Show Boat: Rollin’ on the River

Everybody loves Show Boat, but where is the love for the woman whose name alone sits above the title in James Whale’s dazzling 1936 film version? Edna Ferber was a best-selling novelist for decades, and in her peak years also a thriving playwright, memoirist, and Algonquin kibitzer, who noted of the clubby socializing at the Lindbergh kidnapping trial, “It made you want to resign as a member of the human race and cable Hitler saying, ‘Well, Butch, you win.’” Now her name epitomizes a type of writer who once commanded the masses but no longer need bother us, as, for example, she bothered Dorothy Parker, who observed of “America’s most successful writeress”: “I understand Ferber whistles at her typewriter.” Neglected in every serious chronicle of American fiction, she is shrugged off with a disdain not unlike that which Ferber herself reserved for her rival, the other Jewish midwestern woman with a pipeline linking typewriter and Hollywood, Fannie Hurst. They were exact contemporaries (1885–1968), with analogous leftish sympathies, implacable feminist perspectives, devoted audiences, and a parched posterity. Edna and Fannie: Shall we now take them seriously?

Maybe just Edna. Parker conceded of Hurst’s early work, “she has written nothing that has not, in some degree, moved me,” while duly detailing her “sedulously torturous style,” which is now all but unbreachable. Ferber, in her best work (Gigolo, So Big, Show Boat), has a reportorial ear and eye, and the saving grace of knowing, and letting us know that she knows, when she is getting stagy and sweet. At any rate, not the least virtue of fiction is an awareness of the times and the roots of their discord, and in an era when lynching was not uncommon, when the Harlem Renaissance liberated black voices and William Faulkner struggled to find his own white, southern one, when the economy went boom before it went bust, Ferber (Show Boat, 1926) and Hurst (Imitation of Life, 1933) explored the fragility of racial identity amid the contradictions of minstrelsy (whites pretending to be black) and Jim Crow laws (whites terrified of black contamination) that made America America. By contrast, white male novelists crossed the racial divide with a Zolaesque presumption: DuBose Heyward’s Porgy (1925) dramatizing black life in a Charleston, South Carolina, tenement beset by violence (the stuff of opera); Carl Van Vechten sensationalizing Harlem with more violence and an unmentionable title (Nigger Heaven, 1926). In Show Boat, Ferber found a rich and unexplored setting, a disciplined thematic structure, and a suitable style for a multigenerational melodrama that unfolds in a world of theatrical melodrama and, not so incidentally, illuminates the transformational gift of black music.

She got the idea after bats disrupted an out-of-town tryout for a play of hers, when the producer quipped that he would test their next production on a showboat, drifting through the river towns. Ferber asked him what a showboat was. During the next two years, she researched and wrote her novel, touring the South and living on a showboat but, by all accounts, never actually visiting the Mississippi. Yet she created the most memorable account of its quiescent and tumultuous waters since Mark Twain. Jerome Kern, reading the novel with mounting inspiration, arranged to meet Ferber to tell her he wanted to adapt it for the stage. When she expressed disbelief that a chronicle spanning nearly half a century—one largely set on a barge, involving miscegenation and the misdeeds and deaths of most of the male characters—could be turned into a Broadway musical, a field dominated by farce and revue, he assured her that his librettist, Oscar Hammerstein II, would figure it out.

“Today, the film unfolds as a succession of delights—an exemplary transference from one medium to another medium to another medium, and likely the best Show Boat ever.”

Show Boat, produced by Florenz Ziegfeld at his eponymous Broadway theater, opened, after a month of tryouts, in the last week of 1927 and was a sensation: 572 performances, followed by a yearlong tour and a 1928 London production, with Paul Robeson taking the part of Joe, which had been written for him (prior commitments prevented his originating it in New York). It was celebrated as a revolutionary work, a serious musical play rather than the standard musical comedy, revue, or operetta. But it was nonetheless a product of its time. William G. Hyland’s assessment (in his 2003 George Gershwin biography) of Show Boat as “the culmination of an era rather than a new breakout” has merit. Gershwin called it “the finest light-opera achievement in the history of American music,” and the parentage of Victor Herbert and his generation is unmistakable, especially in the love duets. Interpolated songs not composed for a given show also represented a fading tradition; it is hard to argue with Kern’s choice of Charles K. Harris’s “After the Ball” (1891) as a cornerstone of the second act, but it does suggest an admission on his part that he felt competent to compose black songs but not white ones of the fin de siècle. Or maybe he was just nostalgic.

We, however, are not nostalgic for other outmoded customs. The show was as powerful as the novel in depicting the “one drop of Negro blood” eugenics practiced in the South, but it did not scruple in casting the white Tess Gardella (vaudeville’s Aunt Jemima) as Joe’s wife, Queenie, played in minstrel blackface. Hammerstein self-importantly launched “Ol’ Man River” with the vilest of racial slurs (“Niggers all work on de Mississippi”), an indefensible gesture for a commercial Broadway entertainment; the line was amended in all later productions. On the other hand, black pundits of the day cheered for the resolute Jules Bledsoe as Joe (Billie Holiday’s 1933 debut on records, “Your Mother’s Son-In-Law,” written by the married team Alberta Nichols and Mann Holiner, includes the lyric “You don’t have to sing like Bledsoe / You can tell the world I said so”), and we can cheer with them for the integrated cast and choir, and the choral arrangements by Will Vodery, which were ported over to the film. Vodery, one of the most influential of several African American artists who worked behind the scenes for Ziegfeld and other Broadway producers, was claimed as a mentor by Gershwin, Duke Ellington, and William Grant Still, among others. He is uncredited in Whale’s film, but so is the celebrated white orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett. To paraphrase Joe, “Dem dat arrange is soon forgotten.”

Universal acquired Ferber’s best seller after its publication, when movies were silent, and began producing a screen adaptation. The premiere of The Jazz Singer in October 1927, and of the theatrical Show Boat two months later, blindsided the studio. It quickly licensed the score, but it was too late to properly integrate all the songs into that film, released in 1929 as a silent-sound hybrid. After a cycle of horror films put Universal on firmer financial ground, it returned to the musical in the midthirties, appointing its horror maestro, James Whale (Frankenstein, The Invisible Man), to direct, and, after a false start, ultimately hiring Hammerstein to write the new script. The resulting film is hardly flawless, but just about everything they did worked. Kern and Hammerstein never stopped fussing over Show Boat and its often criticized second act. Their problem reflected a difficulty with the novel: the first half, set on the Mississippi, is riveting; the second half, a fable of dissipation and renewal in Chicago, less so—indeed, it seemed to blunt the energy of Kern’s music. Still, 1936 was the right time for a decisive resurrection.

Nearly a decade after the original stage production, and working with the obviously simpatico Whale (who supervised the skilled editing by Ted J. Kent and Bernard W. Burton), Hammerstein and Kern knew what worked and what did not: they revisited the book for cinematic ideas, improved the score, perfected the pace. Indeed, the last section of the film, beginning with Ravenal’s desertion, is so sped up that you may feel as discombobulated as Sunnie O’Dea’s Kim, whose big number was reduced by Whale to a bit of prancing: she gets a well-earned laugh with a what-the-fuck double take as she gives her encore to her mother and learns that the genial geezer who guards the stage door is her daddy. Show Boat was by now a warhorse, but it remained young enough for the film to assemble a cast of key Show Boat veterans: Paul Robeson, Helen Morgan, Charles Winninger, Irene Dunne, Sammy White, Hattie McDaniel, Allan Jones. Some were there at the beginning; others played their parts in touring or local companies. Today, the film unfolds as a succession of delights—an exemplary transference from one medium to another medium to another medium, and likely the best Show Boat ever.

After a Lubitschean credit sequence employing a toy carousel with miniature characters and billboards, we see the river and the Cotton Palace, pushed forward by a towboat, and hear the calliope, which attracts white people, black people, and animals from the nearby town. Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, soon to be one of the country’s best-known entertainers, announces its arrival, glowingly shot by John J. Mescall. Ferber played with chronology, opening her story with the birth of Kim (a name she claimed to have invented, as an acronym for Kansas, Illinois, and Missouri) in a tiny stateroom so filled with helpers that it seems to prefigure the Marx Brothers. She backtracks to show how Andy Hawks and his wife, Parthy, came to operate the Cotton Blossom (the name was changed for the 1929 film and carried over to the 1936 one) and doesn’t return to Kim’s hectic arrival until chapter 11. The musical skips the backstory, leaping into the present with a promotional parade as Hawks (the incomparable Charles Winninger) introduces his cast of characters, making light of a fistfight as he assures the crowd, repeatedly, that he reigns over “one big, happy family.”

L’amour fou is brewing. Gaylord Ravenal (Allan Jones), a charming fake aristocrat wearing cracked leather shoes and trailing a mysterious past, dawdles on the levee but snaps to attention at the sight of innocent, teenage Magnolia Hawks (Irene Dunne). They sing “Make Believe” against a make-believe cloudscape, a prognostic duet—before the sheriff takes him in for questioning. Jones has the voice to sell the song, and his occasionally frozen smugness is not wrong for the part, but it’s worth noting that Kern feared falling into operetta and argued against casting Jones or any singer for this rather unsympathetic role. “We have never had a good [Ravenal],” he later remarked, “and until Clark Gable plays it and cuts out all the music except ‘Make Believe’ in the convent scene, I suppose we never shall.” Audiences tend to disagree.

Of course, in a better world, the ideal Ravenal would have been Paul Robeson, perhaps the most gifted and charismatic singer-actor of his generation. Kern said he conceived the melody of “Ol’ Man River” after hearing Robeson speak. The part of Joe was built up to make the most of him, and what he does with the role is remarkable. Joe is supposed to be lazy, shiftless, but we never believe that. His very presence suggests a moral center, exuding energy and responsibility. So we enjoy, as he does, the incongruity as he sings “Ol’ Man River,” with its strained, racked, tired-of-living, jailed bodies, while reclining against the levee pilings, whittling. In an insert, he bares his chest, a rare display of black male sex appeal in thirties Hollywood, and he finishes with twinkling eyes and an offhanded shrug. Whale and Mescall’s setup is no less dramatic: a great, encircling crane shot begins on the right side of Joe’s face and pushes in on the left side just as he modulates from verse to chorus. It’s one of the supreme moments in musical cinema.

If it has a match in this film, it will be delivered later by the next featured player, Helen Morgan, the white twenties torch singer famous for performing while seated atop an upright piano, playing the mixed-race Julie LaVerne, a role she originated. In the novel, Magnolia “unwittingly learned more of real music from black [Joe] and many another Negro wharf minstrel,” but in the musical the transference is wittingly imparted by Julie, who thinks of Magnolia as her little sister. The vehicle, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” isn’t just a song, we learn, but a coded entry to a level of black culture that is supposedly covert. Gershwin’s influence on Kern, who had previously influenced him, is apparent in the blue notes and ascending single-note phrases in the bridge, which Morgan ornaments with falsetto mordents. But in the verse (“Oh, listen, sister . . .”), Kern went Gershwin one better, making it a twelve-bar blues; at this point, Gershwin had used blues form in his piano concerto, but not in a pop song. This wasn’t the first time a white songwriter provided what passes for a black paradigm (Irving Berlin’s “Waiting at the End of the Road” serves as an old black spiritual in King Vidor’s all-black Hallelujah, from 1929); but it may be the first instance of racial transference as a theme in which a black or biracial mentor vanishes into oblivion after inspiring a white disciple to achieve stardom. (Subsequent examples abound: Birth of the Blues, Blues in the Night, Dixie, The Jolson Story, New Orleans, Young Man with a Horn, Pete Kelly’s Blues, many others.) Only Magnolia’s minstrel-style shuffling destroys the buzz, especially as she plays it for a laugh. Hard not to cringe. Magnolia’s later blackface number, “Gallivantin’ Around,” is so obviously a parody of minstrel style and not of black people that it is paradoxically less troubling.

Meanwhile, in one of the film’s most dramatically melodramatic scenes, faithful to the passage in the book, Julie, who has been passing for white but is outed as a “mulatto,” and her white husband, Steve, are accused of miscegenation. They escape arrest by cleverly foiling Mississippi’s one-drop-of-Negro-blood decree but flee before they can attract a lynch mob. In the end, Julie will be abandoned by Steve, as Magnolia is by Ravenal, and turn to drink; she will sacrifice her career to repay Magnolia for her loyalty as the sweetest kid she ever knew. Magnolia will audition Julie’s Negro song, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” and (this is not in the novel) quickly rise to international celebrity, with a montage of playbills to prove it. But before that happens, we will bear witness to Helen Morgan’s transcendent moment, singing a number that Kern had originally written with P. G. Wodehouse in 1917, “Bill,” accompanied here by the excitable, uncredited former Rhythm Boy Harry Barris.

Again, Whale rises to the occasion. Morgan’s performance is three and a half minutes long, and in that time the director uses thirteen discrete shots of Morgan, ranging from medium three-shots, including Barris and Charles C. Wilson (who plays the producer Mr. Green), to waist-up portraits of Morgan, to extreme close-ups of her face: chin to brow, eyes glistening. The impeccable editing emphasizes different passages of the song (verse, chorus, bridge). Whale additionally uses eight insert shots as the room fills up with show-business personnel and tearful cleaning women gathering quietly to hear Julie. In all, twenty-one shots, only the last of them a long one encompassing Morgan, Barris, Wilson, and the extras, with an ominously empty dance floor dead center. Morgan walks out of the frame, not acknowledging the applause, and the camera doesn’t follow her. Incredible scene.

“Given Hollywood’s conventions, it is a joy to watch the superb performers Robeson and McDaniel undermine typecasting with chemistry, eye contact, affection.”

I’ve barely ventured into this peerless film; haven’t mentioned the wonderful contributions of Sammy White and Queenie Smith, who play the Cotton Palace’s comedy team and later rescue Magnolia from destitution in Chicago, and of the always fascinating Clarence Muse, playing the janitor at the Trocadero (he had already appeared in more than sixty films, with nearly a hundred to go). But two other scenes, involving two often overlooked actors, demand consideration.

A new song, “Ah Still Suits Me,” was added to give another number to Robeson and to Hattie McDaniel. In portraying black romantic relationships, including marriage, in studio-era films, a degree of comedy was mandatory to eliminate any indication of eroticism. If the woman was Lena Horne, the man would be Bill Robinson, old enough to be her grandfather; if the man was Robeson, a legendary athlete before he became a singer and actor, the woman was the rotund McDaniel, invariably cast as a scolding mammy type. It will be argued that the character of Queenie is always an overweight comic figure, beginning with Tess Gardella. But that was not the case in London, where Robeson played opposite the reedy black singer-songwriter Alberta Hunter. Even so, given Hollywood’s conventions, it is a joy to watch the superb performers Robeson and McDaniel undermine typecasting with chemistry, eye contact, affection; of all the couples in the show, as in the novel, they are the most contented, suggesting an earthy bond that the others never achieve.

Readers of the novel are invariably surprised to find that the most rounded, nuanced character in it is the fierce Parthy, who is initially appalled to be involved in show business yet ultimately becomes a queen of the river before dying at age eighty. In every theatrical version, she is strict, intolerant, and hatchet-faced (in one revival she was played by Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch herself) but with a heart of gelatin. The film’s Helen Westley, the Shavian stage actor and founding member of the Theatre Guild, despite occasional cooing over Kim, comes closest to Ferber’s archetype of defiantly iron-willed women who see further than most. The scene after Kim’s birth, in which Ravenal shows his arrogance and bankroll and Parthy holds him to account, is delectable. Obligated to play second fiddle to Captain Andy, Westley is never drowned out.

Show Boat did not end in 1936. Subsequent productions swapped songs in and out and tweaked or completely rewrote the second act, never quite licking it, never improving on the rushed but dramatically compact and mostly satisfying denouement of James Whale’s film. MGM made a brash, highly successful Technicolor show of it in 1951, substituting a steamboat for the showboat barge and cleansing the material of racial complexity, period authenticity, and general sophistication, ending with a misty glamour shot of Ava Gardner as Julie (her songs dubbed by Annette Warren, who is ninety-seven at this writing), blowing a mournful kiss. It’s not a terrible movie, but it’s not much of a Show Boat, beyond introducing, in the greatly reduced part of Joe, the marvelous William Warfield, who later sang opposite Leontyne Price. The first African American performer to play Julie was Lena Horne, in one scene of the 1946 Kern “biopic,” Till the Clouds Roll By; she fought in vain to play Julie in the MGM film. (What, and sacrifice southern distribution?) Show Boat returned successfully to Broadway for a year in 1946 and played two-week runs off-Broadway in 1948 and 1954. A two-month Broadway revival in 1983 introduced the first African American actor to play Julie in full, Lonette McKee, who returned in 1994 for the highest-grossing Broadway production of the show to date—947 performances, plus an international tour. In this version, Parthy (first played by Elaine Stritch) sings “Why Do I Love You?” to baby Kim. (Imagine Helen Westley’s response, or Ferber’s, or Kern’s.) Other productions routinely opened in American cities and abroad, often muting controversy in favor of Captain Andy’s advice to “Smile!” They come and go. But the Universal classic, here enshrined, just keeps rolling along.