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Onscreen credits incorrectly spell actor Leif Erickson's name as "Lief." Edna Ferber's novel Show Boat was serialized in Woman's Home Companion (Apr-August 1926). M-G-M's plan to film an adaptation of Show Boat was publicized as early as June 1942. According to news items in Hollywood Reporter in June and July 1942, Oscar Hammerstein, II had planned to direct a revival of the play to feature M-G-M's popular operetta stars Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, and the studio was planning to buy the film rights from Universal. Zeke Colvan was also said to be staging the revival and possible film.
In December 1943, a Hollywood Reporter news item announced that Kathryn Grayson was "likely" to play "Magnolia Hawks," and by May 1944, a Hollywood Reporter news item announced that producer Arthur Freed had chosen Judy Garland for the part of "Julie LaVerne." In December 1945, a Hollywood Reporter news item noted that production was set to begin in mid-summer with Walter Huston in the role of "Cap'n Andy." According to a December 1949 Daily Variety news item, Ethel Barrymore, who was originally slated to play the role of "Parthy," had to withdraw because of a previous commitment. Mildred Natwick was then considered for that part. Eddie Foy, Jr. was a candidate for the role of "Capt. Andy" according to the same news item.
A 1950 New York Times news item noted that M-G-M would go ahead with its plans to include the miscegenation aspect of the story, despite objections from the PCA, which explicitly forbade the depiction of miscegenation. The news item indicated that M-G-M planned to defend its decision by pointing to the precedent set by the PCA in allowing the subject to remain in the 1936 film adaptation of Show Boat. According to a February 22, 1950 news item in Daily Variety, an additional problem was caused by a revision in Garland's contract, which allowed her four months off between films and would delay production until August 1950.
According to a Hollywood Reporter news item, director George Sidney was to appear in his first bit role in the film, playing a card player, but his appearance in the released film has not been confirmed. A October 25, 1950 Hollywood Reporter news item announced Adrienne Fazan as the picture's editor, but Fazan was not listed in any other source. Another news item indicated that rehearsals for the film began on October 26, 1950. Studio publicity material contained in the file for the film in the AMPAS Library noted that some "atmospheric shots" were filmed on location in Natchez, MS. A November 1950 New York Times article indicates that a $100,000 replica of the Cotton Blossom was constructed on the M-G-M backlot and placed in the studio's 1,200-foot river. A 1972 Daily Variety news item noted that the replica, which was used in more than twenty films following Show Boat, was sold in an auction to a Kansas City company that planned to display it at a recreation center. The film was nominated for Academy Awards in the categories of Cinematography and Music Score.
A November 30, 1981 article in People magazine contains a statement by African-American actress and former M-G-M contract player Lena Horne in which she claimed that she was passed over for the role of Julie, which eventually went to Ava Gardner. Horne played the role in a segment of the 1947 M-G-M film Till the Clouds Roll By, along with Grayson, who appeared as Magnolia (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1941-50), and commented on her experience in the 1994 documentary That's Entertainment III. In a December 19, 1981 letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times, George Sidney denied Horne's claim, stating that he tested only Gardner and Dinah Shore for the role. Sidney did note, however, that he used a recording of Horne's voice for playback purposes during Gardner's screen test.
The 1952 picture, which was restored by Turner Entertainment in 1991, marked the third motion picture adaptation of Ferber's Show Boat. The previous versions, both produced by Universal Pictures, were the 1929 adaptation, directed by Harry A. Pollard and starring Laura La Plante and Joseph Schildkraut; and the 1936 picture, directed by James Whale and starring Helen Morgan (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30 and 1931-40). Included among the many stage revivals of Show Boat are: the 1928 London production starring Cedric Harwicke, Colin Clive and Paul Robeson, the 1946 Broadway production starring Buddy Ebsen and January Clayton, and the 1994 Broadway production directed by Harold Prince and starring John McMartin and Elaine Stritch.