There have been several movie versions of the musical Show Boat, based on the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein stage musical, which was itself based on the 1926 novel of the same name by Edna Ferber. The most well known movie version is the 1951 color one. The one that is considered the best, though, is the very hard to find 1936 one. It is on AFI’s list of the 25 Best Musicals of all time. The 1936 version has been suppressed for several decades, partially due to controversy over the later blacklisted Paul Robeson, who performs in it, and partially due to the studio not wanting their 1951 version being outshined. Supposedly, the 1936 version has finally been issued on DVD in the
U.S. in 2014,
but when I click on the IMDB link to buy it all it shows me is copies of the
1951 version. Regardless, it is well
worth your time to track down the 1936 version.
Director Frank Whale, best known today for his monster movies like Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), wanted to be as faithful to the original stage musical as he could. This included casting several members who performed in it on stage, as well as accuracy in the production design of the boat and the period costumes. It also included sticking as close to the original story as he could, even to the point of getting a special waiver from the Hays Office to retain a plot about miscegenation. The result was his favorite movie from among all those that he made.
The film has a mostly ensemble cast, at least for the first portion of it. It opens about 1880 and a “show boat” travels up and down the
stopping in towns and putting on performances.
The boat is owned by Captain Andy Hawks (Charles Winninger) and his wife
Parthy (Helen Westley). They have an 18
year old daughter named Magnolia, played by 37 year old Irene Dunne. (The character ages to about 60, though, by
the end of the film.) A charming
riverboat gambler named Gaylord Ravenal (Allan Jones) catches Magnolia’s eye,
which upsets Parthy.
The star of the show is Julie LaVerne (Helen Morgan). She is married to Steve Baker (Donald Cook). Also on board is the cook Queenie (Hattie McDaniel – best known today for her Oscar-winning performance in Gone with the Wind) and Queenie’s husband Joe (Paul Robeson – finally getting to play the part that was written specifically for him.) In a rarity for films of this time, Queenie and Joe, who are both black, get a considerable amount of screen time among the supporting cast. They even added a new song to the movie just to give the two more to do in the story. Magnolia idolizes Julie and adores Queenie. She spends quite a bit of her time with them.
The miscegenation subplot comes in with Julie. She spurns the advances of a member of the boat’s crew and in retaliation he reveals that she is mixed race – her mother was black. She is so fair skinned that she has been passing for white. The law in the state they are currently docked at says that anyone with “even one drop of negro blood in them” is black, so that means she and Steve, who is white, have broken the law by getting married. The police are coming to arrest them and Steve ingeniously keeps them from doing that. I won’t spoil how. With her racial background revealed, though, Julie is forced to leave the show since she can’t work with white performers.
This isn’t the last we see of Julie, though. In a very poignant scene years later she sings “Bill”, a lament for her man. In fact, it was her earlier singing of the song Can’t Help Loving That Man of Mine that first hinted at her racial makeup. Queenie is surprised because she’s never heard a white woman singing it. Julie defensively says her mother taught it to her. Helen Morgan was basically born to play this part. She has a voice for sad songs. She originated the role on stage and by the time she did the 1936 film her career was mirroring that of her character towards the end of the movie. In fact, her abuse of alcohol created health problems for her and Show Boat was the last film she ever made before she died.
Back on the boat Magnolia takes over as the lead in the shows, and despite her mother’s disapproval, the gambler Gaylord marries her. They leave the boat and move to
Chicago where another
sizable chunk of the film occurs. Just
as with Julie, things aren’t that happy for Magnolia and Gaylord. If you expect musicals to be all bouncy and
cheerful then this film may be a shock to you.
I can’t finish this review without talking about Paul Robeson. If you have never heard this man’s voice then you are missing out. In this film he sings the ever living hell out of Old Man River. His voice is so deep and has such power behind it that it matches that of the river itself. You can feel the depths of the
in Robeson’s singing. I’m overselling it
here, but if ever there was a time to say that no other person should try to do
their own spin on a song, it’s here.
Paul Robeson’s version of
is the only one that should ever be played. Old
Show Boat has several very well known songs, performed by talented singers. It has multiple interlocking stories, including those of a black husband and wife. And it has plenty of emotion in it. You may even find yourself shedding a tear at some point. Unless you absolutely hate musicals then I highly recommend this film.
Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars