Show Boat (1936): Revisiting James Whale’s Controversial Musical, Starring Irene Dunne, Paul Robeson, Helen Morgan

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James Whale directed Show Boat, a romantic musical, based on the 1927 musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, which in turn was adapted from Edna Ferber’s 1926 novel.

In 1929, Universal had filmed the part-talkie Show Boat, but Carl Laemmle, head of Universal, was dissatisfied with that film, and wanted to make an all-sound version.

It was originally scheduled to be made in 1934, but plans to make this version with Russ Columbo as the gambler Gaylord Ravenal fell through when Columbo was killed in a shotgun accident, and production was rescheduled. The film, with several members of the original cast, began principal photography in late 1935 and was released in 1936.

In addition to the songs retained from the stage production, Kern and Hammerstein wrote three new songs. Two of them were performed in spots previously reserved for songs from the stage production.

The musical’s story spans 40 years, from the late 1880s to the late 1920s.

Magnolia Hawks (Irene Dunne) is first seen as teenager of 18 on her family’s show boat, the Cotton Blossom, which travels the Mississippi River.

She meets Gaylord Ravenal (Allan Jones), a charming gambler, falls in love with him, and marries him. Together with their baby daughter, the couple leaves the boat and moves to Chicago, where they live off Gaylord’s gambling winnings.

After years, he experiences bad losing streak and leaves Magnolia, feeling he is ruining her life. Magnolia is forced to bring up her young daughter alone.

In a parallel plot, Julie LaVerne (Helen Morgan), the show boat’s leading actress, who is part black but passing as white, is forced to leave because of her background. She takes with her Steve Baker (Donald Cook) (her white husband, to whom, under the state’s law, she is illegally married).

Julie is eventually also abandoned by her husband, and she becomes an alcoholic. Meanwhile, Magnolia becomes successful on stage in Chicago.

Happy Ending?

Twenty-three years later, Magnolia and Ravenal are reunited at the theater in which their daughter Kim is appearing in her  Broadway debut.

Whale tried to bring as many people from the stage production as he could. Florenz Ziegfeld, who died in 1932, had originally produced Show Boat onstage. Winninger, Morgan and White had previously played their roles in the original 1927 production and the 1932 revival of the musical.

Robeson, for whom the role of Joe was actually written, had appeared in the show onstage in London in 1928 and in the Broadway revival of 1932.

Dunne had been brought in to replace Norma Terris, the original Magnolia, in the touring company; she had toured the U.S. in the role in 1929.

Francis X. Mahoney, who played the comic stagehand “Rubber Face” Smith, had also starred in the original production and in the 1932 Broadway revival, and would repeat his role in the 1946 Broadway revival of Show Boat, two years before his death.

This film also enlisted the show’s original orchestrator, Robert Russell Bennett, and its original conductor, Victor Baravalle, as the film’s music director and conductor.

The screenplay for the film was written by Hammerstein.

The songs were performed in a similar way to the stage version, not counting the three new songs written for the film.

Many of the show’s original vocal arrangements (by uncredited Will Vodery) were retained. “Why Do I Love You?” had been filmed in new setting—inside a running open-top automobile—but was cut before the film’s release. It is featured in all stage presentations of Show Boat, and if performed in its entirety is a long song.

Whale was forced to delete much of the ending sequence, including a “modern” dance number to contrast with the romantic, “Old South” production number featuring Kim, and which was intended to highlight black American contributions to dance and music.

To condense many years into the final reel, montages were employed, and up-tempo and down-tempo excerpts of “Gallivantin’ Aroun,'” arranged by Robert Russell Bennett, were used in place of dialog, or under incidental dialog.

A planned reprise of “Ol’ Man River,” sung by Paul Robeson in old-age makeup as Joe, was deleted, and neither he nor Queenie are seen as aged in the released film.

Graham Greene described the film as “good entertainment, sentimental, literary, but oddly appealing,” but commented that the ending had suffered from “the extreme sentimentality and improbability of the final reunion.”

Ten numbers from the stage score are sung, with four others heard only as background music, and a tiny fragment of the song “I Might Fall Back on You” is heard instrumentally at the beginning of the New Year’s Eve sequence.

Except for three new dialogue scenes, the final ten minutes of the film, and the three additional songs written for the movie by Kern and Hammerstein, the 1936 Show Boat follows the stage musical extremely closely, unlike the 1929 film and MGM 1951 version. It is so faithful that even several instrumental pieces not by Kern which are regularly included as part of the show’s score are retained in the film. The film also retains much of the comedy in the show.

Although the film was critically acclaimed and successful at the box office, it was withdrawn from circulation in the 1940s, after MGM bought the rights (and prints) from Universal. MGM originally wanted to star Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in the remake. MGM’s Show Boat was released in summer of 1951 with Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel in the lead roles.

Paul Robeson, who had played Joe in the 1936 version, was blacklisted in 1950, which meant the film was not be seen for decades; Robeson died in 1976.

In 1983, it made its debut on cable television.

In 2014, a restoration of the film became available on DVD in the U.S. as part of Warner Archive Collection line; and in 2020, 4K restoration Blu-ray was released by The Criterion Collection.

Irene Dunne as Magnolia
Allan Jones as Gaylord Ravenal
Charles Winninger as Cap’n Andy Hawks
Paul Robeson as Joe
Helen Morgan as Julie
Helen Westley as Parthy Ann Hawks
Queenie Smith as Ellie May Chipley
Sammy White as Frank Schultz
Donald Cook as Steve Baker
Hattie McDaniel as Queenie
Francis X. Mahoney as Rubber Face Smith
Marilyn Knowlden as Kim (as a Child)
Sunnie O’Dea as Kim (at Sixteen)
Arthur Hohl as Pete
Charles B. Middleton as Vallon
J. Farrell MacDonald as Windy
Clarence Muse as Janitor
Charles C. Wilson as Jim Green (uncredited)
J. Gunnis Davis as Doctor (uncredited)
Eddie “Rochester” Anderson as Young Black Man (uncredited)