BluRay/DVD Reviews

SHOW BOAT (Warner Archives)

By • May 22nd, 2014 •

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Having spooked 1930’s movie-goers with grunting monsters, an invisible man, and effeminate grave robbers, what would be next for director James Whale? Nobody would guess that Whale’s next film, and his personal favorite of all his films, would be a breezy, fun and inventive second adaptation of Edna Ferber’s uplifting and socially conscious musical SHOW BOAT.

SHOW BOAT’s main setting is the large paddleboat, “The Cotton Palace” which, in the 1890’s, travels the Mississippi River, putting on large, brassy stage shows. The shows are managed by care-free Captain Andy (Charles Winninger), who endures Parthy, his harpy, nagging wife. Despite Parthy’s objections, their eighteen-year-old daughter, Magnolia (Irene Dunne), joins the show. Magnolia and her best friend, Julie Laverne, who is also part of the show, endure massive hardships such as a failed marriage and racial discrimination. At the end, Magnolia survives all that is thrown at her and successfully returns to the stage.

SHOW BOAT’s original author – Edna Ferber, based much of her material on the true stories she got to know from “The James Adams Floating Palace Theatre,” a North Carolina riverboat theatre. Edna Ferber wished to create a document about the then vanishing riverboat theatre venue.

Ferber, with the help of Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern, put together SHOW BOAT as a musical, and convinced Florenz Ziegfeld, possibly the biggest Broadway Producer in the 1920’s, to bring it to the stage. Ziegfeld wrote: “This is the best musical comedy I have ever been fortunate to get a hold of; I am thrilled to produce it, this show is the opportunity of my life.” These are interesting words from a man who is most famous for his glam and leg-show Ziegfeld Follies. Ten years later, James Whale, another showman known for one particular genre, not only grasped SHOW BOAT, but created movie magic with it.

Like his horror classics, SHOW BOAT is alive with James Whale energy and rich detail. He wasn’t just concerned with getting the period costumes, and settings right. Whale successfully aimed for getting the period mindset right. Always the visual artist, Whale made Paul Robeson’s rendition of “Ol’ Man River” an expressionistic visual feast – showing us the hardships Robeson sings about. This musical number, which is about surviving life’s blows, serves as the nucleus of the film – Magnolia has to make it through so many of life’s obstacles, and come out rich with laughter. Robeson, who made the song famous and sang it throughout his life, amending the lyrics as he felt the times dictated, was reluctant to appear in the US version, but met and liked Whale, after which he agreed to do it.

It is ironic that Whale would make a musical about surviving hardships when his post-horror film career had so much trouble. Whale’s next film, THE ROAD BACK, was to be a seething anti-war drama (an unofficial sequel to ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT) but for various reasons, Universal yanked the film from Whale. His remaining few films lacked the spunk and energy of his horror films and SHOW BOAT.

SHOW BOAT had it’s own problems. In the 1940’s, MGM bought the rights to the film and withdrew it from circulation. This was to clear the path for their big Technicolor film version that would star Howard Keel and Ava Gardner. Whale’s film version would rarely show up until the mid 1980’s, where it was broadcast on PBS. Except for an occasional TCM showing, SHOWBOAT was a hard film to catch. Earlier this year, it became available on the Warner Home Video Archive Collection.

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