FILM MARATHON: Movie Musicals #2: Show Boat [1936]

“Just one big happy family”

Based on Edna Ferber’s novel, the James Whale directed and Oscar Hammerstein II scripted Show Boat concerns the show-biz family of Magnolia Hawks and how her life is forever changed once a sheltered childhood makes way for international success. Ushered in by a nicely animated credit sequence of cardboard dancers in a parade carrying the cast and crew title cards, we are thrust into an excited Mississippi River port town awaiting the visiting showboat and its famous entertainers. Led by Cap’n Andy Hawks (Charles Winninger), his company of Steve Baker (Donald Cook) and Julie LaVerne (Helen Morgan)—the two best performers on the river—whet the appetite of the townsfolk looking for an escape from their daily grind. Children rush out of their classroom; men stop their work; and even a family of pigs scurry down to the water to welcome the newcomers. Always directing, Hawks gives all a taste of what’s to come in the show, loudly making pronouncements and deftly maneuvering around mishaps like that of a disgruntled stagehand with a secret large enough to disrupt everything.

At a time not so far removed from the Civil War—some theatergoers actually using Confederate money in one scene—interracial marriage is illegal and absolutely unforgivable down South. When it is discovered by the sheriff that Hawks’s leading lady had a black parent, she and her husband barely make it off the ship without being taken away in shackles, but their shrewd escape isn’t allowed relief for long since the departure leaves an enormous hole at the center of the show. With nowhere else to turn, and supporting players Ellie May Chipley (Queenie Smith) and Frank Schultz (Sammy White) only comedians, Hawks has no choice but to turn to his young daughter Magnolia (Irene Dunne). Growing up on the boat allowed her to form a creative bond with Julie, who taught her all she knew as a result. The part of Lucy was memorized and Magnolia was willing to step into the role her idol now had to leave behind. Her father knew she could sing, but the question of acting wasn’t answered until the serendipitous arrival of Gaylord Ravenal (Allan Jones), a dashing gentleman after the girl’s heart. His casting made the real love transfer to the stage for uproarious success.

The actual performance becomes one of the film’s most memorable sequences as the time period’s audience participation is quite a sight. Over-acting is the name of the game on stage with wooden, one-dimensional characters and villains twirling their moustaches with maniacal laughs, all while the entire auditorium claps for joy or audibly hisses their displeasure. One brutish man, enjoying a good laugh at his first ever show, finds himself so appalled by the antagonist’s physical abuse to the star that he pulls a gun and fires on stage as though it were real. Hawks, always ready to ad-lib and diffuse any situation, rushes onstage when the curtain is dropped and hastily relays how his actor has gone into a fit, never once accusing the shooter or calling attention to anything that may not be part of his play. Because of Frank’s villain’s disappearance, Winninger’s manic ham decides to explain what was to happen by portraying every part, women and men alike, tossing himself around the stage as he fights from both sides, flipping over when ‘struck’. He saves the show, gets an amazing response from the crowd, and, in fact, does a better job at breakneck speed than his actors were at flubbing their lines.

However, this time on the titular showboat is short-lived, serving merely as a springboard towards a future to come for Magnolia and Gaylord, soon to be married with child, his financial success letting them leave the ship behind. The only life she ever knew is suddenly deemed beneath her, a sort of lark while the world of money and means awaits. All praise her luck and happiness except her mother Parthy (Helen Westley)—a snooty role of snide remarks and judgmental attitude, bringing some good laughs, especially opposite the affable pushover that is her husband—who always believed him to be a riverboat gambler not to be trusted. Seeming to have something better to do when their daughter is born and charming his way out of encounters with the law, Gaylord’s clean-cut façade does slowly start to crack, his selfish way of life canceling his wife’s dreams of stardom, smothering them to constantly move, living more often with scraps than with the fancy clothes they hold onto for appearances. It is Magnolia’s second act to life that gives her one more opportunity to be someone, funnily enough with the behind the scenes help of old friend Julie—a guardian angel who’s own trouble makes way for young Nola’s rise.

Show Boat’s artistic flair is quite fantastic from the ship’s stage-work, the New Year’s party in Chicago littered with tickertape, and the wardrobe throughout. I will admit to not being a huge fan of the singing style, every voice high-pitched and with a trill waving through each note, obviously dating the entire piece and lending it all a saccharine tint, sweeping some moments of unforgivable action under the rug in order to leave the audience with a smile on their faces. Dunne is wonderful when given the opportunity to act and not solely be the pretty, naïve girl entering the crazy world show business was and remains today; Jones is great with his smug charm; and Winninger steals every single scene he’s in. The story spans many years and three generations of entertainers with the Cap’n, Magnolia, and her daughter Kim’s rapid ascension on the stage circuit. A lot happens and the pace can drag as a result, but the musical pieces are spot-on and the rest contains enough instances of success to tie it all together, even rendering its overly joyful end acceptable. Despite all Hawks/Ravenal escapades, however, it is Paul Robeson’s family servant Joe who resonated the most. A sage, matter-of-fact character, his singing voice and smile give the perfect mix of drama and fun—a sort of backbone to the whole journey along the ol’ Mississippi.

Show Boat 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

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