In the end of the Nineteenth Century, the show boat "Cotton Blossom" owned by Captain Andy Hawks flies along the rivers in the South of North America with the lead stars Julie LaVerne and her husband Stephen Baker and musical entertainment. When Julie and Stephen are accused of miscegenation, they have to leave the boat, and Captain Hawk's daughter Magnolia and the gambler Gaylord Ravenal take their places. They fall in love for each other, get married and move to Chicago, living in a fancy and expensive hotel. However, the jinx of Gaylord consumes all their money, and later Gaylord completely broken leaves Magnolia without knowing she is pregnant. She struggles to survive, returns to her father's boat and business and raises her daughter with her parents. Years later, Julie accidentally meets Gaylord and tells him about his daughter.
Kathryn Grayson ... Magnolia Hawks
Ava Gardner ... Julie LaVerne
Howard Keel ... Gaylord Ravenal
Joe E. Brown ... Cap'n Andy Hawks
Marge Champion ... Ellie May Shipley
Gower Champion ... Frank Schultz
Robert Sterling ... Steve Baker
Agnes Moorehead ... Parthy Hawks
Leif Erickson ... Pete (as Lief Erickson in some prints)
William Warfield ... Joe
I will admit (with a great amount of shame) that the first time I saw the 1951 version of "Show Boat" I was not that impressed. I was so used to Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel as Lilli Vanessi and Fred Grahame, thought Ava Gardner was too beautiful for words, and thought Marge & Gower Champion were the coolest people I had ever seen. That was about it. I was a little bored.
But as I have come to watch it recently, I have discovered it is more magnificent the second time around. As a North Carolina native, I must say this movie holds something very special for me -- and that is TWO North Carolina natives from "Grabtown" and Winston-Salem, our ladies Ava and Kathryn respectively.
First of all, the Technicolor is vibrant and lovely and represents the very fiber that those beautiful, glorious MGM musical treasures of the 1950's were made of.
Supporting characters Joe E. Brown and Agnes Moorehead were, as usual, delightfully wonderful. I don't think I've ever seen either of them do anything "bad." William Warfield's delivery of "Ol' Man River" (accompanied with Julie/Ava's last wistful look toward The Cotton Blossom, of course) never fails to put a tear in my eye.
Howard Keel's voice was in fine form, and he did a great job of portraying the slick gambler, Gaylord Ravenal. Kathryn's voice was, as always, up to par and beautiful, and while perhaps her representation of Magnolia wasn't as vibrant as her portrayal of Lilli in "Kiss Me Kate" or Aunt... whoever it was she played in "Anchors Away" (ooh, I can't remember the name... that's BAD... REAL BAD), she was still her lovely, charming self. I found that her progression from innocent child-like creature to a portrait of woman- and motherhood was captured and characterized very well.
But my favorite parts of the movie were simply Ava Gardner, and Marge and Gower Champion.
Ava is, as always, ridiculously and insanely gorgeous. In fact, I would have liked to have seen more of her than I did. It's a stretch for a white woman to play a bi-racial woman, but she did it with what seemed like such ease. She accompanies so much with a look (which is evident as she watches Gay and Nolie sail off together with Kim -- you all know what I'm talking about). And yes, Ava's singing pipes (in my opinion) were far better than Annette Warren's and MGM is stupid for having dubbed her (just like they were stupid for dubbing Debbie Reynolds in "Singin' in the Rain"). Her songs, "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man of Mine" and "Bill," were extremely effective, but could've been even more so had they used her real voice. Such expression in those eyes. And my gosh... her speech to Gay! I don't think people in Hollywood ever really looked beyond Ava as anything but a "sex goddess" -- but she really had a beautiful talent.
Now for Marge & Gower Champion: who couldn't love them? Gower is this sort of... fluid-like creature with a stature and grace like Fred Astaire, but instead of Astaire's "lanky movements" that defined his style, he somehow executes the more athletic, brisk movements that defined Gene Kelly's style. And Marge has to be just about the cutest little person I have ever seen (great facial expressions!) and one of the most talented dancers (up there with Gwen Verdon, Carol Haney, Ginger Rogers, Chita Rivera, and all those gifted people) I've ever seen grace a screen. They're sheerly magnetic, and they never miss. "I Could Fall Back on You" and "Life Upon the Wicked Stage" are two of the most outstanding moments in the movie. You'll love them.
All in all, "Show Boat" is most definitely worth a look. Or two. Or three. Or... well, as many as you feel like!
When MGM acquired the rights to Show Boat for the Arthur Freed unit, no expense was spared in making this one of the most expensive films the studio had ever produced. A whole riverboat was constructed as well as the Natchez landing was completely built on a location on a lake which served as turn of the last century Mississippi river locale.
No doubt also that Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson sang beautifully together. Those three Jerome Kern ballads, Make Believe, Why Do I Love You? and You Are Love were just written for their voices.
Ava Gardner is a beautiful and fetching Julia. Annette Warren's dubbing of Julie LaVerne's songs Can't Help Loving That Man and Bill perfectly matched Ava's speaking voice.
The problem I've always felt with this version is that Howard Keel is too strong a character to be playing Gaylord Ravenal who is essentially a weak personality. Allan Jones in the 1937 version perfectly captured Ravenal's frailty.
That 1937 version also had two people from the original Broadway production who made those parts all their own, Helen Morgan as Julie and Charles Winninger as Captain Andy. And it had the incomparable Paul Robeson though William Warfield is a fabulous Joe.
The singing of the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II score is in the major leagues. The rest of the film however is in a minor key when compared with the earlier sound version with Allan Jones and Irene Dunne.
Don't worry about comparisons with the original, supposedly weak story line, etc, etc - just suspend belief and enjoy it as a musical.
The key vocalists are absolutely first rate: Howard Keel, Kathryn Grayson and William Warfield were at the tops of their games here. The superb, effortless vocals from Keel and Grayson are lessons on how to sing - you'll never hear 'Make Believe' sung better than this.
William Warfield's version of 'Old Man River' is just magic. People usually talk about Paul Robson in the same breath as 'Old Man River' but none of Robson's renditions can match this performance. Warfield is a true bass (Robson was a bass-baritone) and delivers this song with magnificent power and resonance. Warfield is The Man.
* Although Annette Warren dubbed Ava Gardner's singing voice in the movie, Ms. Gardner herself sang her two songs on the MGM soundtrack album.
* Director George Sidney was forced to leave for a few days because of illness, so uncredited associate producer Roger Edens directed the beautifully shot, fog-enshrouded "departure" sequence, including the performance by William Warfield of "Ol' Man River." It is the one scene in the film that has been praised even by critics who detest this version of "Show Boat."
* The Breen Censorship Office tried to raise an objection against the use of the "miscegenation sequence" in this film version of the show, but they were unable to do so because the 1936 film version had already used it and thus set a precedent.
* The original choice for the role of Julie was Judy Garland, but she had since ended her contract with MGM, the idea of casting Garland was dropped. Both Lena Horne and Dinah Shore were next in line until the role finally went to Ava Gardner.
* MGM vied for the rights to film "Show Boat" as early as 1938 (Universal Studios had owned the rights to the musical since 1929, and had made their own film version of it in 1936). MGM had hopes of starring the reigning operatic duo of Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald in the roles of Gaylord and Magnolia. but when that didn't happen, they showcased new stars Tony Martin and Kathryn Grayson - in a kind of screen test as Ravenal and Magnolia in the Kern film biography Till the Clouds Roll By (1946) (and Grayson did eventually appear in the 1951 "Show Boat"). The third lead in the film, the biracial Julie, was considered at various times for Judy Garland, Dinah Shore, and Lena Horne. Shore, although not a major film star, did have a somewhat exotic visage at the time -- her hair and eyes were very dark, and she did almost as many blues and torch songs as a band singer in the 1940's as did Garland. Horne mentions in her biography that she wanted to do the role of Julie badly, but only got as far as performing a single number in the "Clouds" film in the opening "Show Boat" vignette. America, after all, was still a segregated nation in 1950. Interracial romance was still taboo on screen -- and Julie kisses and romantically interacts with her white husband several times.
* The showboat built for the film (known as the Cotton Blossom) became an amusement park attraction in 1973, after MGM sold many of its props at an auction. Unfortunately, in 1995, it was dismantled and torn apart. For this film, the Cotton Blossom was built on top of a flat-bedded barge so that it could be towed into position by underwater cables for the musical number which opens the film. Even though the Cotton Blossom was built to exact specifications and was fitted with a stern paddle-wheel, the thrust of the paddle wheel would have been too strong to maneuver the boat in the studio lake. Too little thrust would have moved the boat very slowly if it moved the boat at all. Hence, it was necessary to move the boat into position by underwater cables. This underwater towing technique also made it easier for the boat to move into its mooring position at exactly the right moment when the musical number came to an end.
* The body of water which doubled as the "Mississippi River" throughout nearly all the river scenes was actually the lake used for the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies made at M-G-M. This lake was also known as "The Lagoon" at MGM Studios because of its size. Several boats were moored there at the time of the big auction of studio properties, including the scaled replica of the "Bounty." The Lagoon was located on MGM's vast Backlot #3 at Overland and Jefferson Boulevards in Culver City, about one mile south of the studio's main lot.
* Ava Gardner's original vocal track of "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" and Annette Warren's dubbed-in vocal track of the song were both modelled on Lena Horne's rendition of it in the then-recent M-G-M biography of Jerome Kern, "Till the Clouds Roll By". Warren's vocal tracks of "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" and "Bill", not Ava Gardner's, were the ones that eventually ended up being used in the film.
* When viewing the rough cut, Arthur Freed, George Sidney, and Roger Edens came away feeling that the picture was too slow. In the rough cut, the scenes of Ravenal and Magnolia becoming rich, before suddenly going broke, lasted much longer. Roger Edens cut the "rich" scenes to a mere three minutes which showed a montage of quick scenes without dialogue, set to an orchestral accompaniment of "You Are Love". In the final print of the film, this is immediately followed by the scene in which Magnolia and Ravenal, still wealthy, sing "Why Do I Love You?", and this does contain dialogue. The scenes that followed, showing the couple in poverty, were also drastically tightened before the film's release, though they also contained dialogue.
* When preparations for this film version of "Show Boat" were begun as far back as 1944, Walter Huston and Ethel Barrymore were set to play Cap'n Andy and Parthy. Both finally had to back out of the production, and Huston eventually died before the film started shooting.
* Eddie Foy Jr. and Mildred Natwick were once considered for the roles of Cap'n Andy and Parthy.
SPOILER: In the rough cut of the film, there was a sequence near the end, retained from the original Broadway show, in which a little old lady appeared reminiscing about Magnolia and Ravenal's romance. The two were supposed to listen to her monologue and then embrace. The old lady was subsequently edited out of the film entirely, because it was felt that her monologue slowed down the picture.
The earlier version is available on: Show Boat (1936) DVDRip (SiRiUs sHaRe)