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
...but frustrating if judged as a talkie. I use the term "talkie" in the loosest of terms, because very few talking passages survive. In a tragic reverse of what is the case of many dawn of sound era films, the video film elements for this movie largely remain and do so in good quality, and the talking and singing passages largely do not. For example, you can find CDs of the entire soundtrack of 1929's Gold Diggers of Broadway - minus a very little - but it is the film itself that no longer exists with the exception of two reels. We owe this to the durability of Vitaphone discs and to the throw-away attitude that the film industry had towards these early talking and part-talking experiments.
There is a prologue at the beginning of the film in which stars from the Ziegfeld production do numbers from the musical, and the video portion of that is lost. Then the first half of the film is largely silent with synchronized sound effects. The second half of the film was largely synchronized dialogue, but the audio portion has been largely lost. All that remains where there is both video and dialogue are two short scenes between romantic leads Laura LaPlante (as Magnolia) and Joseph Schildkraut (as Gaylord Ravenal). Notice that the film has Ms. LaPlante billed ahead of the now well-known Schildkraut. LaPlante was a big star at Universal at the time having starred in films such as "The Cat and the Canary".
This incarnation of "Show Boat" differs from the 1936 and 1951 versions in big ways besides just the technical aspects. For one, a large portion of this film is devoted to the disintegration of the Ravenal marriage after the couple leave the Show Boat. Also, Julie is only a passing figure in this film, and Captain Andy has a completely different fate than in the latter two films.
In spite of all the odd decisions - to put the musical numbers associated with Ziegfeld in as a prologue, and to make this musical a part-talkie with non-musical stars in the first place, the film made money for Universal, largely outside the big cities where people had not seen Ziegfeld's Broadway version. In short, this is an example of a film that was dated in technique as soon as it was made, but was rushed out the door in order to cash in on the dawn of sound in motion pictures.
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