Welcome to the late second edition of Late to the Party, a Hound-pitched idea where every week someone posts about an older piece of media they just watched for the first time. Lamb Dance started off last week and here’s the three days in the making post. Spoilers for all versions of Show Boat follow.
Picture it: the year is 1927. You’re Carl Laemmle, founder and head of Universal Studios, the oldest and most prestigious movie studio in Hollywood. It looks like such success will be here to stay as you’ve just closed the deal on the film rights to Show Boat. Edna Ferber’s novel has swept the nation and is sure to be a massive hit movie. Some people have told you there may be competition from the stage musical being mounted on Broadway by Florenz Ziegfeld, but you know that’s irrelevant. As you walk into the premiere screening of Warner Brothers’ The Jazz Singer, you know movie audiences won’t be interested in songs and dialogue for a long, long time.
Of course, as we know, The Jazz Singer’s success and the sound revolution it precipitated turned Hollywood upside down. Even Universal’s slam-dunk 1929 adaptation of Show Boat wasn’t spared. Intended as a silent melodrama based off the book, it was quickly retrofitted to include long talking sequences and songs from the iconic musical. Obscured by its box office failure and a series of remakes, the movie that sometimes airs today on Turner Classic Movies is even more of a patchwork with large sections audio or image-only. This makes watching it feel like studying a museum piece, but if you’re willing to meet it on its own terms, it does offer some rewards.
While the musical of Show Boat has endured through the ages, it arguably isn’t so well-remembered that I can continue without a little background on it. Edna Ferber’s book was a generational epic that traced the evolution of American theatre from show boats trawling the Mississippi hawking melodramas to nightclub singers and Broadway musicals. In keeping with Ferber’s other historical novels such as Cimarron and Giant, the novel traced the soap operatic fortunes of an American family confronting racism, debt, and failed marriages.
The plot could (and will) be summed up as this: Cap’n Andy Hawks runs the Cotton Palace, a show boat that flows up and down the Mississippi performing cheap melodrama for the masses. When his lead actress, Julie, is forced to leave the boat after being revealed to be of African-American descent, Cap’n Andy’s daughter, Magnolia, is forced to step in. The new leading man, Gaylord Ravenal, takes a shine to her and the two are married, much to the annoyance of Magnolia’s mother, Parthy. The two leave with their daughter Kim for Chicago, where Gaylord’s gambling drives him to abandon the family. Magnolia is forced to perform once more and becomes a singing star with her daughter following in her footsteps. But will they ever reunite with Gaylord?
If this story sounds more like a weepy woman’s picture than a large-scale musical, you can see why Carl Laemmle didn’t think you’d need sound to adapt it. In fact, Ferber herself was surprised when lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II and composer Jerome Kern asked if they could adapt it into a musical. Not only did they manage it but they created an enduring classic in the process, one that many historians consider the first modern integrated Broadway musical. With such melancholy songs as “Ol’ Man River,” “Make-Believe,” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man Of Mine,” the show was an immediate success. When sound came to the movies, so did the pressure for Laemmle to put those songs in the film.
And so he did, in a very odd fashion. Laemmle quickly pulled the film from release and attached a prologue to the beginning that featured him and the film’s Cap’n Andy, Otis Harlan, introducing members of the cast singing selected songs from the show. This included “Queenie’s Ballyhoo” by Tess Gardella as Queenie (in blackface, a sign of the show’s complicated history with race), “Bill” by Helen Morgan as Julie, and “Ol’ Man River” sung by Jules Bledsoe as Joe. The version TCM shows features no picture for the prologue and only audio over a picture of a show boat with the performance of “Ol Man River” missing entirely. Footage from this prologue has turned up in A&E documentaries so hopefully one day it will be integrated back into the film.
After that, we get into the movie proper which in its first fifteen minutes side-steps the subject of miscegenation. Show Boat’s most famous aspect is Julie’s life being ruined due to her biracial status and marriage to a “white” man, something that would still be illegal in the United States for over 40 years after the book was published. While the musical has always foregrounded this aspect of the story, many adaptations that draw straight from the book have excluded it to avoid controversy. Even Orson Welles in a 1940 radio play altered this subplot to make Julie an illegal immigrant who was at risk of deportation.
This movie takes a different tack. Instead of being asked to leave the boat for flouting racial laws, Julie is forced out by Parthy because Magnolia declares that Julie is her real mother. When Julie pops up later in the film as the prostitute Hetty Clinton (a separate character in the book), she talks about Magnolia in a way that some interpret as the film suggesting she is her real mother in this version.
While I think that’s debatable, it’s clear that Universal wasn’t going to lose box office receipts over tackling such a controversial topic. Instead, African-Americans are reduced to an appreciative audience for Magnolia’s antics and the eventual source of songs that she steals to make her name as a singer of spirituals. The film uses a different word which I’m pretty sure I can’t say on the Avocado. Important supporting characters Joe and Queenie don’t appear until the very end of the film where Joe’s actor, the controversial Stepin Fetchit, is dubbed by Bledshoe for a suitably melancholy performance of “Lonesome Road.” Even then, the song is about Magnolia’s emotional state with Joe and Queenie mere hanger-ons.
Without the racial aspects, all we are left with is the romantic melodrama between the innocent Magnolia and her ne’er-do-well husband, Gaylord Ravenal. Unlike other Ferber relationships, I’m always in the tank for the tragedy of this relationship as you know Gaylord’s roguish nature isn’t going to keep him with Magnolia for long. The question is how low Magnolia is going to sink with him.
Despite the musical not being all sunshine and happiness, this movie keeps some aspects of the novel that make it even darker. Besides pushing Julie into a life of prostitution, the film faithfully adapts the jovial Cap’n Andy dying in the storm of Kim’s birth. It also has Kim leave her mother with little love left between them, never reuniting with her father. Parthy takes a larger role and consistently works to undermine her daughter’s relationships. The section of the story where Magnolia struggles with Gaylord’s gambling and reckless finances is equal to, if not longer, than the happy times on the show boat. It includes a heartbreaking scene where the couple has to move into a dumpier apartment while their daughter’s asleep so as not to shock her with the downgrade in living. More than other versions of Show Boat, this is a story of love being drained out of a person’s life bit by bit.
With all this focus on romance, the casting of the two lovers is crucial to the success of this film. Laura La Plante’s Magnolia is less convincing as an young ingénue but sells the sequences where she’s a desperate impoverished mother quite well. She combines the pathos of a Lillian Gish with the grit of a Ruth Chatterton. That said, the more intriguing actor in this version is the one playing Gaylord Ravenal.
Joseph Schildkraut came from a distinguished line of actors dating back to the European stage. Using his good looks and wry sense of humor, he forged a distinct career that included both real-life tragic figures such as Alfred Dreyfus and Otto Frank and such handsome rogues as Vadash in The Shop Around The Corner (1940) and the ambitious Jewish prince Judas Iscariot in The King Of Kings (1927). Seriously, see that movie, it’s a bonkers. His Gaylord Ravenal is squarely the latter with his foppish maturity making him seem more irresponsible than later strapping Gaylords such as Allan Jones and Howard Keel. The parts where he’s given dialogue allow him to ham up a storm both in the old-fashioned show boat melodramas and when he lies to Magnolia about their finances. This is a couple destined to fall apart and they make you feel the grime all the way down.
The other great strength this movie has is the direction under Harry A. Pollard. Pollard was not a significant director, but his style in this film bears the mark of what makes movies from the 20s to the 30s so special. The confluence of Expressionism, Soviet Montage, silent cinema, and excitement at the potential of the media encouraged directors to embrace the ghostly power of the medium and its visual tricks. Dissolves, super-impositions, and painterly compositions unite to show how the characters’ petty mistakes and memories haunt them all through their lives. What could be a tawdry soap opera becomes an elemental conflict as we see Magnolia torn beneath Parthy and Gaylord. The challenges of sound and the ease of dialogue gradually sucked the style out of the art and now movies and television are wary of such artistic devices as “distracting.” But here in this film, you can see unique cinema shine through in every scene.
Except the talking ones, those are static as hell.
Now, the real question is how does it stack up against the two other film adaptations of Show Boat, both of which are based on the musical. It shouldn’t be a surprise that it doesn’t hold a candle to the 1936 James Whale version, which Kern and Hammerstein strove to make the definitive version of their show. The 1951 musical on the other hand isn’t bad but softens the story to make it more palatable for an MGM musical audience. Even with the racism angle excised in the 1929 version, I think the artistry displayed here in showing the romance and the beauty of the river puts it ahead of the 1951 version for now.
Perhaps it is poetic that a film about loss is barely be hanging onto existence. The failure of the film precipitated the ouster of Carl Laemmle and Universal’s decline in the Golden Age of Hollywood, the only period in its history when it was not an A-List studio. As even the musical recedes in public consciousness, it seems more and more unlikely that Warner Bros. will restore the newly recovered elements to the film and save it from the patch-work museum piece it currently is every couple of years on TCM. Yet, even so, the film offers a meditation on the passage of time that in some small way does the source material justice.