Civil War Wiki
Swanee River
Directed by Sidney Lanfield
Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck
Written by John Taintor Foote
Philip Dunne
Starring Don Ameche
Andrea Leeds
Al Jolson
Felix Bressart
Music by Louis Silvers
Cinematography Bert Glennon
Editing by Louis R. Loeffler
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release date(s) January 5, 1940
Running time 84 minutes
Language English

Swanee River (1940) is a biopic about Stephen Foster, a songwriter from Pittsburgh who falls in love with the South, marries a Southern girl, then is accused of sympathizing when the Civil War breaks out. Typically of 20th Century Fox biopics of the time, the film is more fictional than factual biography.


The family of Stephen Foster (Ameche) insists that he accept a seven-dollar-a-week shipping clerk job in Cincinnati, but he prefers to write songs. Stephen's prospective father-in-law Andrew McDowell has no faith in Stephen, who wants to write "music from the heart of the simple people of the South." The struggling composer is content to sell "Oh! Susanna" for fifteen dollars to minstrel singer E. P. Christy and allows Christy to take credit as its writer.

Soon, the song is sweeping the country, and Stephen follows it with "De Camptown Races" and goes on tour with Christy's troup. Solvent at last, Stephen marries Jane McDowell (Leeds), and a daughter Marion is born to them. Inspired by his wife's beauty, Stephen writes "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair."

However, Stephen's prosperity ends when his classical music fails and the advent of the Civil War brands his music as traitorous. When he turns to drinking, Jane leaves him, but two years later returns to encourage him to write "Old Folks at Home". Stephen never hears his composition performed, however, for on the night that Christy presents the song to a New York audience, the composer dies of a heart attack.


According to a news item in Hollywood Reporter, David O. Selznick was interested in working on this film. Material contained in the Twentieth Century-Fox Produced Scripts Collection at the UCLA Theater Arts Library adds that Richard Sherman worked on a treatment, but his participation in the final film has not been confirmed. In story conferences, Darryl F. Zanuck suggested Nancy Kelly for the role of Jane and Al Shean for Kleber. Twentieth Century-Fox publicity materials at the AMPAS Library note that some sequences were shot along the Sacramento River. Studio publicity also adds that Don Ameche learned to dance the soft shoe and play the violin for his role in this film. A news item in Hollywood Reporter adds that Andrea Leeds was borrowed from Samuel Goldwyn to make this picture.

There was an earlier screen biography of Foster only four years before this one. In 1935, Mascot Pictures produced a film on Foster's life entitled Harmony Lane, which was directed by Joseph Santley and starred Douglass Montgomery. Still another fictionalized biopic of Foster woul be made in 1952. A B-picture entitled I Dream of Jeannie, it was released by Republic Pictures and starred Bill Shirley (Jeremy Brett's singing voice in My Fair Lady) as Foster.

Swanee River contains the last credited on screen performance of Al Jolson. (Jolson provided the offscreen singing voice for Larry Parks in the biopics The Jolson Story and Jolson Sings Again, but did not actually appear in those films.)

In the film Swanee River, Stephen Foster marries a girl from the South, but in real life, his wife was from Pittsburgh, as Foster was.

The film's final scene is wholly inaccurate; there was no performance by E.P. Christy on the day that Foster died. In reality, Christy actually died nearly two years before Foster; he committed suicide by throwing himself from a window at his home in New York City in May 1862; Foster himself died in January 1864.


  • Nominated for an Academy Award in the Music (Scoring) category.


Notes on Swanee River at the TCM database

External links[]

Swanee River at the TCM database