Reviewed by: Brett Willis
|Featuring:||Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, Charles Winninger, Paul Robeson, Helen Morgan|
Of the several times that this Kern/Hammerstein stage musical has been filmed, this 1936 version is considered the best. The story is entertaining, and many of the songs (most notably Paul Robeson’s rendition of “Ol' Man River””) are memorable. However, the overall plot contains adult issues and is quite sad.
Covering a time period from about the 1890s to the 1920s, the story follows the life of Magnolia Hawks-Ravenal (Irene Dunne), the daughter of a Show Boat captain. (A Show Boat was a paddle-wheeler that traveled the Mississippi River, putting on stage shows and advertising in each town with a parade like those of old-time circuses.) Her mother has always forbidden her from acting in the stage shows; but when the leading couple are forced out of the troupe by a local sheriff because the lady is a mixed-race person posing as white, Magnolia’s father lets her play the female lead and gives the male lead to an attractive riverboat gambler. The two fall in love and are married, but life for them isn’t everything they’d hoped it would be.
Among the adult themes are: excessive drinking and alcoholism; gambling addiction; the problems that follow “love at first sight;” disrespect for and desertion of marriage partners; racial prejudice and Southern segregation laws, including laws against interracial marriage (the original leading couple would have been jailed rather than just run out of town had not the man falsely implied to the sheriff that he, like his wife, was mixed-race). The captain’s wife has a low opinion of show people in general; but late in the film, after her daughter and granddaughter have become successful performers, she “mellows out.” Keep in mind that this film was directed by James Whale, who also did the Boris Karloff “Frankenstein” movies and who had a tragic personal life (the 1998 film “Gods and Monsters” is a biography of Whale).
The performances (both acting and singing) are very good all around, and this film (made not long after the period it portrays) gives us a window on what early 20th century life on the Mississippi was like. It may be uncomfortable to see that blacks were excluded from stage acting while whites in blackface makeup performed their music, but it’s historically accurate. After watching this film, you’ll probably feel happy and sad at the same time. For anyone under ten or so, I’d recommend just playing clips of a few of the songs.