way they are done will go far to capture audiences." —Edwin
Schallert, Los Angeles Times
on the River hits high note in Crosby shows. A most tuneful and tasty piece
of Crosby musical entertainment." —Hollywood Reporter
"Bing Crosby goes to town for a hit in
Rhythm on the River. A choice piece of entertainment. One of the
most entertaining and best quality films the studio has delivered in many
months." —Daily Variety
"A gay, tuneful and thoroughly entertaining picture, smartly acted and filled
with melodies that ought to appeal to the public ear for a long time." —Boston
Thanks to producer William LeBaron and director Victor Schertzinger,
Paramount has one of the best Crosby pictures in years. Tuneful, and with a
fine thread of plot, the film has a simplicity, unspoiled by plenty of
production, that despite the film's length never permits a dull moment.
Crosby has never appeared to better advantage. His lines are written with an
eye to his personality, a credit to screen playwright, Dwight Taylor. Mary
Martin will make many new friends because of her excellent performance here.
Many celebrities from other fields have come to the films for brief
appearances, but none have earned their money as honestly as Oscar Levant
has in this. He is sensational. Basil Rathbone is suave and competently
villainous in a nice way.
Oscar Shaw and Lillian Cornell do nicely in supporting roles. Oliver
Courtney (Basil Rathbone), is a successful song writer, who for years has
employed "ghosts" to write his hits. His "standby" employee is Crosby, who
hides away in his uncle's hotel upstate, and composes beautiful music.
Rathbone's lyricist, Mary Martin, goes to the hotel to get enough quit to
work, and falls in love with Crosby, not knowing he is the writer of the
music to her lyrics. Eventually they discover they are dupes of Rathbone and
determine to break away and succeed on their own.
The going is tough, and when Mary is offered a job singing in a night
club with John Scott Trotter's band Crosby puts up as security for a two
hundred dollar loan, a song they wrote together but agreed never to sell.
Through a misunderstanding the tune is placed in Trotter's hands for
broadcasting. Crosby and Mary threaten to expose Rathbone as a fake unless
he gives them credit for writing the tune. He does, and success at last
comes to the young couple.
Kent Carpenter, another member of Crosby's air troupe, offers a couple of
very clever comedy scenes. Wingy Mahone does a few incidental hat-trumpet
numbers, and gives Crosby a chance to demonstrate his "Jive" abilities.
Charley Grapewin, as Crosby's uncle, gives his usual fine performance.
Camera work by Ted Tetzlaff is excellent.
—The Film Daily,
20 August 1940
on the River refreshing entertainment. Winning, romantic comedy." —Los
"It is a light offering, a gay and tuneful kidding of the song-writing
and song-publishing profession."
Picture Daily, 20 Aug 1940
"A swell piece of box-office fare . . . a revel in song and comedy, remarkably
clever in every respect." —Showmen's Trade Review
"Creaky but cheery musical with a quite charming romance."
—United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
Mary Martin and Basil Rathbone
Oscar Levant and Basil Rathbone
"Bing Crosby's new one is one of the most tuneful pictures he's made ... an hour
and a half of highly agreeable entertainment." —Helen Eager, Boston Traveler
"Rhythm on the River has already proved in key cities from coast to coast
that a big Bing picture with a Paramount all star cast and a bunch of Paramount
hit parade tunes is just right to open the season with a bang." —Motion
"A comedy with music that has everything, plus a swell story that presents
Bing Crosby and Mary Martin as a pair of song-writers who "ghost" for Basil
Rathbone until they strike out on their own to find success. Top-notch songs
and Oscar Levant's own special brand of comedy." —Photoplay
"One of the most likeable musical pictures of the season."
—Bosley Crowther, The New
Here is a light and tuneful bundle of excellent entertainment,
combining the capable and versatile talents of Bing Crosby, Mary Martin,
Basil Rathbone, Oscar Levant and others, plus a group of exceptionally
good songs showcased with maximum showmanship. Some may tab this as the
best picture Crosby has appeared in for several years. It's certainly one
of his toppers.
Rhythm on the River carries all of the essentials required for
wide-spread box office oomph. Mounted on a light, but sufficient
story structure, it's a well-mixed concoction of comedy, romance and
melody unwinding at a nice pace in which dull passages are absent. Each
factor is added insurance of top grosses and holdovers in all runs.
Bing Crosby continues his policy of splitting co-starring credits and
performance importance with others in the cast. Her he shares with Mary
Martin and Basil Rathbone, providing the former with unlimited opportunity
to score effectively both in the singing and acting departments. It will
pay her big dividends for future box office ratings. Rathbone's prominent
role is handled in player's usually competent style.
After establishing fact that Rathbone is rated as a prominent composer
of hit songs, and in demand for writing tunes for musical shows, Crosby is
disclosed as his ghost-writing employee whose melodies find popular favor.
Rathbone discovers Mary Martin to ghost-write lyrics to Crosby's numbers,
and she is ignorant that latter is also on Rathbone's payroll. She goes to
a quiet retreat to write. It's a resort owned by Crosby's uncle. Pair find
mutual interest in music, romance buds, comes the disclosure both ghost
for Rathbone, and couple quit to go on their own. After discouraging
attempts to place their tunes, Rathbone is forced to sponsor their efforts
and start the couple on the road to success.
Crosby tackles his acting assignment with the nonchalance that has
proven effective in past releases and on the air. He also provides
releases and on the air. He also provides much of the musical potion of
the film in singing tunes in solo and with Miss Martin.
Oscar Levant is prominently cast as the piano-playing, deadpan
assistant to Rathbone. He gives out with spontaneous quips for rousing
laughs, and makes frequent trips to the piano for some slick playing. He
gives the initiated a laugh on himself when he picks up a book,
Smattering of Ignorance [written by Levant himself], and comments that
Script by Dwight Taylor is a workmanlike job that displays a smoothness
in its overall setup. There's no doubt that some of the sparkling dialog
originated on the set during shooting. Victor Schertzinger's direction
topnotch throughout, providing for neat blending of the musical and story
passages. Ted Tetzlaff provides uniformly excellent camera work
1 August 1940
Here's Mary Martin singing "That's For Me" to Basil Rathbone. Oscar
Levant is playing the piano.
on the River"
is the name of one of the songs in this picture. Otherwise the movie
has nothing whatever to do with a river, but it has plenty to do with rhythm.
First there was Bing Crosby and Bob Hope on
"The Road to Singapore" and then
there was Bob Hope in "The Ghost Breakers" and now here comes Bing Crosby as a
ghost. But it's a different kind of ghost. In this case the word "ghost"
could mean chump. It means the guy who does the work in order that someone
else can take the bows.
Well, it seems that both Bing and Mary, unknown to each other, do the
work, which is song-writing. Now, there might be a lot of quibbling about
whether song-writing is work, but can you do it? Neither can Basil Rathbone, who merely
sticks his "Hancock" on the finished product, collects all the money and honor
and throws Mary and Bing some small change for their labor. Naturally, they
don't like it. Naturally, they eventually go out into the world to try it on
their own. And naturally, after some minor ups and downs, they make the
grade, both economically and Cupidically speaking.
But the point is that it's all in fun. The writer of the movie was
obviously having a good time writing the lines and all the actors immensely
enjoy spieling them. Bing is in rare form and you'll be astonished at how
good Mary Martin is; the gal can do anything and make you like it. Basil Rathbone gets a new
lease on life in a light role; he's still the villain, but with a smooth
There are seven swell tunes, most popular of which will probably be "Moon
Over Madison Square," "That's For Me" and "Rhythm on the River." In case you
happen to be a hot jive fan, you'll find both John Scott Trotter, "Wingy"
Manone and their bands right in the groove.
Basil Rathbone and Lillian Cornell
Frog-faced Oscar Levant already is widely known as the nation's darling
because of his mental and musical capers on the Information, Please
broadcast. Now he is making a bid, and a very good one, too, for the
adoration of film fans by playing quite a large part in the new Bing Crosby
Levant, looking rather suspicious and belligerent most of the time, gives
a quite convincing performance of Oscar Levant as we like to think of him.
He has an amusing part to work with, playing the business manager for a
composer (Basil Rathbone) who has made a great reputation on other men's
work. Bing Crosby plays the man who writes the composer's music and who is
perfectly satisfied with a small, regular salary for his efforts until Mary
Martin comes into his life. Mary Martin, it seems, writes the lyrics.
Wingy Manone is in the film with his band, and Crosby sings quite a few
songs in his accustomed off-hand manner. Miss Martin also sings, but the
film never touches greatness except when Levant is snarling wisecracks in
his fascinating Don't-hit-me-I'm-unhealthy manner.