The film begins with Magnolia, daughter of Captain Andy Hawks and his domineering wife Parthy, enjoying her childhood aboard her father's show boat. Parthy, irritated over the supposed influence of leading lady Julie (Magnolia's idol and best friend) fires her, despite her husband's objections. Many years later, Magnolia is a young woman and becomes a leading lady. Her leading man is Gaylord Ravenal, a riverboat gambler with whom she falls in love and elopes. But the sudden and unexpected death of Captain Andy forces the couple to leave the boat and move to Chicago rather than endure the disapproving Parthy, and Ravenal's gambling luck soon runs out. Then, Parthy announces she's coming to visit. Written by
Albert Sanchez Moreno
Part silent, part talkie version of the Ferber novel.
TCM has "restored" this hybrid film from existing parts and it is this record that I am reviewing. The film began as a silent version of the Ferber novel, was pulled and made a part-talkie with a singing prologue, a ten minute two-scene initial talkie sequence, and an extended, many scene twenty minute plus sequence later in the picture. There was a continuous musical score/sound effects soundtrack that played under the silent scenes. TCM has restored two out of the three songs (from the musical play version) sung in the prologue; however the pictorial material is lost so an "OVERTURE" placard is used for the visuals. (Heard are Tess Gardella singing "Hey, Fella" and Helen Morgan singing "Bill." Lost is Jules Bledsoe singing "Old Man River."
The first talking sequence involves two scenes - the marriage proposal on stage during the "Parson" play and the following elopement. The second talking sequence begins when Magnolia berates Ravenal for their fallen state,and goes on to add a montage where he goes to get money, his drunken return with the money, her visit to the bordello run by Hetty Chilson to return the money, recognizing Hetty as her former friend, Julie Dozier, Julie's reaction, Magnolia's return to find Ravenal gone and her mother waiting to say "I told you so," Magnolia's attempt to find work, her eventual success and triumphant performance with Ravenal watching from the audience in tears - of this only the first few minutes survive. The extended silence is played out with the addition of subtitles for half of the material to let us know what the characters are saying.
An "Exit" card at the conclusion is supported by someone singing "Why Do I Love You?" The only song from the musical play used in the background scoring is "Old Man River."
The film is basically a triangle between the young lovers, and the disapproving mother, Parthy. As played by the dour and grim Emily Fitzroy, she is a statue of coldness and mean-heartedness. Laura LaPlante and Joseph Schildkraut act very well and naturally as Magnolia and Ravenal. Their story goes on a bit too long in the second half - one gets bored - but if there had been no musical play version, this would have looked very well with nothing to compare it to.
Still the most exciting sequence as in all three versions is the arrival of the Show Boat in the opening scenes.
This is definitely a curio but worth preserving to give us a third view of the same material in film terms and to see and hear the narrative apart from the now overly familiar Kern-Hammerstein score.
Very worth seeking out for at least one viewing.
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