Edna Ferber’s classic tale of life and love among a theatrical troupe on a Mississippi riverboat has received many dramatic treatments since its birth over eighty years ago. But none is more satisfying than this 1936 production, widely accepted as the best and most faithful of three screen versions of the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II musical. A splendid, indeed definitive cast features Irene Dunne as the lovely Magnolia, fated to fall for Allan Jones’ dashing riverboat gambler, Gaylord Ravenal. It is their turbulent romance and Magnolia’s growth from a shy guileless girl to a mature star of the stage that form the core of the story. In her last film appearance, Helen Morgan will break your heart as the tragic Julie, with her songs “Bill” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man.” And there is perhaps no more memorable performance in musical history than Paul Roberson’s moving rendition of “Ol’ Man River.”
Show Boat is a 1936 film. Directed by James Whale, it is based on the musical play by Jerome Kern (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (script and lyrics), which the team adapted from the novel by Edna Ferber.
This film version of the famed stage classic from Universal Pictures, which in 1929 had filmed a part-talkie version of Ferber’s original novel, is, unlike most film versions of stage musicals at the time, for the most part an extremely faithful adaptation, and retains the interracial subplot so important to both the novel and the show. Carl Laemmle, head of Universal, had been deeply dissatisfied with the 1929 film, and had long wanted to make an all-sound version of the hit musical. 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 that year in a shotgun accident, and shooting of the film was rescheduled. The film, with several members of the original Broadway cast, was begun in late 1935 and released in 1936.
In addition to the songs retained from the stage production, Kern and Hammerstein wrote three additional songs for the film. Two of them were performed in spots previously reserved for songs from the stage production.
The musical’s story spans about forty years, from the late 1880s to the late 1920s. Magnolia Hawks is an eighteen-year-old on her family’s show boat, the Cotton Palace (renamed from the stage original’s Cotton Blossom) which travels the Mississippi River putting on shows. She meets Gaylord Ravenal, a charming gambler, falls in love with him, and eventually 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 about ten years, he experiences an especially bad losing streak and leaves Magnolia, out of a sense of guilt that he is ruining her life because of his losses. Magnolia is forced to bring up her young daughter alone, but is reunited with the repentant Ravenal after twenty-three years. In a parallel plot, Julie LaVerne (the show boat’s leading actress, who is part African-American, but “passing” as white) is forced to leave the boat because of her background, taking Steve Baker (her white husband, to whom, under the state’s law, she is illegally married) with her. Julie is eventually also abandoned by her husband, and she consequently becomes an alcoholic, from which she presumably never recovers. Her husband, Steve, also presumably never returns to her. But Julie, who was Magnolia’s best friend during their days on the show boat, secretly enables her to become a success on the stage in Chicago after Ravenal has abandoned Magnolia. In the film’s only major change from the show, Magnolia and Ravenal are reunited at the theatre in which Kim, their daughter, is appearing in her first Broadway starring role, rather than back on the show boat, as in the stage production and the other film versions. The final sequence, however, does retain reprises of the songs “You Are Love” and “Ol’ Man River”.
This film version of Show Boat stars Irene Dunne as Magnolia and Allan Jones as Ravenal, with Charles Winninger, Paul Robeson, Helen Morgan, Helen Westley, Queenie Smith, Sammy White, Donald Cook, Hattie McDaniel, Charles Middleton, and Arthur Hohl. It was directed by Frankenstein / Bride of Frankenstein director James Whale, who tried to bring as many people from the stage production as he could to work on the film. (Florenz Ziegfeld, who died in 1932, had originally produced Show Boat onstage.) Winninger, Morgan and White had all previously played their roles in both the original 1927 stage production and the 1932 stage 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 version of the show, and had toured the U.S. in the role beginning in 1929. Francis X. Mahoney, who played the brief role of 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.
The 1936 film also enlisted the services of 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 and staged in a manner very similar to the way they were done in the original stage version, not counting the three new songs written for the film, of course. Many of the show’s original vocal arrangements (by an uncredited Will Vodery) were retained in the film. “Why Do I Love You?” had been filmed in a new setting—inside a running open-top automobile—but was cut just before the film’s release to tighten the running time. It is featured in all stage presentations of Show Boat, and if performed in its entirety is a very long song, running six minutes and forty seconds. There is no word on whether or not the film footage has survived, but modern sources[which?] state that the visibly jerky car ride did not match the studio recording well enough, and the song was dropped, but a hint of it remains underneath the dialog. The music of the song is heard in the automobile sequence, in an earlier hotel lobby scene, and in the scene in which Magnolia receives Ravenal’s farewell letter.
Due to time constraints, Whale was forced to delete much of his ending sequence, including a “modern” dance number to contrast with the romantic, “Old South” production number we see Kim starring in, and which was intended to highlight African-American contributions to dance and music. In order to condense many year’s time into the final reel of the film, a number of 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. There was also to have been an additional reprise of Ol’ Man River, sung by Paul Robeson in old-age makeup as Joe, but this was deleted, and we never do see an aged Joe (or Queenie) in the film as released.
According to film historian Miles Kreuger in his book Show Boat: The History of a Classic American Musical, great care was taken by director James Whale to ensure a feeling of complete authenticity in the set and costume design for the 1936 film. This included the design of the show boat itself.
The 1936 version of Show Boat is considered by many film critics to be one of the classic film musicals of all time, and one of the best stage-to-film adaptations ever made. Frank S. Nugent of the New York Times called it “one of the finest musical films we have seen”.
Ten numbers from the stage score are actually sung, with four others heard only as background music, and a tiny, almost unrecognizable 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 the 1951 version released by MGM. 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.
In 1996, this version of Show Boat was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.