In 1951, MGM released their film version of Show Boat, starring Ava Gardner, Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel, and it remains the version most known today. However, there was another, superior version made in 1936 at Universal Studios. It was directed by James Whale – director of Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, and The Invisible Man (and the excellent 1931 Waterloo Bridge) – and the film does display many of the themes that he explored in his earlier films: alienation, otherness. But Universal’s Show Boat, although successful, has virtually disappeared from popular consciousness. In the 1940s, MGM bought the rights to the musical from Universal and removed it from circulation in favor of their own version. It was not until the 1980s when it was shown again on television.
For years I’ve been cherishing my old VHS copy in lieu of a DVD. However, I am delighted to say that several years ago it was released on DVD. There are no extras or captions or anything, but at least I can finally retire my fading VHS.
The musical “Show Boat” was adapted by Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern from the popular 1926 novel. The musical was released in 1927 and marked a new phase in the American musical. It was the first musical to successfully use songs to further the plot, a cohesive story that was not simply a series of dance and song numbers.
The novel is quite expansive – from the 1880s to the 1920s – and goes from the Mississippi River to Chicago and with its three generations is not an easy story to corral into a musical. I read in Jerome Kern (Yale Broadway Masteries Series) by Stephen Banfield, that the plot is so unwieldy and the ending so difficult to achieve effectively that every incarnation of the musical – the original musical, the movie versions and the revivals of the musical – trie a different ending each time.
The story is about racial prejudice, enduring love, and the nostalgia for the old days in the South and the almost mystical river contrasted with the modern and slightly disinfected North.
The show boat is Cotton Blossom, run by Captain Andy Hawks and his wife, Parthenia (Charles Winninger and Helen Westley), with stars Julie LaVerne and Steve Baker (Helen Morgan and Donald Cook) and their daughter Magnolia (Irene Dunne). Parthy is determined that Magnolia have as little do with show business as possible and does not approve of her friendship with Julie. But when a jealous would-be lover tells the sheriff that Julia is actually half black – miscegenation is illegal in the state – Julie and Steve are forced to leave the boat, leaving Magnolia to take her place with charming ne’er-do-well gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Allan Jones) to replace Steve. Everyone tells her Gaylord is no good, but Magnolia marries him anyway. They leave for Chicago, but when he is unable to provide for her, he leaves her and she must earn her own way.
The cast is superb. Irene Dunne – though rather old to be playing an eighteen year old – actually does a very good job. She captures her naivete and is perfect as the character grows up and ages during the story. Charles Winninger and Helen Morgan were in the original 1927 musical and are also good, especially Helen Morgan, who can break your heart with a song. Allan Jones isn’t all that interesting in the role, but Gaylord is rather feckless anyway. Also standouts are Hattie McDaniel and, of course, Paul Robeson. If for no other reason, Show Boat deserves to be seen for Paul Robeson. This is one of the few opportunities for a modern audience to see him act. He did not originate the role of Joe in the musical, but the character and the song “Ol Man River” were written with him in mind. Jerome Kern reportedly said the song was inspired by Robeson’s speaking voice.
When it comes to racism, Show Boat is all over the place, though the story intended to transcend stereotypes and racial prejudice. That’s what makes it so fascinating and so much a product of its times and extremely useful for discussion. Julie LaVerne’s mother was black, but she can pass for white. Her husband does not care, nor even the man who is rejected by her (he is merely using the fact that she is black as a means of revenge) but the sheriff tells Captain Andy that Julie will have to leave because if people found out that a black woman was passing herself off as white, there would be trouble (i.e. a lynch mob?).
Show Boat also contains a scene where Magnolia does a song in black face while a segregated white and black audience look on. It’s a startling portrayal of black stereotypes, though by no means anachronistic of the period and it’s unclear whether Whale was making an ironic statement or simply wanted a dance in black face to reflect the period.
Another example of the film both reinforcing and eroding racial stereotypes at the same time are the characters Queenie (Hattie McDaniel) and Joe (Paul Robeson), who work on the Cotton Blossom. She represents the black mammy and he the lazy, shiftless black male. But both McDaniel and Robeson do a remarkable thing in transcending those roles and playing real people who have a real, affectionate relationship and they even have a fun and affectionate duet: “Ah Still Suits Me.” Robeson plays Joe less as a lazy man than as a man moving at the pace of the river who as figured out what matters in life. He often seems like the wise one, like the river, looking on compassionately.
In the character of Julie, however, the two themes of the story overlap: racism and the enduring love of women who must make their own way in life. Magnolia assumes at the beginning that if she discovered that the man she loved was no good, she would stop loving him, but Julie knows better. Once you fall in love, it’s too late, she says. That’s why you have to be careful who you fall in love with.
The story is filled with women who love weak, undeserving or irresponsible men, even Parthy and Queenie have men who seem irresponsible (Captain Andy – a negligent father if ever there was one – and Joe – though he does make more of the character). But unlike Julie, who falls to pieces after Steve leaves her and becomes an alcoholic (sadly reminiscent of Helen Morgan’s real life, who died from alcoholism when she was 41), Magnolia manages to keep on with life, despite her undying love for Gaylord after he deserts her. The irony is that Magnolia is even more successful without Gaylord and Julie would have been if she hadn’t started drinking.
I’ve always been attracted to stories that show the interconnectedness of life and the thread of family history that goes into making people as they are. The film ends with Kim – Magnolia and Gaylord’s daugter – following in the footsteps of her mother, though she has left the river far behind her. The ending has been criticized as weak, but I like how Kim’s life is seen as the culmination of all that has come before. If her grandparents hadn’t run a riverboat, if Julie hadn’t been forced to leave, Magnolia wouldn’t have taken her place, wouldn’t have married Gaylord.
There is a heartbreaking scene when Julie, now an alcoholic singer at a nightclub, hears Magnolia singing the song that Julie taught her years before: “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” She learns that Magnolia is desperate for a job, since Gaylord has left her. Without ever speaking to her, Julie gives up her job so that the manager will be forced to put Magnolia in the show. Another chain in the link that makes Magnolia’s, and later Kim’s, success possible. it is fitting that the entire family should gather to see Kim in her debut as a musical leading lady.
This musical has always had a special place for me among all the musicals I love. The story was glamorized and simplified for the MGM version, which provides an unabashedly happy ending, shortens the length of time covered in the story, removes Magnolia’s career, and removes much of what is provocative about the racial subplot, though it does retain one excellent song (“Why Do I Love You?”) that was removed from the 1936 version.
Jerome Kern score is, for me, one of the loveliest musical scores. Kern stands between European operettas and the distinctly American flavor of popular music of George Gershwin and he was one of the first to begin to bring a uniquely American sound to popular music. He’s less jazzy than Gershwin, but his melodies are unmatched. “You are Love,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” and the song that has taken a life of its own, “Ol Man River,” are the three most memorable songs, but the entire score is beautiful. I believe it is one of the great American musicals.
Paul Robeson sang what I consider to be the finest, most powerful version of “Ol Man River.” For some reason, in MGM’s version, all the songs were slowed down, including “Ol Man River” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” The idea seems to be that a slower song packs a bigger emotional punch, which doesn’t necessarily work. Every time I hear the 1951 soundtrack, I get antsy wanting them to speed up. This is the tempo, faster than most people sing it, that I believe it really should be sung at.