Saturday, September 8, 2012

Show Boat (1936)

Universal Pictures

Director: James Whale


For years Universal Pictures’ head Carl Laemmle Jr. had been trying to bring to theaters a shinning adaptation of the musical Show Boat. Following the disappointment of a partial talkie version of Show Boat released in 1929 Laemmle knew an adaptation could be made far better, and after years of setbacks and waiting comes Universal’s biggest musical yet in 1936’s release of Show Boat. Starring the vocally skilled actress Irene Dunne and filled with many of the popular tunes from the Broadway hit this film adaption stands very close to the stage version based on the Edna Ferber novel. Filled with great musical sequences and talents of both stage and screen, this version of Show Boat would shine on as the preeminent adaption even with its disappearance from circulation for many years.

Show Boat is a musical based on the Broadway production about a once highly sheltered daughter of show boat operators and her trials of growing up with her with plights and successes first as a performer then as a mother. Raised on her family’s show boat, Magnolia Hawks (Irene Dunne) pines for the day to perform herself, despite the wishes of her mother (Helen Westley) not becoming part of the stage life. To save the show after the sudden departure of leading act due to legal reasons Magnolia takes the place of the headlining star with the aid of a musically talented gambler, Gaylord Ravenal (Allan Jones), as the shows new leading man. The two fall in love and become a success and a name on the stage of the show boat.

In time Magnolia and Ravenal marry, giving birth to a daughter, Kim, and move off the boat living on Gaylord’s winnings from gambling. Ravenal abandons his wife and daughter in shame after losing all their money leaving Magnolia to raise Kim alone, a hardship for Magnolia, but ends with first Magnolia rising to become a stage star, followed by the success of Kim as a stage sensation, which brings around her missing father Gaylord after many years to enjoy the beautiful skills of his daughter as she becomes a star.

Remaining rather close to the source material of the smash hit stage production, Show Boat is a wonderful musical for the ages and masterpiece of its time. Lined with near wall-to-wall music that does not come from just select few characters , but rather from a large eclectic cast with many styles and gifts, this picture is what few films set out to be, a treasure of its kind. With wonderful production, excellent care in filmmaking, talents of many artists, and story filled with more raw human situations than any other musical you might come in contact with, this version of Show Boat is a jewel that comes out of the smaller and lesser thought of Universal Pictures.

With the vast amounts of audiences that enjoyed the play in its many revivals and touring shows Show Boat was destined to become a motion picture one day. Laemmle would purchase the right to the play, but in the haste of trying to bring it to the screen at the dawn of the sound age Universal’s 1929 version would only be a partial talkie and with a plot compromised by many changes to accompany it. Almost immediately Laemmle wished to remake it, and in the right fashion that brought the energy and spectacle of the stage musical. Production was set to begin on a second version in 1934, a mere five years after the first adaptation, but Russ Colombo, the actor cast as Ravenal, died from an accidental gun wound he would receive while visiting a friend. This would push back production while Hollywood luminaries mourned the death and Universal looked to recast the role.

A somewhat puzzling choice was made concerning who would direct the picture. James Whale, best known for his very successful horror film Frankenstein, and its almost equally thought of sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, would be handed the wheel of Universal’s very large production and he would not disappoint. The Frankenstein films were very well made productions in their own rights, but surprisingly one would not have known that Show Boat was directed by the same man that brought us the monster with the blots in his neck. Whale does a marvelous work to bring the spectacle to life with inspired cinematography to go along with staging and plotting heavily inspired by the play versions he had seen in theaters or what his cast for the Broadway play brought with them. He uses the camera to add to the already large numbers to make fantastic reveals and sweeping movements that add to the already majestic aspects of the play. It can be complimented that he brought more to the film with his knowledge of filmmaking and how exposition of motion pictures worked well with audiences, and not relying on what can be seen simply on a stage. It is a vast movie and James Whale is able to transport you to the times and places of the event in the picture.

For the casting of the feature much consideration was put towards bringing in as many of the Broadway musical actors to the screen. Star Irene Dunne filled in the role of Magnolia when the play went on tour in 1929, before she came to Hollywood. Since her time with the touring troupe of Show Boat Dunne had become a star of the silver screen, known for her musical voice, and you can see how thrilled she was to once again play the role that helped her in an important stage in her career. Watching her you can see her energy and passion for the role and film as Magnolia played a big role in Dunne’s life as much as Dunne did for the Magnolia. After passing over the ideas of getting the chance to cast other leading men for the part of Ravenal a relative film newcomer, Allan Jones, landed the role, most likely because that was the best Universal could do with what they could afford.

The large cast was an assortment of actors from the stage version and promising character actors that Universal could bring aboard. Magnolia’s parents were played by Charles Winninger and Helen Westley. Westley was a character actor, while Winninger was veteran of the stage play, and carries with him much of the energy of the role he played, an aspect that would have made him interesting to watch on stage. Helen Morgan plays the heavily dramatic role of Julie LaVerne, a loving friend of Magnolia that falls on hard times, but secretly helps make Magnolia a star. She was from the original cast of Show Boat, and even was featured in the 1929 film, her role and acting performance is very much important to the film, which equals the emotions of her work in the successful film Applause.

Then there is the unforgettable parts played by Paul Robeson and Hattie McDaniel. Robson with his deep baritone voice leaves the mark on the unforgettable song “Old Man River.” He too was from the stage cast, aiding his rise in notoriety, one day to become a large player in push for civil rights. Hattie McDaniel, who would one day win an Oscar for acting, plays opposite of Robson as another maid-like character, which she does with humor, sass, and sternness. Both Robson and McDaniel would clearly make their marks on Hollywood as you watch how they carry themselves here in this picture.

Like any film adaption, there would be changes to the story, but in this case they were very minor. Changes included music, location for certain scenes to make dialogue or action for cinematically appealing, and an ending taking place in a Broadway theater and not on a show boat. Though the story takes place in the Deep South, small things were changed to keep things less harsh, like the name of the boat being called the Cotton Palace instead of the Cotton Blossom. African American culture was very important to the story and would play a prevalent role. Even the plot point of Helen Morgan’s character Julie being half black and being married to a white man, which in the story is illegal, was an idea frowned upon by moralists, but it was allowed by censors as part of the tale in the movie. It is important to see how positively African American were looked on in this film.

Show Boat was a very large production for the smaller Universal Studios. With all the effort and overspending that went into the feature, Universal board members frowned upon Laemmle’s use of the production, essentially firing him, never to work at the studio founded by his father or in Hollywood again. However the film was a success, making back even the large sums spent on the production, and audiences loved it. Critics raved and audiences flocked to see it. Show Boat shinned as much as Laemmle had envisioned, but he would be unable to bask in its glory.

Seeing the success of Show Boat, rival studio MGM saw their chance to make their own spectacle out of the story, purchasing the rights from Universal in the 1940s with plans of producing a Technicolor version. It would take a near decade and a world war before MGM would get around to releasing their color adaption. In purchasing the rights for Show Boat, the 1936 version would go out of circulation as MGM had all right to exhibition. However people still treasured this version despite its disappearance form the movie world. The 1951 version made many changes to the story and would not be as highly regarded, but for many years to come the 1936 Show Boat would be hard to come by. It does leave a lasting legacy that sees the film voted into the National Film Registry in 1996, and land a #24 spot on AFI’s 2006 poll of Top Musicals in American cinema.

The musical Show Boat is one of the few treasured plays that has a near treasured counterpart on film. James Whale’s direction is masterful and Irene Dunne shines in this production. With a colorful cast, wonderful music, and a lasting legacy, this version of Show Boat stands as the version all look upon years after its release.

1 comment:

  1. This film is definitely an important version of one of - if not the - greatest stage musicals. Now, if only we could time travel and have Irene Dunne as Magnolia & Howard Keel as Ravenal - that would indeed be make believe!


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