Sometime in my formative years, I saw the 1951 version of Show Boat on TV and loved it. The only specific scene I can recall, though, was the final one: The camera focused on Ava Gardner’s radiant face while the strains of “Ol’ Man River” brought the film to a close. I listened to the soundtrack often over the years, but I never took the opportunity to actually watch the movie again until recently, occasioned by my first viewing of the 1936 version of Show Boat, which most authorities deem the best.
Unavailable on either VHS or DVD until this year, the 1936 film wasn’t the first. That honor goes to a 1929 half-silent/half-talkie version based on the 1927 play (in turn derived from a novel by Edna Ferber), which has been called “the first great serious Broadway musical.” In 1936, director James Whale (Frankenstein, The Invisible Man) made the classic adaptation, retaining the story, which covers 30 to 40 years of the life of an ingénue actress on a Mississippi steamboat as she falls in love, loses her man, makes it big and sees her daughter do the same. It ends with the aged actress, restored with the family on a Broadway stage.
Unlikely and sentimental as it might sound, Show Boat also broached significant racial themes, including miscegenation. Featuring three members of the original stage musical, including Irene Dunne as the heroine Magnolia and legendary actress Helen Morgan as the tragic Julie, the film’s first half is reinforced with prominent roles for Paul Robeson and Hattie McDaniel. She would go on to win the first Oscar awarded an African-American (for Gone with the Wind); Robeson was the most famous actor of his race until the emergence of Sidney Poitier in the ’50s.
Though the second half of Whale’s film (with the exception of one number by Morgan) mostly relies on clichés, the first half is truly memorable, highlighted by Robeson’s stirring version of “Ol’ Man River,” which the director underscores with some expressionist touches more reminiscent of his masterful horror films. But here Whale chooses to emphasize the racial themes inherent in the song’s lyrics and earlier brought front and center in the character of Julie, a woman of mixed race, and her fateful marriage with a white man who loves her despite her racial mix.
On a lighter note but equally memorable is a charming, witty love song sung by Robeson and McDaniel, both of whom then completely disappear in the film’s second half.
For the lavish 1951 color version, MGM pulled out all the stops for production numbers, but in the process jettisoned much of the original plot, particularly in the second half, which now covers only five or six years instead of two generations. Actually relying far more on musical numbers than the earlier version, the Technicolor Show Boat is more musical than dramatic, almost the exact opposite of its predecessor. A big plus in this regard are the additional song-and-dance numbers (including “Life Upon the Wicked Stage”) by Marge and Gower Champion, who are far more accomplished than their comic versions in the earlier film.
Stepping into the considerable shoes of Robeson but in a much-diminished role, William Warfield nonetheless gives an even better rendition of “Ol’ Man River” in the film’s most memorable sequence, the only one NOT directed by the otherwise pedestrian George Sidney.
In a nutshell, these are the highlights of the 1936 version — Paul Robeson, Helen Morgan, Hattie McDaniel and James Whale. Here are their counterparts in 1951 — the music, the dancing, the color process and Ava Gardner.