The 1936 edition of Show Boat may not be the splashiest version of the beloved, groundbreaking musical, but it's undeniably the best. Director James Whale infuses the time-honored Edna Ferber tale with gusto, warmth, and artistry, and the classic Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II score still stirs the senses. Irene Dunne and Allan Jones shine in the leading roles, but Helen Morgan and Paul Robeson steal the show...and our hearts. Show Boat is that rare musical mix of spectacle and substance, and Criterion honors its lofty reputation with a lovely new video transfer, excellent lossless audio, and a marvelous array of absorbing extras. Highly Recommended.
When it premiered on Broadway in 1927, Show Boat instantly changed the musical landscape. Never before had a mainstream musical so seamlessly blended narrative and song, explored controversial social issues, and integrated African-American characters and culture into its plot and score. Theatergoers flocked to Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's ambitious adaptation of Edna Ferber's popular novel, and over the ensuing 25 years, Hollywood would produce three very different versions of the classic tale of love, loss, and intolerance on the majestic Mississippi.
The glossy, insipid 1951 MGM incarnation starring Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel may be the best known cinematic treatment of Show Boat, but the definitive version is without a doubt the far-less-seen 1936 Universal release directed by James Whale. Packed with emotion, humor, and period flavor, beautifully performed by a stellar cast, and filmed with artistry, gusto, and grace, the 1936 Show Boat comes closest to capturing the essence of Ferber's story and the atmosphere and timbre of the times.
Ferber's romantic showbiz yarn covers a 40-year timespan from the mid-1880s to mid-1920s as it nostalgically salutes the venerable floating theaters that drifted up and down the Mississippi River bringing welcome diversion to a racially mixed audience desperate for relief from life's drudgeries. It also chronicles the life and career of Magnolia Hawks (Irene Dunne), the naive, sheltered daughter of Cap'n Andy (Charles Winninger) and Parthy Ann Hawks (Helen Westley), who run the famed Cotton Blossom show boat and weather its myriad ups and downs.
One of those downs is the cruel dismissal of the troupe's headliners, Julie LaVerne (Helen Morgan) and her husband Steve Baker (Donald Cook), when a spurned suitor viciously exposes Julie's mixed-race heritage. The couple's sudden, tragic departure leaves a void that's hastily filled by the inexperienced Magnolia and handsome ne'er-do-well Gaylord Ravenal (Allan Jones), a serial gambler and smooth operator whose serendipitous arrival alters everyone's lives.
Woven into this narrative fabric is a rich depiction of black culture and a warm, touching portrait of the devoted relationship between Queenie (Hattie McDaniel), the boat's cook, and her laborer husband Joe (Paul Robeson). The couple bickers and spars like most marrieds, but their deep, abiding love contrasts starkly with the turbulent, tenuous unions of their white counterparts. Though the film does occasionally foster unfortunate African-American stereotypes and caricatures, and includes a minstrel number (which was not uncommon in Golden Age Hollywood musicals), Show Boat lavishes far more screen time on its black characters and shines a more honest, balanced, and reverent light on them than most movies of the period. And for that director James Whale deserves commendation.
He also deserves kudos for his vision and artistry. Before Show Boat, Whale specialized in horror movies, helming such acclaimed features as the original Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man, and The Bride of Frankenstein. Directing a musical might seem like an odd leap, but Whale brings to Show Boat the same meticulous attention to detail, technical innovation, sense of humor, and rhythmic flow that distinguishes his thrillers. He also thrusts us into a vivid, immersive, and infectious atmosphere that beautifully blends realism and artifice, and seamlessly integrates the classic Kern-Hammerstein songs.
And oh, what songs they are! From "Make Believe" and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" to "You Are Love," "Bill," and, of course, the granddaddy of them all, "Ol' Man River," the familiar melodies and powerful lyrics not only stir the soul, they also define character, propel the plot, and enhance the film's mood. And the fact that several of these renditions are performed by the actors who introduced them on stage make them even more special.
Man, are we lucky Paul Robeson recreated his role, so his staggeringly beautiful, unforgettable performance of "Ol' Man River" could be forever preserved on film. Robeson's Herculean presence, million-dollar smile, and booming basso electrify the screen, and his captivating portrayal of the shiftless yet beguiling Joe spoils the role for anyone else. He also creates terrific chemistry with the always delightful McDaniel, who makes the most of the second-best role of her career.
Compared to Robeson's strapping Joe, Helen Morgan's Julie resembles a delicate sparrow whose wings are cruelly clipped by an intolerant, ignorant, and vindictive society. Morgan's work is also definitive...and mesmerizing. She tugs the heartstrings with her sincere interpretation of "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," but rips our heart out with her signature rendition of the iconic torch song "Bill." Sadly, much like her alter ego character, alcoholism would send Morgan to an early grave. She died just five years after Show Boat was released at the tender age of 41.
Dunne is clearly too old to portray the teenage Magnolia, but somehow she pulls it off, projecting a winsome innocence that's both attractive and heartwarming. Though best known for tear-jerking women's pictures and daffy screwball comedies, Dunne could also sing up a storm. (She graduated with high honors from a music college, auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera, and toured in a number of stage musicals, including Show Boat, before coming to Hollywood in 1930.) Her soaring soprano more than meets the challenges of the demanding score, and her duets with Jones are often thrilling.
All the performances ring true (I also love Helen Westley's broad interpretation of the dour, domineering Parthy Ann), but no discussion of Show Boat can be complete without lauding the brilliant work of Charles Winninger, who created the role of Cap'n Andy on Broadway and brings boundless energy, earnestness, and remarkable agility to his screen portrayal. If Robeson is the movie's soul, Winninger is indisputably its heart, and like glue, his robust, endlessly entertaining performance - which criminally did not garner a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination - holds the story together.
Show Boat is an American institution, and though the 1936 film version isn't perfect (like most screen adaptations of Broadway shows, it omits some songs and adds new ones), it comes closest to capturing the social climate of the times and reflecting the cultural importance of show boats to the rural residents they served. Whale's endearing and enduring film also includes several definitive performances that heighten the material's impact and thrill the senses. MGM usually corners the market on musicals, but not here. Universal's 1936 Show Boat is by far the best version, and thanks to this impressive Criterion edition, it will "just keep rolling along" for all time.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The 1936 version of Show Boat arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard Criterion case. A 24-page booklet printed on glossy paper and featuring an essay by jazz and film historian Gary Giddins, several black-and-white scene shots, a cast and crew listing, and transfer notes is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is LPCM mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Show Boat is a beautiful, artistic motion picture, and Criterion's exceptional 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer brings it to life like never before. The liner notes state, "This new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution...from a 35 mm safety fine-grain made from the original camera negative." Grain is evident, but only on a couple of fleeting occasions does it become uncomfortably thick. The picture looks incredibly film-like, and the absence of any nicks, marks, scratches, or other print damage allows us to become fully immersed in the story. Excellent clarity, contrast, and grayscale variance enhance depth and detail levels, while rich blacks, bright whites, and good shadow delineation provide superior image contours. Close-ups are sharp and striking, especially those of Robeson during his stirring rendition of "Ol' Man River," and Dunne, Jones, Morgan, and McDaniel also look stunning in their tight shots. Once again, Criterion produces a top-notch transfer of a vintage movie that will thrill Golden Age aficionados.
According to the liner notes, "the original monaural soundtrack was remastered from the 35 mm fine-grain," and it produces clear, crisp, well-modulated sound. Fidelity and tonal depth are surprisingly good considering the track's advanced age, and a wide dynamic scale embraces the soaring highs of Irene Dunne's soprano and resonant lows of Paul Robeson's bass - as well as all the orchestrations - without a hint of distortion. Ambient effects like rain and crowd noise are distinct, but never overwhelm the action, and all the dialogue is easy to comprehend. Any hiss, pops, or crackle have been erased, so we can all enjoy the classic Jerome Kern score without any distractions or impediments. While it's too bad the track's vintage nature precludes a multi-channel presentation, Criterion has fashioned the best possible audio rendering, which greatly enhances this milestone musical.
A marvelous spate of supplements enhance this Criterion release.
Audio Commentary - Noted musicals historian Miles Kreuger recorded this commentary way back in 1989, and for the most part it holds up well. I must admit to cringing more than a little when Kreuger introduces Irene Dunne's "delightful blackface routine," but that's the only uncomfortable moment in this otherwise informative and insightful discussion. Kreuger points out the myriad differences between the stage play and film, shares background info on the cast, provides a history of show boats and minstrel shows, analyzes the racial issues that permeate the film, and describes material that was cut before the movie's theatrical release. Kreuger knows his stuff, so if you're a big Show Boat fan, you'll want to give this track a listen.
Featurette: "Remembering James Whale" (HD, 20 minutes) - Whale's biographer James Curtis chronicles the director's career and provides essential background on the production of Show Boat In this absorbing and informative piece. He praises Whale's artistic sense, attention to detail, and lavish use of close-ups, and talks about the other craftsmen who helped make Show Boat such an enduring success.
Featurette: "Recognizing Race in Show Boat" (HD, 27 minutes) - Shana L. Redmond, professor of musicology and African-American studies at UCLA, insightfully examines the potent racial elements that fuel Show Boat, but often get lost amid all the spectacle. She addresses the stereotypes and caricatures, notes how dialect defines characters, provides background on many of the black actors who appear in the film, and celebrates Robeson's progressive contributions to the show. Redmond also discusses the controversial issue of miscegenation, the blackface number, and how the African-American roles were beefed up in the 1936 film version in this fascinating featurette.
Documentary: "Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist" (HD, 29 minutes) - This 1979 Oscar-winning short documentary, narrated by actor Sidney Poitier, perceptively and reverently honors the African-American icon. The film salutes Robeson's groundbreaking portrayal of Othello on the Broadway stage, his work on screen in Show Boat, Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones, the original version of King Solomon's Mines, and The Proud Valley, and his legendary concert performances. It also chronicles his civil activism and the professional and personal backlash and blacklisting that developed because of it. Rare film clips distinguish this riveting documentary that makes us pine for a longer, more comprehensive examination of this great man's turbulent life and career.
Show Boat (1929) (HD, 36 minutes) - The first film version of Show Boat was silent, but during its production the monumental success of The Jazz Singer prompted Universal to add sound segments to the movie, along with a sound prologue featuring songs from the stage musical performed by members of the original Broadway cast. Tess Gardella (Queenie) sings "C'mon Folks" and "Hey, Feller!", Helen Morgan (Julie) performs "Bill" in the traditional style atop a piano, and Jules Bledsoe (Joe) contributes a powerful rendition of "Ol' Man River." All four numbers are included here, as well as 20 minutes of footage from the quasi-sound film, which more closely follows Ferber's novel than the stage adaptation. The soundtrack no longer exists, but Miles Kreuger supplies a descriptive commentary that recaps the plot and includes production and cast information, as well as interesting bits of trivia.
Vintage Radio Adaptations (120 minutes) - Two 60-minute radio adaptations are included. The first was a straight dramatic adaptation of Edna Ferber's novel that aired on March 31, 1939 as part of Orson Welles' Campbell Playhouse series. Margaret Sullavan makes a rather morose Magnolia, but Welles excels as Cap'n Andy and Helen Morgan touchingly recreates the role of Julie. (She sings one brief song, but it's not from the Show Boat score.) The program's main draw is the acting debut of Show Boat author Edna Ferber, who files a spirited portrayal as Magnolia's snippy, domineering mother Parthy Ann. The second adaptation aired on New Year's Eve in 1944 as part of The Radio Hall of Fame series, and features both Allan Jones and Charles Winninger reprising their roles from the 1936 film. Kathryn Grayson gets an early crack at playing Magnolia (she would play her again two years later in the Show Boat sequence in the Jerome Kern biopic Till the Clouds Roll By, and then again in the 1951 MGM remake) and Helen Forrest portrays Julie. (Helen Morgan had sadly passed away by this time.) This is the traditional musical version, complete with lush orchestrations and a full chorus, and though the plot is truncated, all the songs are properly showcased. The superior audio quality of this vintage recording is an added bonus and makes this performance a joy to listen to.
Forget the glossy 1951 MGM remake. This is the definitive version of Show Boat. Director James Whale proves he's far more than a monster maestro with this robust, rollicking, terrifically entertaining adaptation of the groundbreaking Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II-Edna Ferber musical. The romantic tale of show biz, gamblers, unrequited love, and racial prejudice still tugs the heartstrings, and the stirring score remains one of the all-time greats. Irene Dunne leads a fantastic cast, and Criterion's top-notch Blu-ray presentation features a spanking new, beautifully restored transfer, excellent audio, and an impressive array of absorbing supplements. Anyone who appreciates Hollywood musicals needs to grab this release, which comes very highly recommended.