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This film's title card reads "Edna Ferber's Show Boat." Ferber's novel was serialized in Woman's Home Companion (Apr-August 1926). Many actors from the 1927 Florenz Ziegfeld-produced Broadway musical recreated their roles for the film, including Charles Winninger, Helen Morgan, Francis X. Mahoney, and Sammy White, who made his film debut in this production. According to modern sources, Paul Robeson was originally wanted for the role of "Joe" in the 1927 stage version but was unavailable. He did, however, appear in the 1928 London production with Cedric Hardwicke and Colin Clive, and the 1932 Ziegfeld Broadway revival. "Ol' Man River" later became Robeson's signature song. Irene Dunne, Allan Jones and Hattie McDaniel also starred in earlier productions.
This film was the last feature presented by Universal president and founder Carl Laemmle, who then sold his interest in the company to J. Cheever Cowdin and Charles R. Rogers. Hollywood Reporter announced on October 12, 1935 that Universal was negotiating with M-G-M to borrow Dave Gould to stage the dances in this film, however, LeRoy Prinz was eventually hired. According to the Call Bureau Cast Service, Prinz also appeared in the film in the role of a dance director. In 1933, Universal began negotiating for Winninger and Robeson to appear in this film. According to a modern source, production was originally planned for 1933 under Frank Borzage's direction, with a script by Jo Swerling. Dunne, Winninger, Robeson and Russ Columbo were set to star. Reportedly, in 1935, initial screenplays by Zo Akins were scrapped, and the final shooting script was completed by Oscar Hammerstein II. Akins is listed as contributing writer in Universal production files at the USC Cinema-Television Library. According to Daily Variety, this film started production on December 9, 1935 without a male lead. Wilbur Evans, John Boles, Michael Bartlett and Francisco Del Campo were still being considered for the role of "Ravenal" as of 6 Dec. Universal had hoped to borrow Nelson Eddy from M-G-M, but negotiations fell through. According to a news item in Film Daily on December 16, 1935, three hundred African-American actors were used in this production. Cameraman Alan Jones is not to be confused with actor Allan Jones.
In an interview in the New York Times on May 17, 1936, Irene Dunne said she regretted that her rendition of the song "Why Do I Love You?," sung during an automobile ride on a bumpy road, was cut from the film; her location rendition was much too "jerky," while her studio performance was much too smooth to match the scene. "Why Do I Love You?" remains in the film's orchestral background, however. Dunne made a personal appearance at the film's opening at the Radio City Music Hall in New York on May 14, 1936. The songs "I Have the Room Above Her," "Gallivantin' Around" and "Ah Still Suits Me" were original songs written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II for the film. According to a modern source, "Got My Eye on You" and "Negro Peanut Vendor's Street Cry," also written by Kern and Hammerstein for the film, were not used.
Modern sources also claim that W. C. Fields was considered for the role of "Cap'n Andy Hawks." Modern sources list Leon Shamroy as an uncredited cinematographer. Irene Dunne and Charles Winninger performed a radio version of Show Boat in a Lux Radio Theatre broadcast on June 24, 1940. Universal made a 1929 adaptation of the Ferber story, directed by Harry A. Pollard and starring Laura La Plante and Joseph Schildkraut. In 1951, M-G-M made a feature version of Show Boat, directed by George Sidney, that starred Kathryn Grayson, Ava Gardner, Howard Keel and Joe E. Brown (see below)