• Show Boat

    By Miles Kreuger

    When Edna Ferber’s novel, Show Boat, was published in August 1926, little could she imagine that her story would become the basis for a 1927 Broadway musical play that would alter the entire course of musical theatre. The adaptation by composer Jerome Kern and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II broke fresh ground in countless ways.

    It was the first musical in which a leading character grew and matured before the audience’s eyes, as she faced the adversities of life; the first musical to present a panoramic history of America from the Mississippi levees of the 1880s to the Broadway of the 1920s; the first to depict alcoholism in a poignant, rather than a farcical manner; the first to deal with wife desertion, miscegenation, and the contrasting dreams and life styles of black and white people living side-by-side along the river.

    This revolutionary stage work, produced by the celebrated Florenz Ziegfeld, ran for more than 500 performances on Broadway and toured for a year. During that time, Universal Pictures made a silent film, based directly on the novel, with no reference to the show’s revision of the material at all. At the last minute, Universal wisely felt that the public of 1929 would demand to hear the now-popular songs from the show. Rights to the stage score were acquired from Ziegfeld, and songs were awkwardly grafted into the completed film. An accompanying prologue contained more songs, performed by their Broadway creators. This variant version of the movie was prepared for theatres wired for sound.

    Almost at once, Universal felt it would be necessary to refilm Show Boat as a pure musical, based directly on the stage masterpiece. Producer Carl Laemmle, Jr., went out of his way to hire as many original Ziegfeld players as he could, and even used the original Broadway orchestrator, Robert Russell Bennett, and conductor, Victor Baravalle, for musical authenticity.

    From the original Broadway cast, Charles Winninger re-creates his spirited performance as Cap’n Andy. Helen Morgan once again is the tragic Julie, the mulatto whose life withers away when she is deserted by her white husband. The singing comic Sammy White again plays Frank, the showboat troupe’s villain; and Francis X. Mahoney continues to astonish as a man with a rubber face.

    The film’s star, Irene Dunne, toured as Magnolia with the original stage company for a year; her leading man, Allan Jones, played Gaylord Ravenal in the St. Louis Municipal Opera; and Hattie McDaniel played Queenie in the 1933 West Coast production. The distinguished bass-baritone Paul Robeson first stunned audiences with “Ol’ Man River,” when he played Joe in London in 1928.

    In a story in which the interplay of characters is so crucial, this cast, long familiar with their roles, brings them to life so vividly one sometimes forgets that one is simply watching a movie. The viewer truly comes to care for these people as old, treasured friends.

    Although director James Whale is best remembered as Universal’s master of the horror film (Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man, Bride of Frankenstein), he also directed many dramas involving the subtle interplay of well-bred people of manners (The Kiss Before the Mirror, By Candlelight, One More River). Whale’s combined flair for the cinematic and visual daring of the first genre, and his delicate handling of dramatic situations in the latter, made him a natural choice as director for Show Boat. Aided by John J. Mescall’s probing camerawork and exquisite composition and lighting, Charles D. Hall’s evocative period settings, and Doris Zinkeisen’s witty costumes, Show Boat, more than any other movie musical of the 1930s, unfolds like the vision of America as seen on the pages of a well-worn family album.

    Show Boat‘s drama is deeply moving; its acting sensitive; and its songs among the finest ever composed for Broadway, including “Ol’ Man River,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” “Bill,” “You Are Love,” and “Make Believe.” In addition, the score to this 1936 film offers three original songs by Kern and Hammerstein: “Gallivantin’ Around,” “I Have the Room Above Her,” and “Ah Still Suits Me.” The score also features several authentic airs from the 1890s, including “After the Ball” and “Good-bye, Ma Lady Love.”

    For many years, this 1936 screen version of Show Boat was restricted from viewing. Now it is possible to own a glistening, complete print of a work that honors the twin media of musical theatre and musical film.

14 comments

  • By Bruce Brown
    April 14, 2009
    12:20 AM

    I am interested in obtaining a copy of the movie "showboat" the 1936 version. You previously released it on Laiserdisc. However I would like a copy on DVD. Is it available? or will it be available on the criterion label?
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  • By Joe Tucco
    April 22, 2009
    01:21 PM

    I loved the laser of this also. What happened to ShowBoat with emergence of DVD. Joe Tucci
    Reply
  • By E.W. Keane
    May 19, 2009
    09:24 AM

    The 1936 Show Boat is right at the top of my DVD want list, and the Cirterion Collection is my preferred source. I still treasure my Criterion laser disk version but eagerly await its appearance on DVD or, better yet, Blu-Ray.
    Reply
  • By Albert
    September 07, 2009
    02:07 PM

    I too am waiting for this, and I am frankly sick of all the delays. I am gradually building up a collection of all my favorite films, and it really irks me that my favorite version of my favorite musical is still not available on an authorized DVD . Just what is taking them so long? Why is it so easy for so many obscure films (like the "Forbidden Hollywood" collections) to be brought out on DVD, and for the 1936 "Show Boat", it seems to be taking forever? It's now late 2009, and there is still no word, just platitudinal reassurances from Turner and Warner Home Video that "it WILL happen". When?? When we're all old and gray???
    Reply
  • By Jim
    September 15, 2009
    11:56 PM

    maybe Warner Bros. will release it in their Warner Archives series. I would prefer a Criterion DVD edition also.
    Reply
  • By Muir H.
    February 13, 2010
    05:28 AM

    Slighty off topic , I would love Criterion to produce a Blu Ray transfer of James Whale's wonderful classic film The Bride Of Frankenstein , which this year reaches it's 75th Anniversary! It is a very special film which transcends it's "Horror" genre , and deserves a much better treatment than a regular Universal DVD , and only Criterion could do this title justice!! Franz Waxman's magnificent score , and the superb set designs , and quirky performances all deserve a pristine transfer from original elements , it's a scandal that Universal don't seem to be addressing in this major anniversary year!!
    Reply
  • By Miffed
    August 25, 2012
    02:17 PM

    It is ridiculous that this film hasn't been released. I have a feeling it's due to the minstrel scenes - but these are easily trumped by the depth, charisma and character that Paul Robeson and others bring to their portrayals. This nonsense has kept Song of the South from being released, while there are plenty of films out there where 5 minutes of nonsense (see some of Shirley Temple's films - especially the civil war era dramadies) are overlooked by the censors. There are films with horrible stereotypes (pop-eyed servants shivering in fear) available everywhere. And yet this high-quality film, featuring black actors, who like Louis Armstrong, transcend the material, is not available. I am not sure this is the reason, but what else could it be? James Whale's other films have been in DVD format for years. Whatever the case, this film deserves to be seen.
    Reply
  • By Still miffed - where's the film?
    August 25, 2012
    02:20 PM

    By "material" in the great L. Armstrong's case, I didn't mean Jazz. I meant Louis dressed in a caveman-type fur and playing his horn among falling soap bubbles. His music, of course, was brilliant.
    Reply
  • By UNIVERSALFANATIC
    September 13, 2013
    01:10 AM

    I found a mint 16mm version of this classic there is just no other way to see this film that only film can produce! LOVING THE CLASSICS THE WAY THEY WERE MEANT TO BE SEEN
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    • By Gord
      September 14, 2013
      08:53 AM

      Film is beautiful, but how's 16mm practical? I'm fine with film sensitively brought over to Blu-ray, but thanks for making as all feel inadequate. : )
  • By Albert
    December 07, 2013
    04:12 PM

    And now it's December 2013, and there's STILL no word of a DVD release of the 1936 version!!!
    Reply
  • By Jim Stewart
    February 25, 2014
    09:21 PM

    Go to Warner Archives, the 1936 version has just been released on DVD. I was hoping for a blu-ray or the long-promised box set of all three Show Boats, but...
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    • By Martin Postema
      April 04, 2014
      10:26 PM

      I wholeheartedly agree! A Criterion box with all 3 versions and all the extra's of the Laserdisc on Blu-ray. (And isn't the Warner Archive mainly DVD-R?)
  • By Doug
    June 16, 2014
    06:30 PM

    I'd like a copy of the 1951 technicolor version, mostly for the Marge and Gower Champion dance scenes. They were amazing dancers, and Gower was a great choreographer.
    Reply

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