The 1936 production of Show Boat is the second version of the story based on Edna Ferber’s novel (the 1929 version was in fact shot as a silent adaptation of the original novel and hastily reworked to include some of the show’s songs as a part-talkie release) and still the best. Irene Dunne, who had been discovered by Hollywood talent agents while performing in a road show version of the stage musical, returns to the role of Magnolia, the dreamy daughter of Cap’n Andy (Charles Winninger), the captain and proprietor of the floating paddlewheel playhouse. She plays out her romantic fantasies in real life when she falls for riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Allan Jones) and, after a flirtation by duet, she takes the stage with him as her leading man, against the wishes of a mother who wants to keep her far away from the “wicked stage” of show business. Co-star Helen Morgan (in her final film role) reprises her role in the original Broadway production and Paul Robeson reprises the part he created in the London version, which gives the film documentary gravity as well as dramatic power. Dunne, with her trilling laugh and easy charm, is wonderful as the earnest Magnolia and Jones, most famous as the bland romantic lead of a couple of Marx Brothers comedies, shows more sand and strength in the role of the romantic gambler than in any other of his film performances, but Robeson and Morgan are transcendent.
Magnolia’s story is one of romantic dreams soured by the reality of a flawed man: Gaylord, who coaxes her off the stage and drags her along his itinerant life as a travelling gambler, starting out in high living splendor and then sinking into poverty and neglect. You could say that the song “Can Help Loving that Man” captures the theme of the whole show: love doesn’t necessarily conquer all but that doesn’t stop women from falling in love with unreliable men (or, in the case of the welcoming and warm Cap’n Andy, a sour, unforgiving wife). It’s played out as triumphant drama, comic lament, and tragedy, the latter in the supporting story of the show’s original star player Julie (Morgan), who is forced off the stage and out of the company by the local authorities after they are informed that she is part negro. The legal measure is “more than a drop” of Negro blood and Julie’s husband philandering husband uses the letter of the law to save her from the mob in a moving act of devotion. It is the last we see of him. Unreliable at the best of times, he finally abandons Julie, who ultimately drifts back into Magnolia’s story for a moving sacrifice.
It all plays out in the Jim Crow South, where segregation was a way of life and miscegenation a crime. By 1936 things hadn’t changed much in many southern states, a tension that could be felt in Hollywood, where film were produced to play all territories. Not that Hollywood in the thirties was otherwise a bastion of racial tolerance and social respect—African American actors were reduced to stereotypes in the large majority of films—but some filmmakers took on the tension within the conventions.
James Whale, most famous for directing the great gothic horror classics Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, and the baroque blast of Bride of Frankenstein, was a cultured Englishman with a gift for sophisticated melodrama. He was also a gay man in a society hostile to homosexuality, which many have suggested made him sympathetic to the black characters in the film. Show Boat features a minstrel number with Irene Dunne in blackface (which, offensive as it is to our sensibilities, is at least true to the show’s era) and all of the black characters are servants, manual laborers, or otherwise subservient to the white characters. Yet the film is remarkable for its acknowledgement of segregation as a legal and social reality, and for creating a theatrical community where the white and black characters interact freely in their own world. The song “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” becomes a conversation between Morgan’s Julie, a woman who has experienced her share of disappointment and heartbreak, and Hattie McDaniel’s Queenie, the ship’s cook. They’re not just sharing a song, they’re comparing notes, and while the naïve Magnolia hasn’t anything but her own fantasies to compare, she joins in by shimmying a marvelous shuffle of a dance she obviously learned from the African American world. While Magnolia has grown up in an atmosphere of racism, in the bubble of this ship she doesn’t differentiate between black and white culture.
Legendary actor, singer, and political activist Paul Robeson takes the role of Joe. On the one hand it’s a cliché of the lazy, day-dreaming black river man who is totally devoted to his white bosses, but it also has a dimensionality unseen in other roles written for black characters in the era and Robeson brings depth and dignity to the part and a majesty to the show’s signature song “Ol’ Man River.” Whale shoots most of the film in the studio, with the riverboat set backed by stage flats or rear projection, and gives the film a mix of cinematic scope and theatrical style. He shoots “Ol’ Man River” on a grand dock set that fills with a chorus of workers turned soulful choir. But as the song goes on, Whale leaves the set for a montage of expressionism images reflecting the spirit of the lyrics and music. The song is no longer just a lament, it’s a meditation on Joe’s life treated with the same seriousness as the white characters.
Helen Morgan only made a few films but she was Broadway legend in her time for her bluesy torch singing and worldly persona and for her notorious private life. Julie was not just her signature role, it was something of an alter-ego for the actress who in real life was laid low by a bad marriage and alcoholism. MGM took a risk on Morgan, who was famously unreliable at that time, and she sobered up for the opportunity, delivering a performance marinated in loss and disappointment but defined by dignity and devotion. It’s the definitive portrayal of the role, which she played in both the original Broadway production and in two revivals, and the film preserves it.
The Warner Archive releases Show Boat, which was previously available only on VHS and laserdisc (in a lavish box set with the 1929 and 1952 versions of the film), in a bare-bones edition that has been newly mastered from a superb print that appears to have undergone some restoration. The print is clean and undamaged, the image is bright and vivid with sharp focus and good contrasts and the soundtrack is clean and clear. There has been talk for some time that Warner has plans for a deluxe Show Boat Blu-ray box set with all three versions and whatever new and archival supplements they can find. This release doesn’t necessarily put the kibosh on those plans (it certainly shows that the elements are worthy of a Blu-ray release) but it does suggest it may still be a ways off. This release should satisfy fans in the meantime. There are no supplements but the film itself has never looked this good on home video. Also, while the Warner Archive generally releases DVD-R editions that are “burned” as they are ordered, the first batch of Show Boat discs are conventionally pressed DVDs, available as supplies last. Subsequent copies will be replicated as DVD-Rs.