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With its 1951 remake of Show Boat, MGM added color and the genius ofArthur Freed's production unit to one of the greatest musicals of all time,a pioneering work in the integration of song and story. The production setnew standards for on-screen opulence, including the use of the largest andmost expensive prop in film history, the 170-foot-long, 57-foot-highCotton Blossom paddle wheeler.
MGM bought the rights to Show Boat in 1938, two years after theUniversal version with Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, Helen Morgan and PaulRobeson premiered. Originally, they had hoped to star their own singingscreen team, Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, but as the box-officereturns on the pair's films waned, those plans were dropped. ProducerArthur Freed maintained his interest in a new film version nonetheless. In1946, MGM financed a Broadway revival of the show. Then Freed included alengthy medley of songs from it in his 1947 musical biography of composerJerome Kern, Till the Clouds Roll By. Still, it would take anotherfive years to get the show back on the screen.
One of the problems was the book. Freed felt that it suffered from a lackof narrative interest. Turning to writer John Lee Mahin for help, hefinally decided that the story covered too much time. The show's lovers,Gaylord and Magnolia, were kept apart for decades and only reunited assenior citizens (in Edna Ferber's original novel, they never got backtogether at all). Mahin restructured the story so that they were reunitedwhile still young enough to enjoy a long life together. He also madeGaylord, the gambler turned actor turned gambler again, a more active,heroic character in the mold of the roles he had written for Clark Gable insuch films as Red Dust (1932) and Test Pilot (1938).
For the leads, Freed cast Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel, two classicallytrained singers who had already established a name for themselves in MGM'sslate of musicals. To play Joe, the ship's hand who sings "Ol' Man River,"Freed's musical assistant, Roger Edens, discovered the young classicalsinger William Warfield, who had never sung a popular song before.Originally, Freed wanted to beef up the role of Julie, the mulatto torchsinger, as a vehicle for Judy Garland. When she was fired from MGM in1950, however, they had to look elsewhere. Studio head Dore Scharypromised the role to Dinah Shore, but Freed convinced her that the publicwould never accept her as a woman who turns to prostitution. Lena Hornewas perfect for the role, but at the time her musical numbers were stillbeing cut from films in some southern states. Instead, director GeorgeSidney suggested Ava Gardner and shot a test of her performing to arecording of Horne singing "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man of Mine." Gardnerwasn't really interested in the role until she decided that she could singthe songs herself. Edens coached her endlessly on the numbers, which sherecorded, imitating Horne's earlier renditions. Just for insurance, theyalso recorded the numbers with Annette Warren, who had dubbed for Gardnerin the past. Julie's numbers were among the first shot for the film, andfor months executives couldn't decide whether to use Gardner's voice or theprofessional singer's. Finally, after a less-than-successful preview, theysettled on Warren's vocals, which then had to be re-recorded to matchGardner's on-screen performance. For the soundtrack album, they recordedthe tracks with Lena Horne, who was forced to imitate Gardner'sperformance. Then the legal department informed the studio that theycouldn't use Gardner's name and image on the album cover without includingher on the recording. So Gardner did a new version of the songs, imitatingHorne imitating Gardner imitating Horne. With careful tweaking in therecording studio, her vocals actually came out quite well, and shecollected a royalty on the soundtrack for the rest of her life.
Originally, the scenes involving the Cotton Blossom were to havebeen shot on location on the Mississippi. When production was scheduledfor the early winter, however, designer Jack Martin Smith figured out a way to use the studio's Tarzan Jungle Lake as the river, with the Natchez portbuilt along its shore. He then designed the massive ship, complete with 191/2-foot paddle wheels and two curving staircases leading to a staging areaon the front deck, for a cost of $125,000. The ship included engines tooperate the paddles and produce enough steam to flow from the smokestacksand power a calliope. When the smoke engines almost burned the ship downduring filming, it had to be re-constructed for an additional $67,000. Asimpressive as the Cotton Blossom was, it was also the film's majorhistorical inaccuracy. The original show boats, which began carryingentertainment to U.S. river towns in 1817, were actually barges without anyengines of their own. They required tugboats to pull them from town totown. To operate paddlewheels like those on the film's CottonBlossom would have required massive engines that would have left noroom for the ship's indoor theatre.
Fortunately for MGM, historians represent only a fraction of the movieaudience. Show Boat brought in almost $9 million at the box officeon an investment of $2.3 million. For years, the studio maintained theCotton Blossom as an attraction for visitors. When owner KirkKerkorian auctioned off MGM's properties and costumes in the early '70s,the ship was sold to the Worlds of Fun amusement park in Kansas City, whereit stood in a large pond until a few years ago, when the pond was drainedand the Cotton Blossom torn apart by bulldozers. But at least theship lives on in screenings of Show Boat as William Warfield singsan eternal paean to "Ol' Man River."
Producer: Arthur Freed
Director: George Sidney
Screenplay: John Lee Mahin
Based on the Musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II Based on theNovel by Edna Ferber
Cinematography: Charles Rosher
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Jack Martin Smith, Edwin B. Willis
Music: Adolph Deutsch, Conrad Salinger
Principal Cast: Kathryn Grayson (Magnolia Hawks), Ava Gardner (Julie LaVerne), Howard Keel (Gaylord Ravenal), Joe E. Brown (Capt. Andy Hawks), Marge Champion (Ellie May Shipley), Gower Champion (Frank Schulz), Robert Sterling (Stephen Baker), Agnes Moorehead (Parthy Hawks), William Warfield (Joe).
C-108m. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Frank Miller