SHOW BOAT—after winning the Pulitzer Prize for 1924’s “So Big”, Edna Ferber’s next novel tackled a vanishing slice of the Americana pie: river boats as floating entertainment venues. Along with a love story that spans 40 years, Ferber’s tale dealt with racial attitudes, highlighting the cruelty of miscegenation laws. Turned into a groundbreaking Broadway musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, that summoned a silent movie in 1929, partially revamped for sound. In 1936 director James Whale piloted a large-scale version at a cost of $1,195,000. Retaining many members of the play’s cast, it became the 17th most popular picture of the year, grossing $5,000,000.
In the 1880s, ‘Cap’n Andy Hawks’ (Charles Winninger) and his show boat the ‘Cotton Blossom’ ply the Mississippi, bringing entertainment to river communities. His daughter ‘Magnolia’ (Irene Dunne) falls for charming gambler ‘Gaylord Ravenal’ (Allan Jones), riling her mother ‘Parthy Ann’ (Helen Westley), who is certain little good will come of it. The troupe’s lead actress, ‘Julie Laverne’ (Helen Morgan), is forced to leave the show—and region—when she’s revealed to be part-black and married (illegally according to state law) to a white man. As the years go by, both women have careers with varying degrees of success, and man trouble to suit.
Both ahead of its time and part of it, the sentimental saga is surprising and rewarding on a number of levels, if difficult to handle on occasion because of some woefully outdated material, particularly a ‘blackface’ number with Dunne that’ll make you cringe. It’s a chance to see self-doomed torch singer Morgan, 36, in her last film role, ironically playing a character on the skids. It’s also an opportunity to watch and hear the legendary Paul Robeson, who has a sizable part which includes his classic rendition of “Ol’ Man River”, beautifully staged. Robeson’s ‘Joe’ also gets to share choice scenes with Hattie McDaniel, ebullient as his wife ‘Queenie’. By far the best performance comes from the great Charles Winninger, a sensational ball of comic energy. The production detailing, staging of numbers, crowd scenes and period atmosphere are quite impressive.
Playing 18 (to start with) Dunne was actually 37. When MGM bought the rights from Universal in order to do a remake, the film was withdrawn from circulation, and further kept away when Robeson was blacklisted in 1950. Not until the 70s did it turn up anywhere, and finally received a sparkling Blu-Ray treatment in 2020. The 113 minute extravaganza also features Queenie Smith, Donald Cook, Charles Middleton, Clarence Muse and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson.