Show Boat was brought to the silver screen for a third time in 1951. Having had two previous popular releases in 1929 and 1936, there was something about this story that moved people. The Edna Ferber novel served as the original source material, but the latest version’s heart belonged to the Broadway hit. Well, except for the fact that they tossed almost all of Hammerstein’s script. MGM wasn’t as progressive as Broadway in the 1950s, so some things had to be jazzed up for the silver screen.
The humor of the 1936 version of Show Boat was removed, as 1951’s version was all about the pageantry and music. Ava Gardner was a bigger star at the time, so her role of Julie was given more to do than in the prior films and the stage show. Compared to the 1936 version, this Show Boat had a lot of the comedy dialed back. So, what is the takeaway? Well, George Sidney made the most bland version of this classic tale possible.
Criterion just released the 1936 Show Boat a few months ago. While there are elements of that film that will offend younger viewers, it’s easily a stronger movie. For those that haven’t seen it, the main differences are Paul Robeson killing it as Joe. Plus, everyone is age appropriate and played like real people. Howard Keel and his take as Ravenal plays to a certain era.
By that, I mean he plays like a distant cousin of the guy who sold Monorails on The Simpsons. Naturally, this mean he gets set up to sex up the young female lead. While the original story plays it as period appropriate creepy as it should be, the 1951 Show Boat plays it up as yet another romantic angle. Bastards are had, the boat stops at a new town and life carries on as the Show Boat roles down the river.
There is something missing from not having Paul Robeson as Joe. While William Warfield delivers a commanding performance, it means one less person of color in a film that had actively removed a ton of roles of POCs for a miscegenation plot point between two lily white people. What’s funny about Warfield singing Old Man River is that it’s the one scene in the movie that was confirmed directed by another director (Roger Edens) due to Sidney being ill that day. Does that mean I’m speaking ill of George Sidney? Of course not.
What it means is that this film was anchored down by an MGM mandate to make this clean-cut and acceptable to audiences of 1951. The one time it gets to ditch that message, the scene becomes the most iconic in the film. Funny how that works. As a student of classic cinema, it’s weird to see micro trends emerge at odd times in American Cinema’s Golden Age. Patterns of subgenres, creative choices and emerging careers that don’t make sense from an outside approach. But, they all come together in this A Beautiful Mind style collage.
What is about rolling on the river and singing your song? I was thinking about that after I started watching the Criterion Show Boat disc immediately after finishing a second viewing of Warner Archive’s Show Boat. The original novel and stage show aren’t that complex. In fact, they are period romances that examine the complicated nature of gender and race in a time long past. So many classic movie fans slam this version of Show Boat due to its overly pretty nature.
But, it’s indicative of where American entertainment was at that time. Will a modern audience remember this film long after watching it? Not really. Even theater fans tend to have other preferences for Show Boat on film. But, damn if it’s not a gorgeous film to watch.
Warner Archive slays the competition when they release movies like Show Boat. The special features are loaded with special features ported over from prior home entertainment bows. You get a classic commentary with director George Sidney and Ava Gardner’s original audio tracks. If you didn’t know, most of her singing got dubbed over back during the original release. You also get the Lux Radio Theater broadcast and a sequence from Show Boat (1946). Plus, a trailer.
If you like your boating movies filled with gorgeous period cinematography, then pick up Show Boat from Warner Archive.