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With: Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, Charles Winninger, Paul Robeson, Helen Morgan, Helen Westley, Queenie Smith, Sammy White, Donald Cook, Hattie McDaniel, Francis X. Mahoney, Marilyn Knowlden, Sunnie O'Dea, Arthur Hohl, Charles B. Middleton, J. Farrell MacDonald, Charles C. Wilson, Clarence Muse
Written by: Oscar Hammerstein II, based on a novel by Edna Ferber
Directed by: James Whale
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 113
Date: 05/14/1936
IMDB

Show Boat (1936)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Rollin' Along

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

After finishing the four horror films for which he is now mostly known (Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man, and Bride of Frankenstein), director James Whale was hired to make Show Boat (1936), a decades-spanning musical based on a novel by Edna Ferber, and on the musical play by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein. Some of the material is a bit iffy by today's standards, but Whale clearly had taste and sympathy toward the characters, perhaps because as a gay man, he himself was also an outcast. Additionally, Whale's wonderful humor, swiftness, and offbeat personality lightened up what could have been a fairly heavy, clunky movie.

Irene Dunne stars as Magnolia Hawks, the show boat's comedienne, singing "colored" songs, taught to her by the dramatic leading lady, a light-skinned black, Julie LaVerne (Helen Morgan). She meets and falls for a river gambler, Gaylord Ravenal (Allan Jones, the hero opera singer in A Night at the Opera). They marry and head for a life of destitution, after which Gaylord leaves in shame. Years later, Magnolia has a New Year's Eve comeback, and her daughter grows up to be a star, timed with Gaylord's shy and humble return.

Charles Winninger is wonderful as the captain, finishing up a skit with his physical storytelling skills when an actor rushes offstage. Paul Robeson is memorable singing "Ol' Man River," and future Oscar-winner Hattie McDaniel plays his harping, loving wife. In one shocking scene, a racist official informs Julie that she can't stay since she's black and married to a white man (Donald Cook); he cuts her hand, ingests her blood and insists that, by law, he has "black blood in him." Indeed, some of the black characters can't quite overcome caricature, but clearly the movie has sympathy for them, which is rare for this time. Otherwise, Show Boat is a joyous, lifting film.

Sadly, it's much harder to find this 1936 version than it is the 1951 version; I haven't seen the latter, but I'm told it's much blander, and less forthcoming about the racism in the story. While Whale's version is far from perfect, and still dabbles in stereotypes, it at least somewhat acknowledges the unfairness of the inequality displayed. And, by the end of Show Boat, Whale's open heart wins the day.

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