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This is not a musical. This is a film. James Whale's visual expressionism
and the truly remarkable performances he coached from his actors is what
makes SHOW BOAT a great movie. As an historical record, this SHOW BOAT is
nearest to the Ferber novel as well as the Ziegfeld stage production, using
several members of the original and / or London cast. The evocative tone
the film, bringing alive the seedy rural Mississippi River towns, coupled
with the natural and subtle acting jobs, make this film real to the touch.
Yes, MGM's production is more opulent, with more modern orchestrations and
stronger vocals on the part of Gay and Magnolia. Even William Warfield is
more polished than Paul Robeson. And that's the trouble. That performance
belongs in an opera house. Universal's 1936 SHOW BOAT is musical realism.
As for the cultural aspects, blackface happened. Get over it. So did
rampant racism; and the misegenation aspects of the script are dealt with
frankly and brutally. I know of precious few films of the thirties that
were so bold in their statements regarding racial intolerance. And don't
think Whale was oblivious to the fact that he was placing one infraction
side-by-side with another. It is the perfect unmasking of the hypocrisy of
racism - you can make yourself up to look like a nigger; but don't dare
marry one or carry a drop of one's blood in your veins or let a real one on
the same stage with a white actor.
Why is "Bill" so powerful? Listen to the second chorus. Victor Baravelle brings in high sustained strings. Whale cuts to the old charwomen halting in their work, stopping to listen, wiping away an unwanted tear with an apron.
SHOW BOAT 1936 pulls no punches. It's a masterpiece.
When we talk about adaptions of Show Boat for the screen, we talk first
about this one and then the others. If for no other reason than it
gives us a chance to see three of the original performers from the
original Broadway cast, Charles Winninger, Helen Morgan, and Francis X.
Mahoney. Their performances on stage and on the screen became career
roles for each.
Also Allan Jones and Irene Dunne are as perfect a Gaylord Ravenal and Magnolia Hawkes as you'll ever find. Irene was THE Jerome Kern girl on the silver screen, she was lucky to be in three musical adaptions of his shows, this one and Roberta and Sweet Adeline. His songs and her voice seem to be made for each other.
Ravenal's part is one of the most difficult to do in musicals. In the 1951 Show Boat Howard Keel sang wonderfully, but he projects too strong an image for the part. Gaylord Ravenal is a charming, but a very weak character. Allan Jones was the one who really got it right and it's on Ravenal's performance that the whole plot of the show turns on. He really rings true in Hattie McDaniel's assessment of him as the kind of gentlemen it's a pleasure to wait on.
James Whale as director really captures the spirit of 20 years on each side of the turn of the last century with warts and all. Show Boat as a play was bold in its day in tackling racism and miscegenation. Even when this was produced first in 1927 there were still miscegenation laws on the books. He gave Helen Morgan the career role she was most identified with.
Helen Morgan personified the phrase torch singer. From 1927 until this film she had descended into alcoholism and five years from this film she would have passed away from the effects of same. She had a career in Hollywood as well as Broadway and this was her final effort. How fortunate we are to have a filmed record of her performance and her singing of Can't Help Lovin' That Man and Bill.
Ravenal and Magnolia are given three great ballads to sing, classics all, Make Believe and You Are Love and Why Do I Love You. The first two are sung by Jones and Dunne and the third was eliminated from the film although it is heard on the soundtrack. Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein wrote another song I Have the Room Above which is also a most charming duet.
Of course no discussion of Show Boat is complete without Paul Robeson and Ol' Man River. Believe it or not Robeson wasn't in the original Broadway cast. The Broadway opening was delayed and Robeson had some other contractual commitments in 1927. Another black baritone concert singer named Jules Bledsoe introduced Ol' Man River, arguably the greatest song Jerome Kern ever wrote. It became a signature song for Paul Robeson in both stage performances of Show Boat and in this film. His presence in singing Ol' Man River is another reason for this being the greatest Show Boat of all.
Robeson also has a duet with Hattie McDaniel in I Still Suits Me another song Kern and Hammerstein wrote for this film. It's a nice comedy duet. In fact I would say that Show Boat and Annie Get Your Gun are the two shows with the most hit songs in them ever written.
Show Boat is a grand American classic. Somewhere as I write this review there is a company performing right now on this planet. It will be so for generations to come.
What an exquisite and enjoyable film! Along with "The Great Garrick"(1937),
"The Old Dark House"(1932) and "The Bride of Frankenstein"(1935), "Show
Boat" is one of James Whale's loveliest and most enduring classics. By far,
the best "Show Boat" ever captured on film. The plush 1951 MGM remake is a
cartoon by comparison.
Like Whale's "The Great Garrick," the film is a delicate, self-reflexive study about the entrancing possibilities of the theater, or for that matter acting. Acting as a metaphor for life. One of delights of "Show Boat" is that it does not avoid depicting either the joy of make-belief (the basis of the theater) or its inevitable heartbreak. In this regard, it invites comparison to Jean Renoir's exquisite "French Cancan"(1955), another back stage musical that understands, accepts, and celebrates the difficulties and ultimately the magic of the theater.
In addition to being an honest and frank celebration of miscegenation, "Show Boat" is also a genuinely felt evocation of a stage actress (wonderfully played by Irene Dunne in one of her greatest performances ever), who goes from a stagestruck teen to a mature woman seriously dealing with the consequences of a marriage to a gambler(played by the occasionally bland Allan Jones).
Paul Robeson's extraordinary, melodious rendition of "Ol' Man River" is the highlight of the film, occasioning in great and inventive montage sequence.
A great film.
Sadly not available yet on DVD, the classic black-and-white 1936
version of the seminal 1927 Oscar Hammerstein-Jerome Kern musical is
rarely seen these days since it's been overshadowed by the far more
elaborate 1951 MGM color remake (which is on DVD). That's a shame since
this one is like a piece of cameo jewelry from a bygone era, a
sublimely entertaining piece of Americana so naïve in its approach that
its pervasive use of racial stereotypes comes across more as quaint
Directed by James Whale (the protagonist of 1998's "Gods and Monsters" and most famous for his 1931 classic, "Frankenstein"), it's a multi-generational story that starts with the Hawks family who runs a variety entertainment showboat in the 1880's. The jovial Captain Andy is the boat's impresario who is constantly goaded by his mean-spirited wife Parthy. They have a musically inclined daughter Magnolia who is best friends with the show's star, mulatto chanteuse Julie LaVerne. The local sheriff forces Julie out of the show for being half-black. Andy has Magnolia take her place just as gambler Gaylord Ravenal comes to town and becomes recruited as the show's leading man. Gaylord and Magnolia fall immediately in love, marry, move to Chicago and have a girl they named Kim. There, he gains and loses a fortune and then leaves Magnolia and Kim. Over the years, Magnolia becomes a big stage star and passes the torch to Kim.
The music, of course, is unbeatable with standards, chief among them "Make Believe", "Can't Help Lovin' That Man" and "You Are Love". Even though Irene Dunne was in her late thirties when she made this film, she amazingly gets away with the first half where she plays Magnolia as an ingénue. What's more, she was the rare actress who could act and sing (quite beautifully) at the same time, even when she is required to perform in blackface in "Gallivantin' Around". Allan Jones is a fine singer as Gaylord, though not as interesting an actor especially in the second half when misfortune takes over. When they sing "You Are Love" together, it's still quite magical.
What a treat to be able to see the redoubtable Paul Robeson as Joe singing "Ol' Man River" so powerfully (and filmed with an intriguing montage of woeful images), as well as legendary torch singer Helen Morgan play Julie and perform her signature song, "Bill", so touchingly. Familiar character actor Charles Winninger probably has his best role as Captain Andy, while Hattie McDaniel plays Joe's forceful wife Queenie in a performance as good as her Mammy in "Gone With the Wind". The film is really an intriguing mix of melodrama and great music with socially relevant observations regarding racism, alcoholism and gambling addiction.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I had seen the 1951 version of Show Boat many times and I liked the
movie a lot. Then, when I was about 30, I finally saw the Whale version
of Show Boat and it was a revelation.
The '51 version has a much bigger budget and more sophisticated production values than the '36 version AND it boasted the talents of the incomparable Marge and Gower Champion and Joe E. Brown BUT...
The 1936 version is superior as both a movie and as a musical. While Ava Gardener is fine as Julie in the '51 version she is a poor second to the immortal Helen Morgan in the same role, a role which she had played, to great acclaim, on Broadway. Morgan IS Julie, world weary and melancholy yet determined to press on. It is a performance so charismatic that, once seen, cannot be forgotten. The same can be said for a very young Irene Dunne's effortless turn as Magnolia, the show's central character.
And what can be said of the great Paul Robeson that hasn't already been said? His "Ol Man River" is, quite simply, one of the best performances in the history of film or Broadway. The quality of his performance cannot be described - it must be seen and heard. Splendid and magnificent and so much more, Robeson will "own" that song forevermore. Oscar Hammerstein himself said that Robeson had taken the song away from him and had given it to the ages. One could not have higher praise than that.
Still, the movie isn't perfect. It suffers from the rewrite necessary to remove the more salient script points of the Broadway production that were forced upon the producers. Remember, this was 1936 and race relations were almost a taboo subject. That the "myscegenation" (race mixing) scene is almost wholly intact is a miracle. That much of the play's other less subtle references to race were left out is a shame but understandable given the times. And, it must be said, the 1936 production is FAR bolder than the 1951 version.
All movie versions suffer when compared against the Kern/Hammerstein original and they (both the play and the movies) are a far cry from Edna Ferber's wonderful but overwritten book. See the movie for what it is - the best that could be done in 1936 AND a showcase for two of the most remarkable talents in the history of entertainment, Paul Robeson and Helen Morgan.
I was too young to see this version until well after the 1951 one had
fixed a certain standard in my brain. It took a TCM rerun to open my
eyes. Mind you, I still like the 1951 production very well indeed, but
there is a depth of story, song, and character in this one that makes
it overall the better of the two (and the "best" of a larger lot).
First, you have Paul Robeson and Helen Morgan. Both are icons who needed no dubbing no matter where or when they sang standards like "Old Man River" and "Just My Bill." Then there is Hattie McDaniel in a role largely skipped in the 1951 movie. And a greater selection of minor songs prevails as well. Indeed, the inclusion of many black people who are missing from the later film give it a unique richness.
Black and white never looked so good.
The BEST version ever of the musical. It follows a show boat and the family
that runs it through three generations concentrating on Magnolia (Irene
Dunne) and her husband Ravenel (Allen Jones).
Some people have complained that Dunne's high-pitched singing voice is TOO high-pitched...they're not completely wrong. Still she sings in tune and her "Make Believe" duet with Jones is just great. Actually all the songs are great and belted out by the cast--highlights are "Can't Help Lovin' That Man", "Bill" and the great Paul Robeson doing "Old Man River". The movie also is very faithful to the stage play--it has almost all the songs and manages to fit a 3 hour play into a 2 hour film. The last section with Kim seems rushed but that's understandable.
Dunne is just great as Magnolia--very sweet and lovable. The only strange point is her dancing to "Can't Help..."--the dress is way too constricting and she has a strange look on her face. Jones is wooden but but has a wonderful singing voice. Helen Morgan was taken from the stage show to recreate Julie. She stops the movie TWICE with "Can't Help..." and "Bill". She has a beautiful voice and is a superb actress. Her character disappears completely halfway through...but it's the same in the stage play. In the book her character ends up working in a house of prostitution--there was NO way they could have gotten that on the screen back in 1936! Everybody else is great and the movie moves very quickly.
It's much better than the 1950s version. The 50s version IS in color and opens with a great number...but most of the singing is overdubbed, the story is brutally cut down and "Can't Help..." is thrown away!
This has it all over that one. Also director James Whale reportedly liked this one above all his other films--he did a few other little films like "Frankenstein" and "Bride of Frankenstein"! Beautiful songs, some truly lovely photography (the moonlight scenes on top of the showboat are dreamlike) and a quick story. Just simply one of the great Hollywood musicals. A must see!
The Paul Robeson and chorus rendition of Old Man River has to be
without a doubt the greatest single rendition of one song in the
history of Hollywood musicals. And what makes it even more impressive
is that the number was directed by a director who had made his
reputation directing monster movies. Of course, the name of the
director was the iconic James Whale. So remarkable was his career that
in 1998 a movie was made about him. Great song, great director, great
performers, great everything, it all came together in the production of
After watching a myriad of current Hollywood special effects potboilers I needed to recover so I watched the 1936 movie Show Boat. Oh my, how movies have changed. This movie has to be the best musical Hollywood ever produced, and for a potboiler factory like Hollywood, that's saying a lot. That Hollywood was able to put together such a great movie is proof that there was a time when Hollywood could produce a commercially viable product that did not sacrifice, or rather completely trash, artistic quality. If Hollywood tried to make this musical today, it would be a laughable joke, a fiasco, a travesty, an embarrassment, and why? Not because of the lack of talented performers because they are out there, and not because of the lack of talented musical arrangers and choreographers, because they're out there, but because the production crew itself would want to "modernize" the story and render it almost unrecognizable from the original when in fact the story itself is timeless. Could Hollywood recreate the "Ol' Man River" number? The answer is YES, but it won't happen and that's too bad because the talent is out there but will never be showcased. But there's always the 1936 version ... the best musical ever made by Hollywood.
The 1936 movie Show Boat is arguably the finest musical ever produced by Hollywood. Not only does the movie contain an impressive array of wonderful and entertaining musical numbers, the acting is is excellent and the story compelling. All the performers are impressive. Irene Dunne, Helen Morgan, Alan Jones, Charles Winninger, Hattie McDaniel, Sammy White and all the others are excellent. But especially impressive is Paul Robeson, particularly Robeson's classic rendition of "Ol' Man River." Although cast in a supporting role, Robeson's presence nonetheless dominates the movie. "Show Boat" is definitely worth watching, and although the movie candidly deals with serious social issues, it's still a movie for the entire family.
A few further comments about the scene with Paul Robeson singing "Ol' Man River." This version of "Ol' Man River" has to be one of the greatest, if not THE greatest, single musical piece ever filmed by a Hollywood studio. What's also remarkable is that the movie was produced and directed by James Whale, a former British POW with no previous experience in making movie musicals. It just proves that when given the chance and the encouragement people can excel and do great things.
There are a couple of famous, great songs in the opening 15 minutes of
this film that hooked me in to watch the entire two-hour film.
I don't think the two-hour production ever wound up matching those early minutes but I still enjoyed it enough to give it "8 stars." Also, I still think it's better than the more-famous 1951 color re-make. It's a shame this 1936 film is not available on DVD, at least at this point here in the U.S.
Funny, but I did not particularly care for the two leading actors voices - Irene Dunne and Allan Jones. They are just two high-pitched for my tastes. I preferred the deep voice of Paul Robeson and was pleasantly surprised how well Hatie McDaniel sang.
The fun part of the film, however, wasn't the music but the story. It's pretty entertaining and a key reason for that was Charles Winniger, who keeps it alive with good humor. All the characters, except for Helen Westley's, are "good guys." and nice to follow. The story has a good mixture of drama, humor, sadness, sentimentality and song.
Also, there is some nice closeup photography with some great facial expressions. Some just make you laugh right out loud.
I am in agreement with those who think "Show Boat" was the best-ever and very good feel-good film.
James Whale's outstanding 1936 film version of "Show Boat" is indeed a musical film that others must aspire to.His slick direction brings out not only the pathos of the piece,but the humor and dramatic chemistry as well.As with most screen adaptations of Broadway musicals there are some missing songs.Most sorely missed is Ravanal's stirring 'Till Good Luck Comes My Way" and Queenie's haunting "Misery's Comin Around",but even with these omissions its a great film.
Hammerstein's script is full of meaning and power.The cast is up for the chalanging subject matter. Original broadway cast members Charles Winninger as Capn Andy and Helen Morgan as Julie along with the London Joe,the legendary Paul Robeson, win best of film honors. Winninger's Andy is full of comedic humor well balanced with quiet tenderness.Morgan as Julie,although past her prime still commands the stage emotionally as the tragic Julie, and Robeson gives us a well layered performance as the easy going,but wise Joe. His "Old Man River" still sends chills down one's spine.
The rest of the cast is no less polished. Allan Jones and Irene Dunne as the central figures,Ravanal and Nola create a wondeful bond. their chemistry,both vocal and emotional is right on the mark.Hattie McDaniel is a delightful Queenie and shines in her partnership with Robeson (particularly in their duet,'Ah Still Suits Me").
The themes of Hammersteins' script still are valid today,Racisim,Spousal abandonment,Bigotry and Financial Hardship. This is what makes this film a classic.It still has something to say in today's so called "advanced" society.
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