The Importance of Show Boat
When Show Boat was presented in 1927 by Florenz Ziegfeld, it was unlike anything the great showman had yet produced . His legendary Follies were really just vaudeville shows on a grand scale, featuring popular headliners of the day in unrelated scenes. Legendary performers such as Fanny Brice, Will Rogers, W.C. Fields and Sophie Tucker did their acts along side huge production numbers featuring scantily clad young women. Ziegfeld was ‘Glorifying the American Girl’, he claimed. He also presented light musical comedies such as Sally and Sunny with music by Jerome Kern. These were shows with wispy plots that were usually just vehicles for the star in question.
In the early part of the century, musical theater consisted of vaudeville shows, operettas imported from Europe or minstrel shows. In the 1910s a new type of musical that was purely American began to be seen. Jerome Kern, along with lyricist P.G. Wodehouse, created a string of this light, American style comedies about young people on Long Island estates and their love troubles. Once again, wispy plots that featured amusing tunes for the stars to sing.
Kern approached Ziegfeld with the idea of adapting Edna Ferber’s epic novel Show Boat with a book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Amazingly, Ziegfeld agreed to gamble on a musical concerned with miscegenation, segregation, wife abuse and alcoholism. It was not only the subject matter that was revolutionary. The style was revolutionary as well. Songs grew out of the dramatic situation. True, the operetta roots of Show Boat are evident in songs such as You Are Love. However, the way that Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man grows out of the action in the kitchen scene, and how it comments sadly on Julie’s situation and foreshadows what lies ahead for Magnolia, reveals a new depth for the musical. The light revue had been given a death-blow. The ‘book musical’ would assume prominence from that time forward.
The Pedigree of the 1936 film of Show Boat
There had been a 1929 film version of Show Boat that was largely silent, with some songs tacked on. It is a curiosity at best. The story differs greatly from the story of the musical, and the majority of the film features actors that had nothing to do with the musical’s creation on Broadway.
MGM mounted a lavishly produced, Technicolor version of the musical in 1951, starring Kathryn Grayson as Magnolia and Howard Keel as Ravenal. These two leads sing beautifully, but there is not much chemistry between them. Ava Gardner is miscast as Julie. The fact that Lena Horne was available for the role and had sung a spectacular version of Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man in the Jerome Kern biopic Till The Clouds Roll By, gives a tantalizing indication of what might have been. The whole production suffers from what many feel are the great assets of the MGM musicals of the 1950s: lavish production numbers and big-name stars. The whole thing feels bloated.
The 1936 production produced by Universal is the great film version of this musical. At the time, Universal was known as the Horror Film studio. Show Boat’s director James Whale already had tremendous success with a string of straight-forward horror films such as Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man as well as the great satire of the genre, The Old Dark House. These films are all notable for an eerie, Gothic atmosphere which can be traced back to the German Expressionism which exerted such a huge influence on early ‘serious’ film. The atmospherics are there in Show Boat as well. Here, however, they are employed to highlight emotional scenes. A good example of this is the montage during Old Man River. First, we hear Joe singing the song in a naturalistic setting: on a dock surrounded by other workers. As the song reaches its climax, we get a series of abstract images of toil and punishment which could have come straight out of an UFA production of the time.
The cast is fascinating in that many are associated with the original Broadway production. Charles Winninger reprises his Captain Andy from 1927. Irene Dunne (Magnolia) and Paul Robeson (Joe) were not in the original, but were part of the tour and are forever associated with the roles. Alas, we don’t get to see Edna May Oliver’s Parthy, which she created on Broadway, but it is not hard to imagine how perfect she would have been in the role. The great treasure of the film is the preservation of Helen Morgan’s performance as Julie. Morgan, a sensation of the 1920’s, is a little old for the role now, her voice a little creaky, but her fragility in the delivery of the torch song Bill is magnificent. She was only to live five more years, dying in 1941 at the age of 41.
Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein wrote two new numbers for the movie, I Have The Room Above Her and I Still Suits Me. They are minor songs, but it is exciting to know that the creators of the show were still working on it as the movie was being filmed. Thus, it is both a reflection of the original, as well as a work in progress.
As Magnolia’s performing career on the Cotton Blossom itself blossoms, we get to see many of her performances. The scene between the school teacher and her beloved Hamilton is an affectionate depiction of what types of melodramas were being performed in the days of the Cotton Blossom. The histrionic acting and overheated dialogue seem right. The audience’s reaction confirms this. The humor of the scene comes not from the film’s condescension to the play, but to the woodsmen’s reaction – their belief that reality is happening on stage. The play itself is performed almost in documentary fashion.
The same sort of care is given to reflect authenticity in the musical numbers that are performed within the movie. This does not refer to the songs that grow out of the action, like You Are Love, I Have The Room Above Her and Old Man River. Instead, it applies to the scenes that are showing performances, such as Magnolia’s New Year’s Eve premiere in Chicago. Instead of composing an original song for this scene, Jerome Kern decided to interpolate After the Ball. This song was composed in 1891 and was a sensation. It sold millions of copies of sheet music, the first song to have such success. It defined the era musically, and for Show Boat’s 1927 audience, it would have been an efficient evocation of the era.
The cakewalk performed by Ellie and Frank is also danced to an authenic song of the period, Goodbye, Ma Lady Love. The dancing is staged in such a way as to recall the style of the minstrel shows that would have been current at the time the movie is depicting.
There is no question that Black musical and theatrical performance styles were the pre-eminent entertainment forces in the era being shown in the early parts of Show Boat. True, there was a strong tradition of operetta and opera at the time, but the home-grown entertainment was predominantly derived from Black styles.
Understanding the way the creators of Show Boat were striving to portray authentic musical numbers of the time, should help us to see Magnolia’s Gallivanting Around with something subtler than a knee-jerk condemnation of the scene as racist and offensive. Yes, Magnolia is in black-face, yes, she is plucking on a banjo and yes, she is mugging in a bug-eyed fashion throughout. However,
this was a convention of the time being shown. The exaggerated cartoonish depiction of the characters in blackface had little to do with real Black people, just as the characters played by drag performers have little to do with real women. The caricatures of blackface are as irrelevant to our contemporary entertainment sensibility as commedia dell’arte is. The point that needs to be made here is that including a blackface scene in Show Boat is as appropriate as using the N-word in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Both are absolutely appropriate because the intentions behind both are not racist and do not intend to demean. Both intend to portray.
The critic John Lahr has summed this up beautifully, saying, “..describing racism doesn’t make Show Boat racist. The production is meticulous in honoring the influence of black culture not just in the making of the nation’s wealth but, through music, in the making of its modern spirit.”
As further proof, Queenie and Joe, though secondary characters, are not stereotypes. Joe, in fact, moves through the proceedings in the role of Greek chorus, wisely commenting on what is happening. He gets the most famous song of the show, Old Man River. This song also has Black roots in that it is as close to a spiritual as a white man has ever written. The song defines the whole show – time floods on, regardless of people. The fact that this profound observation is put in the mouth of a Black man goes a long way to refute any charge of racism to which the mere depiction of a blackface number might give rise.