Bob Burns was a popular radio comedian who had rather less success in movies. Billing himself as 'the Arkansas Traveler', Burns played a folksy small-town southerner (a slight self-caricature), telling corny stories about the folks down home. Burns is now remembered only for inventing the word 'bazooka'. He devised a peculiar musical instrument, consisting of a hollow cylinder and a truncated hollow cone. The two pieces were not connected; Burns blew through the cylinder and waved the cone back and forth in front of it, creating a kazoo-like sound. You can see him briefly play the bazooka on screen in 'The Big Broadcast of 1937' and in 'Fast Workers', in which Burns played a (small) dramatic role. His greatest success as a bazookist was on the radio, where the bazooka's weird sound left audiences wondering what this wind instrument looked like. Burns's radio career was at its peak when the U.S. Army devised a pipe mortar which was promptly named the bazooka in his honour.
The 1938 film 'The Arkansas Traveler' is tailor-made for Burns as a showcase for his acting abilities, with no bazookas to be seen nor heard. Unfortunately, his acting abilities aren't much. Burns's protagonist in this film is known only as 'the Arkansas Traveler', and he hails from Van Buren, Arkansas: this was Burns's real birthplace, which he often mentioned in his radio material (much as Max Miller often mentioned Brighton). Naturally, the folk tune 'Arkansas Traveler' is heard on the soundtrack.
Burns's character here is a 'journ' (journeyman) printer, an itinerant tradesman of a sort who travelled through the southern United States at one time. (Mark Twain was briefly a journ printer.) Here, the Traveller wanders into a small southern town where he gets a job typesetting the Daily Record, an impoverished gazette run by widowed Mrs Allen. Most of the businesses in town are beholden to crooked mayor Daniels (Porter Hall, brilliant as usual). The mayor's honest and clean-cut son is in love with Judy Allen, the widow's daughter. Daniels disapproves of the marriage, as Judy's father - the Record's original publisher - used his newspaper to criticise Daniels.
SLIGHT SPOILERS NOW. It's no surprise that the Traveller puts everything right, and it's also no surprise that - his job done - the Traveller moves on to his next port of call. It's unfortunate that Burns's on screen character has no name, as this makes it obvious that he's one of those righteous men of mystery, like the Lone Ranger and various Clint Eastwood characters.
There are good performances by Lyle Talbot (as the mayor's henchman), Harry Hayden (as a dyspeptic banker) and by Joseph Crehan. Dickie Moore is less twee than usual as Judy's bratty younger brother. (I once interviewed him, well past his child-actor career, at his public relations firm Dick Moore & Associates.) Joyce Mathews is glimpsed briefly as a tall and shapely Daisy Mae. Alfred Santell's direction is brisk and workmanlike. As the ingenue, Jean Parker is pretty to look at, but slightly too worldly and sultry for her role. The only shoo-fly in the pie is Irvin S Cobb as the constable who locks up the Traveller in the town hoosegow. Cobb was a very talented author and a friend of Will Rogers; after Rogers's death, there was some attempt to turn Cobb into a screen personality: a combination of Will Rogers and Robert Benchley. However, Cobb's extremely unpleasant appearance and his thick southern accent foredoomed his career as a screen idol, and his talents as an author did him no credit as an actor. I'll rate this movie 6 out of 10.
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