A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Friday, June 3, 2016

Show Boat (James Whale, 1936)

Productions of Show Boat over the years are almost a barometer of the changes in racial attitudes. In the original 1927 Broadway production, for example, the opening song, "Cotton Blossom," sung by dock workers, contained the line "Niggers all work on the Mississippi." The 1936 film changed the offensive word to "Darkies," which today is only somewhat less offensive, so contemporary performances usually change the line to "Here we all work on the Mississippi." Today, we wince when Irene Dunne as Magnolia appears in blackface to sing "Gallivantin' Aroun'," a number created for the film, and we have to acknowledge that minstrelsy was still prevalent well into the mid-20th century. But Show Boat also presents structural problems. It is front-loaded with its best Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II songs: In the original production, "Make Believe," "Ol' Man River," "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," "Life Upon the Wicked Stage," and "You Are Love" all appear in Act I, leaving only "Why Do I Love You?" and "Bill" for Act II, among reprises of some of the other songs plus some oldies like "After the Ball." The film doesn't solve that problem: In fact, it omits "Life Upon the Wicked Stage" and "Why Do I Love You?" entirely, except as background music. It replaces them with a few new songs, including "I Have the Room Above You," a duet for Magnolia and Gaylord Ravenal (Allan Jones), and "Ah Still Suits Me," a somewhat too racially stereotyped duet for Joe (Paul Robeson) and Queenie (Hattie McDaniel), but they're still part of the first half of the film. And the plot seems to dwindle off into anticlimax after Gaylord leaves Magnolia. But James Whale's film version is one of the most successful translations of an admittedly imperfect stage musical to the screen. One reason is that it gives us a chance to see two legendary performers, Paul Robeson and Helen Morgan. Robeson's version of "Ol' Man River" is not only splendidly sung, but Whale also gives it a magnificent staging, beautifully filmed by John J. Mescall, that emphasizes the backbreaking toil that Robeson's Joe sings about. Morgan's performance as Julie makes me wish that Kern and Hammerstein had given her more songs, but her "Bill" is extraordinarily touching, and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" becomes, after her introduction, a lively ensemble number for her, Dunne, McDaniel, and Robeson. It's also good to see McDaniel in a role that gives her a chance to sing -- she began her career as a singer. Too bad that Queenie's big number, "Queenie's Ballyhoo," was cut from the film. MGM remade Show Boat in 1951, with Kathryn Grayson as Magnolia, Howard Keel as Gaylord, and Ava Gardner as Julie, under the direction of George Sidney. Lena Horne wanted to play Julie, but the studio chickened out, fearing the reaction in the South. (Gardner's singing was dubbed by Annette Warren.) MGM also tried to suppress the 1936 film, which is vastly superior. Fortunately, it failed.