Most of what I know about riverboats can be gleaned from Mark Twain, Davy Crockett and the River Pirates, and that ever beloved Snoopy incarnation The World Famous River Boat Gambler. The 1936 musical Show Boat falls into that very same rich tradition but some clarification is in order.
In truth, this is not the most remembered or even the first adaptation, for that matter, of the wildly popular stage hit of the 1920s. Those laurels go to the 1951 version starring Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel and then the original partial-talkie released in 1927. But it’s easy to go out on a limb and reckon this is the best of the lot.
James Whale noted for such reputed monster movies as Frankenstein and The Invisible Man proves an equally compelling helmsman of musicals. Here his obvious attention to period authenticity is highlighted making the riverboat world of Missippi circa the 1880s incredibly atmospheric.
The story starts exactly where its title suggests with a Show Boat and the traveling crew of performers who turn up in every town to add a little gaiety and charm into every man, woman, and child’s life. The personable mastermind of it all Cap’n Andy Hawks promises big things to the general public who turn out in droves to get a chance on the entertainment.
But as is the case with any such narrative the true meat and potatoes is either on the stage with every song and dance or behind the curtains where people are living life and trying to get by the best they know how. Hawk’s wife is constantly nagging him and demanding that their daughter never become an actor. Instead, young Magnolia (Irene Dunne) is relegated to sit behind the piano.
Still, there is another plot thread with major implications on the contemporary constitution of race relations. I personally had no idea what was at the core of Edna Ferber’s Show Boat. I assumed it was only a musical perhaps bred in the rather sorry tradition of Gone with the Wind and other such pictures when it comes to depictions of African-Americans.
It’s true that there are some of those stereotypes present but this is a surprisingly forward-thinking narrative at first because at its core is miscegenation–in simpler terms the marriage of a white man with a woman of color. The two tragic lovers are actually depicted in a sensitive light while at the same time giving Magnolia her break with their sudden ignominious departure in the midst of the public scandal.
Still, in this small way, it’s not unlike Ferber’s later work Giant in how it begins to dissect the hypocrisy in society. For his part, singing giant and future blacklist casualty Paul Robeson’s epic rendition of Old Man River is one of the true capstones of the film imbuing the story with even more meaning and power. For another minor instant, it seems like the point of view of the downtrodden and marginalized is, at the very least, being acknowledged and given a place of significance. as if to say even for a split second that there are dignity and worth there.
Of course, it loses all the credibility it could have in one regrettable stage number where the happy notes make the blackface feel even more abhorrent. Though I have no major qualms enjoying this movie on a whole, any discussion must come with a substantial caveat.
In its second half, Show Boat does admittedly succumb to some pacing problems hitting its peak early on and slowly dropping off from its frenzied and energetic openings to more wistful conclusions that are understandingly less diverting even purely from a tonal perspective. It seems to even acknowledge its own weaknesses by condensing decades for the sake of time and the audience’s attention span.
It all began with lively commotion, spirited passion, and young love. In the end, it settles for a sentimental reunion of two lovers torn apart by destitution and time itself. It’s a lovely feel-good conclusion but it’s not nearly as satisfying as it could have been if Show Boat had kept its steam from the starting gates.
Though this is far from being Irene Dunne’s greatest role, she still gives a winning performance that memorably showcases her vocal training opposite her romantic co-star the rich-toned tenor Allan Jones. As a side note, she also exhibits the most unique churning dance you’ve seen rather like a caterpillar in a dress–only surpassed by Lauren Bacall’s shoulder shimmy in To Have and Have Not.
Still, Paul Robeson stands as one of the titans of this film. I hope he got the respect that he deserved for this role and if nothing else time seems to have honored him as “Old Man River” still remains one of the great musical numbers out there.