July 19, 1951 MGM 107 minutes
May 4, 1936 Universal 113 minutes
Show Boat is the granddaddy of American musical theater, a show so full of history and precedent that its status will always be unimpeachable. It’s such an epic in the scope of its story, in richness of score, in chronicle of frontier theatrical history, that it can never be fully realized. Every new production picks and chooses its emphases, its denouement, its songlist and scoring. It has a solid mutability. As a youth I shied away from it because it seemed terribly old-fashioned, something from grandma’s age more akin to operetta, which turned me off the second those soprano trills filled the air. But in truth I simply ignored it, despite its heralded reputation.
I first saw MGM’s Show Boat in October 1974 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. After That’s Entertainment had blown my mind that spring with its bounty of treasures from the MGM vault, MOMA ran a half-year retrospective that put my membership to good use. I can’t say I was much captivated then, nor in my subsequent 3 viewings, but it certainly stands up to many a botched job done by Hlwd. MGM’s 1951 redo was actually the third film version in 22 years. Contrary to common belief the first was an adaptation of Edna Ferber’s novel and not the Bway show, which was finishing up its initial run in New York when this movie opened in April 1929. Filmed by Universal as a silent, the story follows Ferber’s novel more closely even as it eliminates the entire miscegenation angle, rendering Julie’s role nearly superfluous.
Stuck with a major production in a soon-to-be obsolete format, Universal inserted songs & dialogue scenes, together with a prologue in which Florenz Zeigfeld and Universal’s mogul Carl Laemmle both appeared to herald this flashy roadshow presentation. Helen Morgan was added to sing “Bill” and Laura LaPlante, who played Magnolia absurdly sang “Ol’ Man River”—no doubt the only version ever to have a soprano sing it. You have to wonder how this mélange congealed; along with a few Kern/Hammerstein songs were some spirituals and traditional “coon songs”—pushing the running time to a padded 146 minutes. You can see why a new version only seven years later wouldn’t seem any too soon—especially one more faithful to the Bway show, which had been revived by 1932 —and was already regarded as a landmark in American musical theater. Carl Laemmle’s ambitious second version, directed by horror movie master, James Whale, and starring a string of well-known veterans of the Ziegfeld production was lovingly rendered and well-received. Kern & Hammerstein even wrote 5 new songs (of which 3 were used) that were anything but typical Hlwd fodder. Curiously, the film was not among the ten nominees for Best Picture of 1936, a field dominated by MGM with no less than five films—including the eventual winner, ironically, The Great Ziegfeld. The sole nominee from Universal was instead a silly Deanna Durbin vehicle, Three Smart Girls.
In the 40s, as MGM’s musical division grew in expertise and prestige, and Bway’s new lyric musicals were making impact, it stood to reason that MGM would take new interest in Show Boat, going so far as to invest heavily in an opulent 1946 Bway revival, before unleashing Arthur Freed on a lavish all-star Technicolor remake. Shortest in length, the film plays like a greatest hits reel, pumped up as a sort of floating Grand Hotel with studio star turns—most glaringly at the expense of its black characters, who here nearly disappear. The film is so shy of the racial element in fact it rewrites the opening from its original black dockworker chorus to something more akin to music hall vaudeville. In itself it’s pretty thrilling. I was actually surprised how emotional I got watching this stunner of an opening this time. (Viewing these films with fresh scrutiny is keying me in to a new, exciting sense of enjoyment—a gift this blog is giving me). It begins with the showboat arriving at some Mississippi town, and here as I mentioned before about director George Sidney, is where he excels. The sequence builds in speed and excitement as the whole town pours out and runs to the riverfront—the images telling you everything you need to know about the time, the place and the social codes in play. All this builds up to the greatest star entrance in memory …no, not Julie. Not Cap’n Andy or Magnolia or Gaylor Ravenal. The music builds to a slash/cut on a clash of cymbals…and enter full monty…the Cotton Blossom; the cast draped across bridge & stairs, tambourines flashing, voices shouting “See the showboat …are you comin’ to the show?” This isn’t Ziegfeld’s Show Boat. Or James Whale’s. Or Harold Prince’s. It’s George Sidney’s, and I’ll stand by my claim that this is the single most joyous moment of musical comedy heaven I ever get from any version of Show Boat that I’ve seen.
Unfortunately little that follows comes close to the mastery of this sequence. Except perhaps for William Warfield, whose vocal on “Ol’ Man River” is irreproachable. The film does right by the song, giving weight to the whole sequence by tying in Julie’s departure from the Cotton Blossom. But Warfield has nothing else to do but sing this song. His role was slashed to bits and his mate Queenie cut entirely—rather telling editorial decisions at this time, the beginning of a decade in which black civil rights would move to the forefront of public awareness. Meanwhile MGM, never exactly on the cutting edge of contemporary taste, remade one last round of operettas in the early 50s: The Merry Widow, The Student Prince, Rose-Marie, in tandem with operatic Mario Lanza vehicles, where he’s paired with Kathryn Grayson. Grayson is the featured star of MGM’s Show Boat, and she’s also the vacuum at the center. I can’t believe it’s merely a generational shift that makes someone like Kathryn Grayson seem so untenable now. Granted, I’m not much for the light-opera sopranos, but Grayson seems to me lacking in every way. Her face, with the pert nose and brunette locks is so generic as to be uninteresting; her acting ability next to none; and her fluttery soprano suggests she was more a pet of Louis B. Mayer than a valid or exciting cinematic talent. (In the late 60s I saw her on stage in Camelot ; I doubt there was ever a more soporific Guenevere.) On the other hand, Howard Keel has sharpened his screen chops in the interim after Annie Get Your Gun. He’s scaled down, modulating his voice & manner to the intimacy of a camera, and he’s looking mighty fine now too. (Here’s a real lesson in how costumes can transform —compare Keel’s fancy get-ups here to the woeful duds he wore in Annie.) He makes a dashing Ravenal, but doesn’t strike much fire when paired in duets with Grayson. Joe E. Brown—a face first known to me from his final two films (Some Like it Hot & It’s a Mad4 World)—had actually quite a career as a Hlwd comic in the 30s, and according to Edna Ferber, was her mental image of Cap’n Andy while she wrote the book. As Hlwd’s resident sourpuss, Agnes Moorehead was equally well-cast, but both their parts were trimmed, with Parthy in particular stripped of any shading. Julie is a curious role in that it’s rarely played by an actress with any hint of mixed-blood. (Lonette McKee in a latter-day Bway revival was a rare exception.) So why not Judy Garland? She was a candidate in the film’s early development, but her troubles led MGM to fire her in 1950. Of course the perfect choice would’ve been Lena Horne (and she was even considered) but ultimately MGM wasn’t about to relinquish box office receipts in the South. It’s a sad commentary on America’s racism that a black woman playing a mulatto in 1951 was still considered somehow offensive to an entire region. So instead we get Ava Gardner with a mild bronzer as the movie’s bold casting choice. A “safe” mulatto, in that everyone knows she isn’t really. If you squint, she looks like she could be…yeah, she might be…you could buy that’s she half…OK, half…Italian. And here she is, starring in MGM’s big musical pic of the year, while current hubby Sinatra’s fortunes in Hlwd were starting to tumble. She insisted on doing her own singing, and Freed indulged her during the shoot, but dubbed her in the editing with a studio singer, Annette Warren.
It doesn’t much matter, for what sinks “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” isn’t her voice (which was later heard in That’s Entertainment III) but the turgid arrangement of the number. In another example of whitewashing the racial angle, the film refuses to identify the song’s Negro origins—an important point in layering Julie’s heritage, as well as using Queenie, Joe & others in the number-a nifty example (long before jazz, before even ragtime,) of black music seeping into white culture. Not here. Instead the first, languid verse is turned into a torch (or tortured) song for Ava drawing into a towering close-up—that even with her unassailable beauty nearly puts the show to sleep. A “snappy” second chorus has Ava “teaching” Kathryn the steps as a jug-band plays on the deck below. Compare this scene with the ‘36 film and you’ll see how they sanitized the number out of all meaning and native rhythm—like a Pat Boone recording of a Chuck Berry song. The show’s comic team of Frank & Ellie were here upgraded to professional hoofers Marge & Gower Champion, the Steve & Eydie of dance (or were Steve & Eydie the Marge & Gower of song? I’m not disparaging them, I happen to like Eydie--Steve as well.) I wish I could get excited about the Champion’s numbers. He is lanky and All-American, she’s perky and petite, but their routines seem pure old-time vaudeville (which I guess is the point) and elicit little more than quaint admiration. One curious point is the use of camera trickery in “Life Upon the Wicked Stage.” Tho nowhere else is any performance depicted in anything but literal presentation, here we have Marge dancing with Gower, only to step away—the camera following—and bump into him on the other side of the frame. This is done several times in the number—bizarre only when you realize you never see anything like it in the movie elsewhere. The Champions had five more films in them before Gower moved into direction on Bway and found his true calling.
Show Boat sailed into Radio City Music Hall on July 14, 1951, and became an instant box-office bonanza. Financially, Hlwd would have a banner year with musicals: Royal Wedding, On Moonlight Bay, Here Comes the Groom, and On the Riviera were all among the top 20 grossing films. But even more astoundingly, three of the top four films (behind Fox’s #1 David & Bathsheba) were all MGM musicals: Show Boat, The Great Caruso, An American in Paris. How times have changed! The latter even nabbed the Best Picture Oscar, earning new stature for musicals in Hlwd—tho as of then a respect given only to studio originals, not Bway adaptations. New hits on The Big Street that summer of ’51 were Guys & Dolls, Call Me Madam & Rodgers & Hammerstein’s latest epic The King & I—with South Pacific still drawing capacity houses—all of them soon destined for celluloid. Cap’n Andy himself, Joe E. Brown was then starring in a turn-of-the century rustic tuner, Courtin’ Time which ironically ended its brief run the same day Show Boat pulled into Radio City.
Sometime around 1990 I met the ultimate historian and authority on Show Boat, Miles Kreuger, in Tower Records on Sunset in West Hollywood. At a later visit to his “Institute of the American Musical” (which is also his Hancock Park apartment), Miles played for me a laser-disc of the James Whale Show Boat, which had the then-revolutionary concept of a commentary track as a viewing option. Of course this commentary was by Kreuger himself, and he was mighty proud of it, to boot. He has plenty of tales to tell, and tells them well. I can’t remember how much I knew about James Whale’s film by then—obviously I hadn’t enuf interest to seek it out, but I finally caught up with it in 1993. (The laser-disc phenomenon was over before I ever considered investing in it.)
A decade after the advent of video, after the major flood of old titles were released, I took a self-inflicted course of study thru the (available) history of Hlwd, tho with an admitted bias against westerns, sci-fi, horror & schlock (except for essentials). By the time the ’36 Show Boat was within my grasp, I had graduated to 1960, and was thus out of sync with the whole look & feel of 30s films—which is maybe why it made so little impression on me then. I never took a second look until now.
Universal’s Show Boat is far more authentic, in the sense of capturing the stage show, but also in its cinematic feel for period and loving depictions of back-country show biz—which can seem uncomfortably “authentic” when Irene Dunne dons blackface and struts thru “Gallivantin’ Around;” her reedy soprano an unfortunate mash-up on a minstrel song, as she trills thru clown-sized white lips--backed by a chorus in blackface and cartoon outfits. Granted it’s a museum exhibit—notice the primitive stage effects; a reflected lantern for a rising moon, a flying goose on a clothesline —but it’s performed without an ounce of self-consciousness or revisionist shame, which can be jarring nowadays. The song isn’t even taken seriously; the film cuts away before its conclusion. Where MGM makes the stage routines look studio polished, here they seem appropriately crude, second-rate—the sort of acts that would actually wind up on a boat in the Mississippi playing to real rubes in the audience—another detail MGM excised, as if all the customers were proper opera-goers.
As the central lovers, Irene Dunne and Allan Jones are better than Grayson and…well, Grayson. Allan Jones is a softer, blonder, more feminine Ravenal, as was the 30s style in the mold of Leslie Howard, where Howard Keel reads Clark Gable. Perhaps this explains why Jones doesn’t dominate his film the way Keel does his. By 1936 Irene Dunne was one of Hlwd’s major movie stars, and playing Magnolia was a return to a role she played in the first road company. To me, she seems anything but a child of the river. If anything she seems rathah’ prim, almost British; on the order of Gertrude Lawrence or Deborah Kerr. Not that I have a problem with that. She’s perfectly lovely and charming, and has undeniable Star charisma. But even with Dunne at the helm, this version leaves plenty of screen time for the many other characters. Joe and Queenie are actual personalities in this edition, and their presence brightens up any scene. Hattie McDaniel (who is called “8 Ball” by the villain) had played Queenie in the Los Angeles company and Paul Robeson—for whom Joe was written— played the show in London and Bway’s 1932 revival, tho not in the original. It’s nice to see them as part of “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” but they have their own moment in a song newly written for the film (“Ah Still Suits Me”), and set intriguingly against a raging storm outside. There’s real sexual heat between them, and they’re so entertaining you hardly notice the song is only there to reinforce a nasty racial cliché—Joe’s shiftlessness.
Still, Robeson is a real dynamic presence—he was a towering figure in African-American history—and here he’s a real studly charmer. Well-bred and college educated, Robeson was the antithesis of Joe—a fact later played for laughs by Phil Silvers in a nightclub sketch where “Kern” teaches the meticulously spoken Robeson colloquial lyrics such as “he don’ plant ‘taters,” in a sort of reverse Pygmalion conceit. The real Kern was especially fond of the routine. In her countless mammy roles, McDaniel seems as ageless as she is sexless, but here she clicks with Robeson in a way that exposes a more private side. I’m reminded of her comment against those blacks who chided her for playing so many servant roles; “I’d rather play a maid in the movies than be one.” She won an Oscar, too. The recent Oscar winner M’onique wants to bring Hattie’s story to the screen—I hope we get to see her do it. Paul Robeson likewise needs to be reintroduced to contemporary audiences. His rendition here of “Ol’ Man River” has long been considered definitive, and tho William Warfield more than holds his own in MGMs remake (and has a more classically trained voice) I will not challenge Robseon’s primacy. I’m not so fond, however, of Whale’s literal images during the bridge of the song: “Tote dat barge/lift dat bale/get a little drunk/and you land in jail”—do we really need to see Joe standing behind bars, however briefly?
There’s also more breathing room for Cap’n Andy & Parthy Hawkes (mirroring the blacks below, woman as taskmaster and harridan; the men careless and easy-going). And isn’t it strange that Cap’n Andy responds to news that Ravenal had killed a man, with a shrug and admission that he had done so too. Unless I missed something, nothing is ever mentioned about it again. What are we to make of that? Wonder why Edna May Oliver, who had played Parthy on Bway, and was a firmly established character actress on the screen, was replaced here by Helen Westley, an actress otherwise unfamiliar to me, tho she made 38 films. She’s appropriately sour but not the full-blown personality that Oliver or Margaret Hamilton would have been.
Helen Morgan was a name I had read about forever as an iconic Bway torch-singer, and coming upon her in the (celluloid) flesh is a bit of a letdown. She’s a bit dowdier than I imagined, and not so unique of voice, but she has an appealing common touch. She may not be the great beauty that Ava Gardner is, but her two numbers here are far superior. Especially “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” which is kept in proper tempo as a jaunty rhythm song and not the dirge MGM turned it into. The sequence is perhaps the highlight of the whole film, with Joe & Queenie taking part, and Magnolia even cutting loose with a sort of chicken dance that’s positively jaw-dropping. (I was reminded of the infamous Seinfeld episode where Elaine reveals her signature dance moves—to the horror of everyone.) It’s so bad, it seems real, and I love the sequence for it all the more.
The problem, always, with Show Boat is the second act—and no two versions are ever the same. The story, after focusing so long on seminal events takes great leaps in time and place, straining against its roots in Ferber’s novel which rambles across generations without care. But what to dramatize? A wedding, a baby. But as soon as the lovers hit Chicago it’s the Nicky Arnstein story really (which if you think about it actually pre-dates Ferber’s book, and could well have been familiar to her, tho of course, Funny Girl is still decades away.) Nicky, er, Gaylord leaves and Magnolia is forced, forced to start singing in (gasp) nightclubs! Why this should seem like a come down to a former showboat performer is a mystery to me. As is Julie’s martyred exit—yet again, in shame. After a shaky start (with a save from Papa, Cap’n Andy conveniently in the audience), Magnolia rises to Bway stardom, shown us by a quick montage of programs from her greatest hits: Pink Lilacs; Wild Rose; Blue Bell, and my own personal favorite: Princess Caprice. (OK, I confess I’m a lover of titles) And without so much as a clip from any of these, Magnolia retires from the stage, only to be succeeded by her daughter, Kim, who quickly rises to fame in another montage of programs; from a maid in an unnamed drama, to supporting billing in Hello There! to Star of (the not-so-subtly titled) Broadway Bound, the opening night of which becomes the climax of this epic. Gaylord now reduced to lowly stage door custodian (and a makeup job as convincing as a high school Willy Loman) bumps into Mags, who in two decades hasn’t so much as looked at another man, and with the family reunited, all is right in the world. But Kim’s big stage number is curiously given short shrift here. She may be Bway Bound but the set on stage is a southern plantation on a scale more likely to be seen at the Met., and nearly as populated. No song or scene follows but a pantomime ballet with the cotton-pickers giving way to the hoop-skirt gals. Even the music isn’t interesting, none of the luscious Kern tunes woven in here, except for a few strains of “Gallivantin’ Around” of all things. Why so musically careless at the eleventh hour? Weirder still, the curtain descends after this single number and Kim asks her retired mother to sing an “encore” from her box seat! It’s all to set up the final reunion, even if it defies credulity. Funny how old a trope this is, and not so far off with Bill Condon’s ending of Dreamgirls where mother, father & daughter lock into a moment of trinity.
MGM wisely pared the story down (what need is there really for Magnolia to become a Bway star, let alone Kim?) Wisely too, John Lee Mahin’s script had Gaylord abandon Magnolia before he knew she was pregnant. It makes more sense for her to return home to raise a child with her parents than hot-foot it to Bway. He also brought Julie back to be instrumental in re-uniting the estranged lovers, now with a happy young child (who looks like a dead ringer for Sandra Bullock)—and without having to age our stars, in the unconvincing style of early-Max Factor. Undeniably, under Freed’s painstaking supervision Show Boat was a shrewd commercial enterprise, but the overall approach & editorial decisions in everything from music to casting have not weathered well with the passage of time.