I have always loved James Whale’s Show Boat, though until the recent Criterion Collection edition came out I had seen it only once and remembered only one scene. That one scene is one of my favorite of all time, and when I sat down I wondered if the movie would prove itself worthy of that scene. I’ll stop being coy. That scene is when the legendary Paul Robeson sings “Ol’ Man River.” Robeson’s bass voice has been a part of me as long as I can remember. I hear this mournful yet somehow hopeful tune in my head all the time, and only in Robeson’s voice.
This is fitting. I learned from Gary Gidden’s essay that is included in the Criterion release that when Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein sat down to adapt Edner Ferber’s 1926 novel into a musical, they wrote “Ol’ Man River” specifically for Robeson, who performed it in the musical’s 1928 run in London.
I didn’t realize how lucky I was that this version was part of my life. This 1936 version of Show Boat was, I understand now, next to impossible to see for most of its existence. A few years after its release, MGM wanted to make their own film adaptation of the musical and purchased the film and the rights from Universal. Whale’s version was shelved because MGM didn’t want it to compete with their version . . . but their version didn’t come out until 1951. If there were any thoughts of releasing the 1936 version again, they were quickly swallowed because Robeson was blacklisted. Apparently it didn’t really get seen, at least in any wide form, until the 1980s, which is when I encountered it. Again, thank goodness for that:
While “Ol’ Man River” remains the highlight, Show Boat has many other virtues and is an enjoyable, provocative musical throughout. I’d say it is indeed a suitable vehicle for the great musical moment. The story centers around Magnolia Hawks, played by Irene Dunne (see her also in The Awful Truth, which I looked at here). When the film begins (it ends up covering forty years), Magnolia’s father is the proprietor of the titular show boat that goes up and down the Mississippi River, performing shows for the communities. She is young; her righteous mother, who disapproves of the show boat on principle, begrudgingly at least allows Magnolia to go on the boat with them, but she absolutely doesn’t want Magnolia to perform. We know from the beginning, though, that Magnolia has a performer’s heart:
We see it coming, and it thankfully isn’t long before events transpire to bring Magnolia to the stage. There she falls in love with her leading man, a gifted singer named Gaylord Ravenal (played by Allan Jones). Ravenal falls in love with her and woos her to elope (with her father’s blessing). But life is not going to be easy for Magnolia and Ravenal. She loves him and, it seems, he loves her, but, over the next forty years that the film covers, love doesn’t save them or their child from deep heartache that comes as time moves on, temperatures change, and people drift apart, whether by accident or deliberately.
I don’t want to spoil any of the ups and downs of Magnolia’s life. Honestly, it’s not even clear that Whale cared much about that aspect of the story. Many years are quickly passed over in the film’s denouement, which is the main criticism I have for it. It rushes through so much that it’s hard to feel real development that allows us time to care about each event. I learned, again from this edition, that Whale had filmed more which, had it made it into the final film, may have made it feel less rushed.
But let me end with a confession that I was completely won over by movie magic. As I said, the denouement is rushed. I didn’t say, but will here, that I never really like Ravenal. There are few moments I cheer for him and Magnolia’s relationship, and that’s mostly because I want Magnolia’s happiness. But the final moment of the film is powerful and touching, even if my reason says I shouldn’t accept it. I don’t think I would accept it in real life, but for some reason, in this film, I am okay with what happens. Again, I want Magnolia to have her heart filled, and it is filled in a beautiful way. It’s a bit crazy, but that’s why I attribute it to movie magic.
I’m not equipped, I’m afraid, to write strongly about one of the reasons this film is important: its approach to race. Robeson is, no doubt about it, given the film’s most powerful musical number, but other than that his character and his struggles are not touched upon in any meaningful manner. The reason Magnolia is thrust upon the stage is due to other ugly racial issues, and it’s clear the film is quite progressive for its time because our sympathies are directed to the ludicrous inequality. Still, the film has a musical number in black face, and, though many of the most fascinating characters are dealing with nuanced racial issues, the story remains centered entirely on Magnolia, whose story isn’t about race at all. This almost makes the racial issues texture rather than substance. Still, the texture is wonderful. Paul Robeson and Hattie McDaniel are magnetic.
All in all, it’s a fantastic film, and this is a great edition. I highly recommend it.