Show Boat (1936)

[box cover]With James Whale's Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein now on DVD from Universal, a new generation of film fans have been exposed to the director's well-regarded expressionist style, along with his unusual sense of wit. However, Whale never really wanted to be known as a horror director — in fact, the Englishman was originally brought to Hollywood by Universal because of his reputation as a stage director. It was only after the two Frankenstein films that Whale got his opportunity to return to his theatrical roots, directing the 1936 Show Boat, a landmark American musical that reveals how capable he was in virtually any genre. Based on the Broadway musical of the same name by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II (Hammerstein also handled the screenplay here), Show Boat broke ground in depression-era, segregated America by utilizing a cast of black and white actors and giving both groups substantial amounts of screen-time. The story follows a loosely-knit clan of actors and stagehands on a Mississippi riverboat who ply their theatrical trade up and down the river during the summer, but when Magnolia (Irene Dunne), the captain's daughter, marries smooth talking, free-gambling Gaylord Ravenal (Allan Jones), the family's fortunes take a turn for the worse, as Gaylord abandons his new bride and child in Chicago and the shy Magnolia must turn to the big-city stage to survive. While elements of Show Boat are overly melodramatic (and the tacked-on conclusion is a wretched cliché), the many musical numbers are all stand-outs, and especially those by Paul Robeson, Hattie McDaniel (Gone With The Wind), and Helen Morgan, all of whom helped make songs such as "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," "Ol' Man River," and "Bill" staples of American musical theater. In fact, the performances are so good, and each character is so well-defined, that even an old-fashioned minstrel show (Dunne actually performs a song in blackface) can't discredit the overall production.

Three versions of Show Boat have been filmed: the James Whale version from 1936, a Technicolor production in 1951 (starring Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel), and a very early talkie back in 1929. We're partial to the Whale version, and while it's not currently on disc, it appears that Warner recently acquired the rights from MGM, so a new DVD could appear in the next year or so. The 1951 version is already on disc from MGM. As for the 1929 edition, that isn't on home video anywhere, and not because there's no market for it — it was lost many years ago, and it probably will never be recovered.

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