Warner Home Video has been planning to do a Show Boat box set for years. They own all three movie versions of Edna Ferber’s tale of turn-of-the-century riverboat entertainers: an oddball 1929 part-talkie that isn’t a musical; the 1936 version with its famous performances by Paul Robeson and Helen Morgan; and the 1951 MGM color spectacular. They’re still planning to release a Blu-ray set a couple of years down the road, but fan demand prompted this Warner Archive pressed-DVD release of the second version—you know, the good one.
Director James Whale is justly celebrated for his iconic horror films (Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, Bride of Frankenstein), but his work is just as spectacular here. Bringing a fine pictorial sense—complete with touches of German Expressionism—Whale communicates the theme of the picture with bracing clarity. That theme, of course, is miscegenation.
Show Boat is set in the meanest days of the post-Reconstruction American South, a time when, as Oscar Hammerstein’s pithy verse to “Old Man River” explains, “Darkies all work on the Mississippi/Darkies all work while the white folks play.” The miscegenation is embodied by the character Julie, a black member of Cap’n Andy’s show-boat troupe. She’s as transgressive a character as you’ll find in 20th century pop culture: Julie’s a black woman passing for white; she’s married to a white man in a part of the country where that would land you in jail; and she’s imparting a love of black musical culture to Cap’n Andy’s lily-white daughter Magnolia (Irene Dunne).
Naturally, she will pay dearly for this.
The two best numbers in the film come early on. Paul Robeson’s simultaneously rousing and despairing treatment of “Old Man River” is justly famous; Whale’s explicit (and expert) depiction of racism in a big Hollywood production number should be equally well known. Even better is “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” sung by Helen Morgan’s Julie with Robson and Hattie McDaniel. Whale’s staging gives away Julie’s secret before the story can, and vividly shows that even the most vicious legal racism can’t stop black and white culture from mixing—and creating something new and dynamic.
Julie turns out not to be the main character, of course, and exits the story. Magnolia becomes the central figure, and the plot settles into a conventional romance between the sweet young thing and a dashing gambler, Gaylord Ravenal (Allan Jones, whose son Jack recently played a crooner in American Hustle).
After all the earlier racial transcendence, it’s a shock when Magnolia’s first big solo, “Gallivantin’ Around,” turns out to be a comic blackface number with exaggerated dialect singing and Jolson-style eye-rolling and face-pulling. It’s absolutely right, however. Just because Magnolia’s love of black culture is genuine doesn’t mean it isn’t racist. Later, she explains to a nightclub owner that she sings “Negro songs.” A piano player (played by the songwriter and Bing Crosby pal Harry Barris) gives the game away by correcting her, and translating for his boss: “coon songs.”
The age-old problem with Show Boat is that the central love story, however charmingly portrayed, isn’t as interesting as the racial drama, and when the former is played out and the characters associated with that exit the film, interest can’t help but flag. You keep watching, however, to hear those great Jerome Kern songs. And because Hammerstein’s conception of love as a fragile thing unlikely to survive under even the best circumstances is so damn sincere; it runs through all of his work and is especially delicate here. Ravenal may indeed prove to be a miserable sonofabitch who abandons his wife and daughter, but when he returns at the end as a broken old man, you feel sorry for him—and want Magnolia to forgive him, too. (Especially because he doesn’t deserve it.)
The new transfer of Show Boat on this DVD is still a little bit rough. Maybe they’ll do a little more work on it for the eventual Blu-ray.
It will be worth it. Universal studio head Carl Laemmle was never happy with the part-talking version; his ’36 remake is one of the best do-overs in Hollywood history. That’s what makes it ironic that Show Boat’s high cost was one of contributing factors in Laemmle losing control of the studio he’d built a quarter-century earlier. Heckuva way to go, however.