Magnolia Hawks lives on her father Captain Andy's floating show boat, the Cotton Blossom. She meets gambler Gaylord Ravenal in a river town and falls for him. That afternoon,during the rehearsal for the evening's show, star actress Julie and her husband and co-star Steve are forced to leave the company and Gaylord is hired to take Steve's place, while Magnolia takes over Julie's. They fall in love and marry. Leaving the showboat, 'Nola and Gay and their little daughter, Kim, move to Chicago, where their fortunes wax and wane depending on Gay's luck. He finally leaves his wife and child and she is forced to return to the stage, where she becomes a star.
Irene Dunne ... Magnolia Hawks
Allan Jones ... Gaylord Ravenal
Charles Winninger ... Cap'n Andy Hawks
Paul Robeson ... Joe
Helen Morgan ... Julie LaVerne
Helen Westley ... Parthenia "Parthy" Hawks
Queenie Smith ... Ellie May Chipley
Sammy White ... Frank Schultz
Donald Cook ... Steve Baker
Hattie McDaniel ... Queenie
Francis X. Mahoney ... Rubber Face Smith
Marilyn Knowlden ... Kim as a child
Sunnie O'Dea ... Kim (at 16)
This is not a musical. This is a film. James Whale's visual expressionism and the truly remarkable performances he coached from his actors is what makes SHOW BOAT a great movie. As an historical record, this SHOW BOAT is nearest to the Ferber novel as well as the Ziegfeld stage production, using several members of the original and / or London cast. The evocative tone of the film, bringing alive the seedy rural Mississippi River towns, coupled with the natural and subtle acting jobs, make this film real to the touch. Yes, MGM's production is more opulent, with more modern orchestrations and stronger vocals on the part of Gay and Magnolia. Even William Warfield is more polished than Paul Robeson. And that's the trouble. That performance belongs in an opera house. Universal's 1936 SHOW BOAT is musical realism. As for the cultural aspects, blackface happened. Get over it. So did rampant racism; and the misegenation aspects of the script are dealt with frankly and brutally. I know of precious few films of the thirties that were so bold in their statements regarding racial intolerance. And don't think Whale was oblivious to the fact that he was placing one infraction side-by-side with another. It is the perfect unmasking of the hypocrisy of racism - you can make yourself up to look like a nigger; but don't dare marry one or carry a drop of one's blood in your veins or let a real one on the same stage with a white actor.
Why is "Bill" so powerful? Listen to the second chorus. Victor Baravelle brings in high sustained strings. Whale cuts to the old charwomen halting in their work, stopping to listen, wiping away an unwanted tear with an apron.
SHOW BOAT 1936 pulls no punches. It's a masterpiece.
When we talk about adaptions of Show Boat for the screen, we talk first about this one and then the others. If for no other reason than it gives us a chance to see three of the original performers from the original Broadway cast, Charles Winninger, Helen Morgan, and Francis X. Mahoney. Their performances on stage and on the screen became career roles for each.
Also Allan Jones and Irene Dunne are as perfect a Gaylord Ravenal and Magnolia Hawkes as you'll ever find. Irene was THE Jerome Kern girl on the silver screen, she was lucky to be in three musical adaptions of his shows, this one and Roberta and Sweet Adeline. His songs and her voice seem to be made for each other.
Ravenal's part is one of the most difficult to do in musicals. In the 1951 Show Boat Howard Keel sang wonderfully, but he projects too strong an image for the part. Gaylord Ravenal is a charming, but a very weak character. Allan Jones was the one who really got it right and it's on Ravenal's performance that the whole plot of the show turns on. He really rings true in Hattie McDaniel's assessment of him as the kind of gentlemen it's a pleasure to wait on.
James Whale as director really captures the spirit of 20 years on each side of the turn of the last century with warts and all. Show Boat as a play was bold in its day in tackling racism and miscegenation. Even when this was produced first in 1927 there were still miscegenation laws on the books. He gave Helen Morgan the career role she was most identified with.
Helen Morgan personified the phrase torch singer. From 1927 until this film she had descended into alcoholism and five years from this film she would have passed away from the effects of same. She had a career in Hollywood as well as Broadway and this was her final effort. How fortunate we are to have a filmed record of her performance and her singing of Can't Help Lovin' That Man and Bill.
Ravenal and Magnolia are given three great ballads to sing, classics all, Make Believe and You Are Love and Why Do I Love You. The first two are sung by Jones and Dunne and the third was eliminated from the film although it is heard on the soundtrack. Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein wrote another song I Have the Room Above which is also a most charming duet.
Of course no discussion of Show Boat is complete without Paul Robeson and Ol' Man River. Believe it or not Robeson wasn't in the original Broadway cast. The Broadway opening was delayed and Robeson had some other contractual commitments in 1927. Another black baritone concert singer named Jules Bledsoe introduced Ol' Man River, arguably the greatest song Jerome Kern ever wrote. It became a signature song for Paul Robeson in both stage performances of Show Boat and in this film. His presence in singing Ol' Man River is another reason for this being the greatest Show Boat of all.
Robeson also has a duet with Hattie McDaniel in I Still Suits Me another song Kern and Hammerstein wrote for this film. It's a nice comedy duet. In fact I would say that Show Boat and Annie Get Your Gun are the two shows with the most hit songs in them ever written.
Show Boat is a grand American classic. Somewhere as I write this review there is a company performing right now on this planet. It will be so for generations to come.
James Whale's outstanding 1936 film version of "Show Boat" is indeed a musical film that others must aspire to.His slick direction brings out not only the pathos of the piece,but the humor and dramatic chemistry as well.As with most screen adaptations of Broadway musicals there are some missing songs.Most sorely missed is Ravanal's stirring 'Till Good Luck Comes My Way" and Queenie's haunting "Misery's Comin Around",but even with these omissions its a great film.
Hammerstein's script is full of meaning and power.The cast is up for the chalanging subject matter. Original broadway cast members Charles Winninger as Capn Andy and Helen Morgan as Julie along with the London Joe,the legendary Paul Robeson, win best of film honors. Winninger's Andy is full of comedic humor well balanced with quiet tenderness.Morgan as Julie,although past her prime still commands the stage emotionally as the tragic Julie, and Robeson gives us a well layered performance as the easy going,but wise Joe. His "Old Man River" still sends chills down one's spine.
The rest of the cast is no less polished. Allan Jones and Irene Dunne as the central figures,Ravanal and Nola create a wondeful bond. their chemistry,both vocal and emotional is right on the mark.Hattie McDaniel is a delightful Queenie and shines in her partnership with Robeson (particularly in their duet,'Ah Still Suits Me").
The themes of Hammersteins' script still are valid today,Racisim,Spousal abandonment,Bigotry and Financial Hardship. This is what makes this film a classic.It still has something to say in today's so called "advanced" society.
* "Ah Still Suits Me" was written especially for the film to give Paul Robeson a larger role.
* In the scene in which Paul Robeson sings "Ah Still Suits Me", Queenie (Hattie McDaniel) has a box of Aunt Jemima pancake mix on her work table. It's a subtle nod to Tess Gardella (stage name "Aunt Jemima"), who created the role of Queenie in the 1927 Broadway production.
* Universal Pictures' head Carl Laemmle was ousted from the company just after this film was completed. He retired from the business the day after its release, as did his 28-year-old son, who never produced another film.
* Special permission had to be granted from the Hays Office in order to retain the famous "miscegenation" sequence in the film. Miscegenation was banned as a film subject and the scene had been excluded from the 1929 film version.
* Because of copyright problems involving a real "Cotton Blossom" show boat sailing the Mississippi in the 1930's, the name of the showboat in the film had to be changed to "Cotton Palace". This required omitting the second half of the opening chorus, in which the townspeople sing about the boat while the stevedores continue singing about their daily work, and the "cotton blossom" growing on the levee. The section sung by the stevedores is still heard in the film.
* Of all the films he directed, this was James Whale's favorite.
* The song "Ol' Man River", as performed by Paul Robeson in this film, was # 24 on the American Film Institute's list of the top 100 songs featured in films.
* The song "Why Do I Love You?", as sung by Irene Dunne and Allan Jones, and the chorus "Happy The Day" (from the Act I Finale) were filmed but deleted before release, because it was felt that the movie was too long. "Why Do I Love You?" was to be sung in the scene in which Magnolia and Ravenal are riding in an automobile with their baby daughter, Kim. The rest of the scene remains in the film.
* As of 2004, there still has been no official soundtrack album made from the film. The songs sung by Allan Jones have been released on another album devoted exclusively to Jones, and the film's soundtrack was once issued on LP, on an obscure label called Xeno, but it did not receive the kind of remastered official CD or LP release accorded to such film soundtracks as The Wizard of Oz (1939), Gone with the Wind (1939) or the classic Disney films.
* The scenes of the townspeople running toward the dock to greet the arrival of the show boat incorporate footage from the 1929 part-talkie film version. The moment in which this footage is used is very noticeable: for a few seconds, the image looks "speeded up", the way silent films used to look when shown on sound film projectors.
* Cameo: [LeRoy Prinz] the adult Kim Ravenal's dance director.
* The first choice to play Ellie May Chipley in this film was Eva Puck, who had played that part in Show Boat's original Broadway run opposite her husband 'Sammy White' as Frank Schultz. However, by the time this film was made, Puck was divorced from White, casting White was given precedence over casting Puck, and Queenie Smith replaced Puck as Ellie May Chipley.
* The design of the show boat is true to what a real show boat of that era might have looked like. This is partly because Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II wished it that way in their original stage instructions for the play, partly because of Edna Ferber's concern for historical accuracy, and partly because of director James Whale's sense of period design.
* Although this film version of "Show Boat" was quite faithful to the show, and although it features many of the songs from the stage version, poster advertising for the film prominently mentioned the three additional songs written by Kern and Hammerstein especially for the film, even to the point of downplaying the fact that nine songs from the stage score were sung in the film, several of those were reprised twice or more, and three other songs from the stage version were used as background music.
* This version of "Show Boat" was voted one of the top 25 Greatest Film Musicals by the American Film Institute, on 3 September 2006.
* The Lux Radio Theatre version of this film was broadcast in 1940, and starred Irene Dunne, Allan Jones and Charles Winninger from the film's cast. The radio version avoided all mention of racial issues by having "Ol' Man River" sung as a background choral number at the beginning, instead of as a number for Paul Robeson and male chorus. It also changed Julie from a mulatto illegally married to a white man to an illegal alien whose husband chose to be deported with her.
* Irene Dunne was thirty-seven years old (soon to turn thirty-eight) when she played the youthful Magnolia, although many biographies once listed her as being thirty-two at the time. Allan Jones, her love interest, was eight years younger.
* Several scenes were cut before release, because they presumably would have made the film much too long (films lasting two hours or longer were still a rarity in 1936). Among the scenes omitted were a sequence featuring Paul Robeson and Hattie McDaniel in old-age makeup, with Robeson singing an additional reprise of "Ol' Man River" while McDaniel sits beside him in a rocking chair and a modern speedboat is seen in the background; a World War I scene featuring Irene Dunne and Charles Winninger, and a vocal reprise of "Gallivantin' Around", one of the additional songs written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II for the 1936 film version. This last one would have been part of the movie's final sequence in which Kim (played as an adult by 'Sunnie ODea) makes her debut in a leading role on Broadway. She was supposed to have sung the song in addition to dancing to it. The vocal of "Gallivantin' Around" was eventually cut from this final sequence, but much of the rest of the scene remains in the film, except for a "modern" portion which shows how dancing evolved from the nineteenth century to the jazz era.