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.