powered by AFI
Show Boat, the story of life on a Mississippi riverboat, began as a novel by Edna Ferber in 1926. It was made into a Broadway musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II the following year, and a part-talkie film with a prologue of music from the show, in 1929. There were two versions of the musical, in 1936 and in 1951. But many think the 1936 Show Boat is the definitive film version.
By today's standards, Show Boat's handling of racial issues like miscegenation and the stereotypical "shiftless darkies" seem embarrassingly outdated; at the time, though, the warm friendship between Magnolia and Julie, the "tragic mulatto," was considered enlightened. And even today, Paul Robeson's dignified portrayal of Joe, and his powerful voice, still make a strong impression.
The son of a former slave, Robeson was a towering figure, both physically and intellectually. He won a scholarship to Rutgers University, where he was both an All-American football star, and a Phi Beta Kappa honors graduate. As a performer, he could handle Shakespeare and Eugene O'Neill as well as musicals. The producers of the original stage version of Show Boat wanted Robeson for the role of Joe, but he was unavailable, although he eventually played the part in London, and in the 1932 Broadway revival. Critics singled out his "Old Man River" as the highlight of the film.
Hattie McDaniel, who would later become the first African-American to win an Oscar (as best supporting actress for Gone With the Wind, 1939), also played a stereotype in Show Boat, as she did in many films. But as always, she played the comically domineering mammy-figure with spirit and style. Both she and Robeson, who played husband and wife, brought star quality to their subordinate roles.
Show Boat had the advantage of having several members of the original Broadway production in its cast. Helen Morgan as Julie, her voice tremulous with emotion, was deeply affecting in songs such as "Bill," and "Can't Help Loving Dat Man." Charles Winninger reprised his role of Captain Andy. And Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, and Hattie McDaniel had also played in various productions of the show. James Whale (Frankenstein, 1931) might have seemed an odd choice to direct, but critics praised his pacing, and his meticulous attention to detail. The result, as more than one critic pointed out, "is nothing less than splendid."
Producer:Carl Laemmle Jr.
Screenplay:Edna Ferber (novel), Oscar Hammerstein II
Cinematography:John J. Mescall
Music:Robert Russell Bennett, Jerome Kern
Art Direction:Charles D. Hall
Principle Cast:Irene Dunne (Magnolia Hawks), Allan Jones (Gaylord Ravenal), Charles Winninger (Cap╒n Andy Hawks), Paul Robeson (Joe), Helen Morgan (Julia La Verne), Helen Westly (Parthy Hawks)
BW-115m. Closed Captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri