Director: James Whale
Screenplay: Oscar Hammerstein II
Based on a Novel/Play by: Edna Ferber (novel), Oscar Hammerstein II (play)
Starring: Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, Charles Winninger, Paul Robeson, Helen Morgan, Helen Westley, Queenie Smith, Sammy White, Donald Cook, Hattie McDaniel
Country: USA
Running Time: 114 min
Year: 1936

Edna Ferber’s novel Show Boat was a great success on its release in 1926 and Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote an equally successful musical theatre adaptation which premiered on stage just one year later. Universal jumped on the property not long after too, releasing a film of Show Boat in 1929. This was originally intended to be a silent adaptation of the book, but after The Jazz Singer took the world by storm in 1927 and demand for ‘talkies’ grew, Universal worried that audiences would be expecting to hear the songs from the musical. So, they reshot some scenes for sound and tacked on a prologue featuring songs from Kern and Hammerstein’s play.

The film did very well but has since been eclipsed (partly due to being long thought lost) by Universal’s second stab at Show Boat in 1936. This time around, they were keen to make it a full-on adaptation of the musical, rather than the book. To aid this, they brought on board many of the stage show’s stars to reprise their roles on film. In an unusual twist though, they chose James Whale to direct.

Whale was a popular director at the time, but largely for his series of horror classics, Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man. He certainly wasn’t known for making musicals, though he was an experienced stage director. Nevertheless, he put all of his effort into the production, ensuring it was a film version incorporating his vision, not just a simple transposition of the stage show onto the big screen.

It proved to be the peak of Whale’s career as his follow-up, The Road Back (a sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front), was marred by studio interference and ended up a critical and commercial failure. After that, he directed a series of flops and disappointments, never again reaching the heights he’d enjoyed in the first half of his career. He retired in the 50s and suffered from strokes in 1956 which caused him great pain and likely led to him committing suicide in 1957. This period of his life is effectively portrayed in the 1998 film, Gods and Monsters.

Whale’s horror movies justifiably remain his most famous works, but his adaptation of Show Boat is well-loved and Criterion are now releasing the film on Blu-ray in the UK, with their usual royal treatment. I hopped aboard to see how it fares today.

Show Boat charts five decades of the life of Magnolia (Irene Dunne), who we first see as a teenager living aboard the ‘Cotton Blossom’, a showboat owned and run by her parents, Cap’n Andy (Charles Winninger) and Parthy Ann Hawks (Helen Westley). It rolls into a Southern town along the Mississippi River, where two important incidents occur. In one, Magnolia meets the charming gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Allan Jones) and the pair soon fall in love. In the other, a scorned wannabe lover of the boat’s star actress Julie (Helen Morgan) tells the local authorities that she’s part-black but passing herself as white and is wed to a white man. The latter is illegal in the state, so Julie is in danger of being arrested and the showboat’s reputation ruined. Her husband, Steve Baker (Donald Cook), seems prepared for this though and drinks a little of his wife’s blood so that when the police arrive he can rightfully claim he has “a drop of Negro blood in him” so they can remain legally wed. Having a mixed-race cast back then (the film is initially set in the late 1880s) is frowned upon though, so the pair are forced to leave to save the Cotton Blossom.

Magnolia is devastated, as Julie was like a sister to her, but the incident ends up benefitting her by casting her into the limelight as the boat’s new lead actress, much to the chagrin of her old-fashioned, uptight mother. Also pleasing Magnolia is the fact Steve’s replacement as leading man ends up being Ravenal.

The couple fall deeper in love and they marry and have a child, named Kim. Ravenal has them live beyond their means though, moving to Chicago and sending Kim to a convent school, but this facade fades and he abandons his family, ashamed of not being able to provide for them. To make ends meet, Magnolia resurrects her singing career in the city, unknowingly aided by an alcoholic Julie, who quits her position as lead singer at the Trocadero so that Magnolia can take her spot.

Magnolia becomes a big star from this and passes the torch onto her now teenage daughter Kim (now played by Sunnie O’Dea). The film ends with her debut lead performance, which sees a special guest in the audience.

I used to be quite opposed to musicals, only finding time for darker-edged, blackly comic spins on the formula, such as Little Shop of Horrors, but I’ve been warming to them over the years. Show Boat was a welcome reminder of what I’ve been missing out on.

What impressed me most was Whales’ direction. The story, in my opinion, starts well but soon develops into a bog-standard melodrama, but Whales imbues the film with such energy you can’t help but become sucked into it. That said, I did prefer the first half to the second. Thankfully, the finale makes up for any sag, delivering a sweet but satisfying conclusion.

Throughout, Whale and his cinematographer John J. Mescall shoot with graceful movement and carefully composed framing. These visuals are bolstered by some lavish art design by Charles D. Hall.

Also impressive is the music. The style of singing is a little dated, with a lot of vibrato-heavy operetta-like warbling, but there are a number of classic tunes, such as ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man’ and ‘Bill’. Most notable though, in the film’s musical interludes, is ‘Ol’ Man River’. The song was written for the great actor and bass-baritone Paul Robeson and he performs it here in electrifying fashion. Aiding Robeson’s mighty delivery, Whale and Mescall magnificently present the sequence with a stunning crane shot that arches around the actor and then cuts away to near-expressionistic illustrations of some of the lyrics. It’s an astonishing sequence that makes you wish Robeson was the male lead and not the bland Jones. Robeson would sing this song throughout his lifetime but would change the words to reflect racial issues of the time. In fact, he had already called for a change to the words from the initial stage version, which originally opened with “N***ers all work on de Mississippi”. In later years he altered much more, for instance swapping the line “git a little drunk an’ you lands in jail” to “you show a little grit and you lands in jail.” Knowing Robeson would later use the song to tackle racial hatred only strengthens the sequence further.

This leads me to a complex element of the film, its depiction of race. It’s a curious mix of dated and offensive moments (such as Magnolia’s blackface routine and minstrel-like dance to ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man’) alongside progressive elements. The very inclusion of the miscegenation plot point is bold and forward-thinking for the time in showing the troubles faced by people of colour in America. Robeson and Hattie McDaniel’s characters, though hardly pivotal to the plot, are fleshed out and humanised more than most black characters of the time too. Their duet of ‘Ah Still Suits Me’ offers another musical highlight as well as presenting the only realistic and warm portrayal of a relationship in the film. ‘Ol Man River’, of course, is also forward-thinking in describing racial issues of the period.

The cast of Show Boat are mostly fantastic. As mentioned previously, Jones is a bit flat, but elsewhere we’re spoilt for wonderful performances. Particular favourites include Dunne, who shows great range in the lead role, Robeson, who has a subtle depth that counters his great booming voice, and Winninger, who is a whole heap of fun as Magnolia’s father and the captain of the showboat. The scene where he single-handedly reenacts the remainder of an abruptly halted show is a real tour-de-force for the former vaudeville actor.

Overall then, it’s an old-fashioned film that is of its time in many respects but has progressive touches and a charm and energy that’s driven forward by Whale and a wonderful cast. With a handful of memorable show and set-pieces too, it’s a delightful slice of golden age Hollywood that’s well worth revisiting.

Show Boat is out on 14th September on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The picture quality is practically flawless, particularly given the age of the film. There’s a little noise/hiss on the soundtrack but most films from this relatively early sound era suffer from this issue.

There are plenty of special features included too:

– New, restored 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
– Audio commentary from 1989 featuring American-musical historian Miles Kreuger
– New interview with James Whale biographer James Curtis
– Recognizing Race in “Show Boat,” a new interview program featuring professor and author Shana L. Redmond
– Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (1979), an Academy Award–winning short documentary by Saul J. Turell, newly restored
– Four performances from the sound prologue of the 1929 film version of Show Boat, including songs from original Broadway cast members Helen Morgan, Jules Bledsoe, and Tess Gardella, plus twenty minutes of silent excerpts from the film, with audio commentary by Kreuger
– Two radio adaptations of Show Boat, featuring stage and screen cast members Morgan, Allan Jones, and Charles Winninger; producer Orson Welles; and novelist Edna Ferber 
– English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
– PLUS: An essay by critic Gary Giddins

Miles Kreuger’s commentary is quite engaging and interesting but rather outdated with regards to the racist aspects of the film (most notably in his reference to the “delightful blackface routine”!) To help balance this, Shana L. Redmond’s interview is fascinating, taking a balanced view of the pros and cons of the film’s representation of race.

The Whale and Robeson pieces both offer fairly rich overviews of their subjects in their relatively short running times. The Robeson piece is particularly fascinating, casting light on the inspiring man, his accomplishments and controversies. It includes some shocking footage of people protesting his arrival in the deep south, attacking black people at the scene and shouting “go back to Russia, n***er” at Robeson’s passing car. It’s a disturbing reminder of the depth of racial hatred back then.

The excerpts from the 1929 film of Show Boat make it look beautifully crafted. It’s a shame the whole film wasn’t included (perhaps it’s now lost). The four recorded prologue songs are basic wide shot recordings though, so disappointing and clearly hastily shot to cash in on the talkie boom and availability of the Show Boat songs. The performances are strong though, so the clips are worth watching.

The radio adaptations are a nice inclusion too, particularly the Orson Welles version, to see his take on it. It’s hardly War of the Worlds, but it’s decent nonetheless.

Finally, Giddins’ essay provides a thorough look at the journey the story took from the novel, to this film and to later iterations.

So, a well-stocked package that’s a must-buy for fans of the film and musical.

Show Boat - Criterion
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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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