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Show Boat (1936) – A Celebration

Poster - Show Boat (1936)_01In 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 FrankensteinThe 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.

Paul Robeson, Irene Dunne, Hattie McDaniel and Helen Morgan

Paul Robeson, Irene Dunne, Hattie McDaniel and Helen Morgan

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.

Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, Charles Winninger, Helen Westley

Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, Charles Winninger, Helen Westley

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.

 
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Posted by on June 8, 2015 in Movie Musicals

 

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No Way Out (1950) – Sidney Poitier’s Movie Debut

Poster - No Way Out (1950)_01Part social commentary and part film noir, No Way Out‘s main theme is racism and it has really aged well, partially because the film manages to never allow its message to slow down the film with long, implausible speeches or sententious dialogue. It definitely has its moments of making a point, but overall doesn’t need to bash us over the head because the story and the acting is strong enough without it. The film marks the debut of Sidney Poitier and was both directed and written by Joseph Mankiewicz, a man interested in exploring social concerns in his films.

Dr. Luther Brooks (Sidney Poitier) is an intern working in the prison ward of the county hospital. He’s still a little unsure of himself and though he’s passed the state board examination and has a license to practice, he asks for another year there before going out on his own. He is the first black doctor at this ward and has the complete support of his superior, Dr. Wharton (Stephen McNally), though he occasionally meets a policeman who seems surprised to see a black doctor.

After a failed attempt at robbing a gas station, the two Biddle brothers are brought into the hospital, both shot in the leg. They’re from Beaver Canal, the white slum section of the city. Dr. Brooks notices that though Johnny Biddle was only shot in the leg, he seems to be exhibiting other symptoms, like confusion, lack of sense in his fingers. He suspects a brain tumor and wants to do a spinal tap, but Ray Biddle (Richard Widmark) is furious to have a black doctor tending them. He begs the police not to leave him and his brother alone with Dr. Brooks, uses every racial epitaph in the book and tries to prevent and distract Dr. Brooks from examining his brother.

But while Dr. Brooks is administering the spinal tap, Johnny Biddle dies. Ray is convinced that Dr. Brooks murdered him. Dr. Wharton trusts Dr. Brooks judgement, but Dr. Brooks wants an autopsy done to prove that his diagnosis was right and that there was nothing that could have been done to save Johnny. Ray, of course, refuses. Dr. Wharton and Dr. Brooks go to see Johnny’s ex-wife, Edie Johnson (Linda Darnell) to ask her to ask Ray to allow the autopsy. She is at first extremely surprised to see a black doctor. You can see it in her eyes. It’s almost as if she’s never stood that close to a black person before or held any conversation with them and you can see that it throws her off balance how he talks and acts just like any other person. Her expression is almost what it would be if she were standing face to face with a Martian who turns out to be just like her.

Richard Widmark, Linda Darnell, Sidney Poitier

Richard Widmark, Linda Darnell, Sidney Poitier

But when Edie does go to see Ray, he pulls out all the stops. He appeals to the fact that she grew up next door to Johnny and Ray (their parents used to get drunk together), old loyalties to Beaver Canal, an ‘us vs. them’ mentality regarding both blacks and whites, policemen and establishment people like doctors. He then piteously pleads that he saw Dr. Brooks kill Johnny and that people are trying to cover it up. Edie is swayed, reverts to old habits of thought, and agrees to tell Ray’s other brother, George (Harry Bellaver), and the other members of Beaver Canal what Ray told her. The whole incident, they know, will start a riot.

But the black community near Beaver Canal hears about the impending attack on their neighborhood and decide to preemptively attack Beaver Canal, despite Dr. Brooks pleas not to. He feels that such attacks never do any good and only inflame hatred. But the riot still occurs, with Beaver Canal getting the worst of it.

Edie is disgusted with herself and with the violent, almost animal (her word) hatred and brutality displayed by the members of Beaver Canal. Meanwhile Dr. Brooks feels the entire riot occurred because of him and confesses to the murder of Johnny to force an autopsy of Johnny that will prove him right. When they find the tumor that proves his diagnosis, Ray escapes and sets out to murder Dr. Brooks.

No Way Out was Sidney Poitier’s film debut. He was only twenty-two years old, though he said he was twenty-seven, but he is already a powerful actor. Dr. Brooks is portrayed as a good, though flawed, human being and not just a cardboard cutout saint. He’s had to deal with hatred all his life and has grown used to it, but there’s something about the intensity and single-minded focus of Ray that shakes him up. He wants to prove himself in the eyes of others and can’t just let it go, despite Dr. Wharton’s assertion that there is no need, and he has a slight crisis of confidence. His reactions are complicated: determination, nobility, anger, frustration, patience, impatience. He wants to deal rationally with the situation, but keeps encountering the irrationality of Ray.

1083_019851.jpgRichard Widmark is superb and plays truly one of the most hateful characters I have seen in film. Even other members of the hospital acknowledge that his racism is almost a pathology. He unleashes an incredible volley of racial slurs, using the N-word multiple times. He represents a mentality of Beaver Canal, something Edie wants to leave behind, that is almost like arrested-development.

Edie seems to bring out more of the noir elements of the film in her struggles to extricate herself from Beaver Canal and is played very convincingly by Linda Darnell. It is fascinating to watch her character change and see her ideas transformed. She begins by referring to Dr. Brooks as “that colored doctor” or “negro doctor.” By the middle of the film, you can see her consciously stopping and choosing to say “Dr. Brooks.” She goes out of her way to acknowledge Dr. Brooks’ wife by greeting her. By the end, she calls him Luther, and not in a condescending context. Every time she meets a black person, you can see her curiosity and as she talks to Dr. Wharton’s black housekeeper, Gladys, she begins to come to that realization that Gladys is not “other,” but that they actually have much in common.

No Way Out is a film that reflects its time. Dr. Wharton is a good example of this. He says he believes in good doctors, not white doctors or black doctors, and he is a good friend to Dr. Brooks. However, you can still see the racial bias of the system at work, through no fault of his own. He is in the position of patron, not just friend. And when Mrs. Brooks holds back her tears until after he has left and cries on Gladys’ shoulders, you can see that there is still lurking an ‘us vs. them’ mindset. You don’t cry in front of the patron.

In real life, Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier were good friends. In fact, Widmark felt so bad about how he treated Poitier’s character in the film, that he frequently apologized during filming. It’s a well-acted, intense, and compelling drama, that holds up well as a movie and not just as social commentary.

 
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Posted by on April 27, 2015 in Drama, Film Noir

 

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The Hurricane (1937) – Disaster Film, Colonialism and Racism

The French flag is the symbol of colonialism in this movie. We see it at the beginning and we see it at the end, when it is being ripped to shreds by the hurricane. The movie was released in 1937 and directed by John Ford, who is best remembered for his Westerns and was often interested in themes of racism. The Hurricane is an interesting movie, very much of its times in how it blends a paternalistic attitude of the native people of the South Sea Islands with an attempt to expose the cruelties inherent in colonialism.

The biggest problem with Ford’s view is that the native islanders are portrayed as children that should be treated with the indulgence you would afford children. The other issue often mentioned is Ford’s decision to cast his two lead characters – both Polynesian – with Caucasian actors; however, I feel that the practice of casting white people in various non-white roles is such an old and long lasting problematic practice (it even occurs today) that it is unfair to single out Ford in this instance.

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Dorothy Lamour and Jon Hall

The plot is a bit like Les Miserables meets disaster film. Terangi (Jon Hall) is a popular and free-spirited young man from the island of Manakura. He is first mate on a merchant ship and is engaged to marry the chief’s daughter, Marama (Dorothy Lamour). Everyone loves and admires him, even the governor and his wife. However, on a trip to Tahiti, a white man insults him and tells him to stand in the presence of his betters. Terangi is angry and knocks him out. He is sentenced to prison for six months, despite Manakura’s resident doctor (Thomas Mitchell) appealing to Governor De Laage of Manakura (Raymond Massey) to intervene.

Terangi doesn’t really understand what is going on and he can’t bear to be in prison and away from his new wife and tries to escape. He is caught and his sentence is upped to two years. The guards are cruel, he repeatedly tries to escape and the years pile up on his sentence. After six years of imprisonment, he has accumulated 16 years of prison time.

The Hurricane

Raymond Massey, Mary Astor, Jerome Cowan

Meanwhile, his family and friends are bitterly resentful of the governor’s contined refusal to intervene. Governor De Laage says that he must uphold the law, whilst his friend the doctor, his wife (Mary Astor), his priest (C. Aubrey Smith) and Terangi’s captain (Jerome Cowan) maintain that in this instance the law is unjust. Finally, Terangi succeeds in escaping for real and is reunited with Marama and their child. Her family are preparing to help them escape to another island when De Laage begins to get suspicious. However, before anyone can do anything else, a hurricane hits the island.

And I must say that the special effects are truly impressive. There are fifteen minutes, without music and only the church bell ringing, of rain and storm and water while people try to escape. It looks great…and all the better for not being CGI. When the actors were being hit with water and high wind and Mary Astor said in her book, A Life On Film, that the wind and the water hit their faces so hard that they would have little pinpricks of blood all over their faces.

In a way, the hurricane acts as a deus ex machina, but not in any way that anyone could have wished. It solves everything only because it is so terrible an event that the previous concerns no longer matter. The hurricane wipes the slate clean and those who are left must start afresh.

MV5BMTk1Njk2MzQ2OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzA0MTI0NA@@__V1_SX640_SY720_Although the movie was marketed as a romance between Terangi and Marama – and a lot of time is spent with them – the most interesting character is Governor De Laage and one’s enjoyment of the film seems to partly rest with whether or not one can sympathize with or at least handle Raymond Massey’s portrayal of the character. No one can play implacable to the point of harshness quite like Massey.

Andrew Sarris has an interesting view of the film, in his book You Ain’t Heard Nothing Yet: The American Talking Film, History and Memory, 1927-1949. He writes that because Terangi and Marama are portrayed as Hollywoodized innocent victims, “the film’s dramatic focus shifts therefore to the Europeans, and particularly to one of the most fascinatingly civilized of all movie couples – Raymond Massey’s Governor De Laage and Mary Astor’s Mrs. De Laage. The Hurricane is ultimately their story as they argue with exquisite delicacy and tact the conflicting claims of the law and the heart.”

In fact, Mrs. De Laage seems to feel, unlike any other character in the movie, that she can appeal to De Laage’s heart. She always approaches him by addressing his heart rather than his reason (the doctor repeatedly appeals to reason without any effect) and he always responds by saying that it is not fair for her to attack him where he is vulnerable, as if the two of them have some secret knowledge that he is actually sentimental at heart even though no one else can tell. We do see it a little, at the beginning and the end, how much he loves his wife, as much as Terangi loves Marama, but he is more reserved about it. Massey and Astor do not have much time together, but it is still an intriguing relationship.

mary-astor,-raymond-massey-and-thomas-mitchell-in-the-hurricane-(1937)

Mary Astor, Thomas Mitchell, Jerome Cowan, Unidentified Woman, Raymond Massey

Sarris also argues that De Laage is far more subtle than sometimes supposed, not the cruel sadist and legalist that he is often called. It seems like he has trapped himself. He feels that he must uphold the law, not so much for the sake of the law but because if he does not act in solidarity with his fellow governors and lawmakers, then he is tacitly undermining the very principles of colonialism. If it is an injustice for Terangi to be put in prison for not knowing his place, then what business do the French have ruling over these people if they are not beneath them?

The result, unsurprisingly, of stubbornly and rigidly standing his ground is alienation and what the author of Jane Austen: Game Theorist, Michael Suk-Young Chwe, would call cluelessness. He alienates himself from his friends (the doctor and priest) and from all the people of the island, and one cannot help wondering a little about the state of his marriage (they seem a little tense together). As a result of his refusal to bend, he cuts himself off from everyone and he is the last one to know anything, such as when Terangi finally escapes from prison.

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Jon Hall and Dorothy Lamour

This cluelessness is brought about by a refusal to put oneself in the place of others, which means you cannot understand them, their motives, or what they are capable of doing. By standing firm in keeping Terangi in prison, De Laage shows remarkable cluelessness in not understanding the people he governs. For one, as my sister pointed out, it is a very small island and everyone’s probably related – like one large family – so when Terangi is wrongfully imprisoned, they all take it personally. He is basically trying to apply cold law meant for nations to a family, and it is not clear that the people of Manakura fully understand the whys and wherefores of the laws of the French.

There is a scene at the beginning when De Laage is reprimanding one young man for “stealing” a canoe (to take his sweetheart on a moonlit trip). The doctor argues for clemency because the young man had all the excuse in the world – moonlight – which isn’t the point, I think. What is probably going on is that, if the islanders are all family, they might be used to borrowing and sharing their possessions. A family member borrowing my car, even without my permission, is not the same as somebody I don’t know in a large city, taking a joyride. In this instance, De Laage is attempting to apply European laws to a situation that does not merit them. It is the inherent cluelessness of colonialism.

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Thomas Mitchell

The doctor is an interesting character, because I think we are meant to agree with him, though I rarely wanted to. He is perpetually drinking and loves the island and never wants to go back to Paris. He is also one of the loudest voices against De Laage’s actions, or inaction. However, it is through him that we get most of the paternalistic arguments about how the people of Manakura are like children and need to be free like a bird. It is he who repeatedly makes bad arguments for good causes and although he gets along well with the native people of the island, he doesn’t seem to understand them better than De Laage. One can’t help but wonder what his past is and how much of his statements have to do with wish fulfillment, especially regarding being free like birds.

Ironically, all of these arguments, disagreements, suffering and misunderstandings go for naught. The hurricane hits and it essentially puts those who survive back at square one. In a way, it highlights the futility of human interactions in the face of nature. Nothing matters once an act of God occurs but survival; everything else seems petty. It’s like the flood of Noah in how it wipes away all else.

The film is currently available on youtube and can be found at this link, here, and if you would just like to see just the hurricane, click here. Below is the trailer for the film.

 
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Posted by on July 14, 2014 in Movies

 

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