MGM's lavish 1951 screen adaptation of Edna Ferber's classic novel may lack substance, but it certainly puts the show in Show Boat. If you love the stirring Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II score, sumptuous musicals, and especially the splendor of three-strip Technicolor, then this is the version of Show Boat for you. Warner Archive has revitalized the timeless and timeworn tale of showbiz ups and downs, mercurial fortunes, and romantic heartaches with a jaw-dropping 4K restoration culled from the original Technicolor negatives and top-notch stereo and original mono audio. Like the "Ol' Man River" of song, this breathtaking Blu-ray ensures Show Boat will just keep rolling along for decades to come. Highly Recommended.
Show Boat broke ground when it debuted on Broadway in 1927. For the first time, story and song merged to form a cohesive musical, and the result was a powerful and exhilarating theatrical experience that wowed critics and public alike. The memorable Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II score that includes such standards as "Make Believe," "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," "Life Upon the Wicked Stage," and the granddaddy of them all, "Ol' Man River," beautifully complements the substantive story by novelist Edna Ferber that tackles such controversial issues as racial prejudice, miscegenation, and addiction.
There's a lot to Show Boat, but you'd never know it from watching MGM's glossy 1951 remake. While director George Sidney's sumptuous adaptation touches upon the powerful themes pulsing through the narrative, it zeroes in with a vengeance on the elements MGM prized most - music, romance, color, and pageantry. In short, this version puts the show in Show Boat, and from an entertainment standpoint it's an unqualified success. Shamelessly sentimental? Of course. A bit syrupy? Sure. Lacking in moral fiber? Indeed. But if you're looking for eye candy, escapism, and glorious, timeless tunes, this Show Boat more than delivers the goods.
The best and most faithful version of Show Boat remains director James Whale's 1936 take starring Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, and the great Paul Robeson, but I must (grudgingly) admit this 1951 version, which I have seen more than once and previously dismissed as sappy drivel, strangely captivated me this time around. A lot of that may have to do with Warner Archive's stunning new 4K restoration that maximizes the impact of all the artistry on display. Lush cinematography, lavish costumes, attractive actors, and a meticulous production design intoxicate the senses and help style decisively, deliciously, and unapologetically trump substance at every turn. Like the show boat itself that drifts down the Mississippi River, stopping here and there to provide entertainment to rural communities, this presentation swept me away with its Technicolor splendor and impeccably mounted musical numbers...so much so that I can almost forgive its shallow - and slightly shabby - treatment of Ferber's tale.
Show Boat chronicles the lives and loves of two one-man women while romanticizing a bygone era and saluting the majesty of the Mississippi River. The affable Cap'n Andy Hawks (Joe E. Brown) and his stern wife Parthy (Agnes Moorehead) run a floating theater on the Cotton Blossom, a riverboat that bears a striking resemblance to the famed Mark Twain at Disneyland. Their cast includes the "beautiful" Julie LaVerne (Ava Gardner) and her husband Steven Baker (Robert Sterling), "the handsomest leading man," as well as hoofers Ellie May Shipley (Marge Champion) and Frank Schultz (Gower Champion). While docked at a stop, dashing gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Howard Keel), who has just lost his shirt at a poker game, wanders aboard and meets the winsome Magnolia Hawks (Kathryn Grayson), the impressionable daughter of Andy and Parthy. The two instantly fall in love (over a song, of course), but because the Cotton Blossom doesn't accept passengers, Gaylord ambles back to town.
Meanwhile, the burly Pete (Leif Erickson), the Cotton Blossom's engineer, makes a rough pass at Julie. When she rebuffs his attentions (prompting Steve to sock him in the jaw), he visits the town sheriff and reveals Julie is a half-black woman married to a white man. Miscegenation is a crime in Mississippi, but even after Steve pricks Julie's hand and ingests some of her blood in a gallant gesture to make himself part black, too, the couple is forced to leave the show boat in disgrace. Gaylord conveniently returns in time to replace Steve, and Magnolia becomes his leading lady. Their romance blossoms and results in marriage (much to the protective Parthy's chagrin), but life with a gambler is hardly a bed of roses, and the strain of their fluctuating fortunes eventually takes its toll. Heartache also dogs Julie, who turns to alcohol to drown her sorrows and ease her pain.
This version of Show Boat significantly changes the story, alters the ending, and - most disturbing of all - marginalizes the black characters. While the 1936 Show Boat propagates negative racial stereotypes, it nevertheless embraces African-American culture, respects the black characters, and vigorously addresses the issues of prejudice and discrimination. The script even beefs up the roles played by Robeson and Hattie McDaniel to spotlight their talent and paint a more accurate picture of life in the South at the turn of the 20th century. Sadly, in an effort to trim and lighten the story - and possibly avoid any exhibition problems with Southern theaters - the 1951 adaptation, written by esteemed screenwriter John Lee Mahin, almost drops the black characters completely. If it weren't for "Ol' Man River," brilliantly performed by the classically trained vocalist William Warfield, who knows if this Show Boat would have included any African-American actors at all.
Mahin's screenplay also considerably enhances Julie's role, but because she's by far the film's most interesting figure, that's okay by me. In her autobiography, Gardner calls Julie one of the few parts in her career she "rather liked," and her enthusiasm is evident. Gardner lends Julie a refreshing earthiness and sensuality, her drunk scenes are spot-on (Ava's appetite for alcohol off screen surely helped in that regard), and she's genuinely touching in the movie's final moments. It's a shame, though, MGM dubbed her singing. While voice double Annette Warren sounds lovely, Gardner's slightly husky yet still mellifluous vocals (you can listen to them on the disc supplements) are surprisingly good and far better than those of Audrey Hepburn, Natalie Wood, and Jean Simmons in other musicals. The decision to dub Gardner came at the last minute after several previews, and though it doesn't harm the film, it compromises the authenticity of her excellent performance. Ironically, MGM deemed the vocals strong enough to put on the Show Boat soundtrack album, but not to use in the film. Go figure.
Grayson and Keel, in the first of three pictures together, are perfectly cast. The two make a dandy pair and their lovely duets compensate for the shockingly short shrift their relationship receives in the film. (In an effort to keep the pacing brisk, Sidney relies on montages to develop the Gaylord-Magnolia romance and chart the couple's financial ups and downs, thus gutting much of the story's drama.) Grayson struggles a bit to meet her part's emotional demands, but since the movie's focus remains squarely on the music, dancing, and overall spectacle, it's tough to fault her too much.
Reportedly, Ferber wrote the character of Cap'n Andy with Joe E. Brown in mind, and a quarter-century after the novel debuted, her vision came to fruition. With his rubber lips, twinkling eyes, and boundless energy, Brown embodies the part, and Moorehead makes a fine foil as the crusty Parthy. The terpsichorean team of Marge and Gower Champion also adds flair to the film. The dynamite dance duo interrupts the plot to perform two lively routines, but their grace, precision, and infectious sense of fun make it easy to forgive the intrusion. (Classic movie fans will be saddened to learn Marge Champion died just a few months ago at age 101.)
What this version of Show Boat lacks in power and scope, it makes up for in sheer entertainment value. Audiences of the day ate it up (it was 1951's second highest-grossing film behind Quo Vadis) and it earned well-deserved Oscar nods for color cinematography and musical score. Like many MGM musicals, it's lavish, luscious, packed with talent, and expertly crafted. And like most MGM musicals, this Show Boat brims with heart. Sadly, though, the one missing component of this enduring piece of Americana is soul.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The 1951 version of Show Boat arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and two audio options - DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo and DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono - are included. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Wow. Just wow. Warner Archive has been knocking it out of the park lately with an array of splendiferous Technicolor restorations, but Show Boat just might be the best one yet. A brand new 4K restoration struck from the original Technicolor negatives yields a jaw-droppingly gorgeous 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that faithfully honors Charles Rosher's Oscar-nominated cinematography and gives new meaning to the overused term "eye candy." Every frame of this 70-year-old musical bursts with beauteous hues that run the gamut from bold, rich primaries to delicate pastels. Reds, pinks, purples, yellows, and pale greens all pop, but never look oversaturated, while the verdant greens of the Midwest landscape and a consistent crystal blue sky provide a lush backdrop for the lavishly costumed performers. Flesh tones occasionally look a tad rosy, but the makeup of the era tends to err in that direction.
Light grain preserves the film-like feel, and pitch-perfect contrast and exceptional clarity immerse us in almost every scene. The detail of the cotton in the opening sequence and intricate print patterns on myriad costumes are remarkably crisp, as are the textures of fabrics, upholstery, and the green felt lining of a card table. Inky blacks make a striking statement, bright whites are wonderfully distinct and resist blooming, and excellent shadow delineation keeps crush at bay. Background elements are easy to discern and the mist that permeates the "Ol' Man River" number is nicely rendered.
Close-ups are, in a word, breathtaking. The ones of Gardner, even those when Julie looks haggard and downtrodden, are suitable for framing, and Grayson looks stunning as well. Show Boat is proof-positive that no other studio photographed its leading ladies as lovingly as MGM, and here are a few noteworthy examples:
No banding or artifacts and not a single nick, scratch, or errant bit of dirt mar the pristine presentation, which outclasses any other home video incarnation of this classic film. The transfer is so good it makes the movie's faults easier to forgive and enhances its strengths. It's really something to see.
Two soundtracks are included and both are superb. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo track provides expansive, room-filling sound that especially benefits the musical numbers. Though there are no detectable stereo effects per se, just hearing the audio emanate from the two front channels make the orchestrations, dialogue, and effects feel more immersive and enveloping. A wide dynamic scale embraces all the highs and lows - and handles all of Grayson's trills and high Cs - without a hint of distortion, and strong bass frequencies lend a lovely resonance to the robust tones of Keel and Warfield. Atmospherics are lacking (the omnipresent scoring supplants them), but sonic accents like fisticuffs and shattering glass are crisp, and all the dialogue is clear and easy to comprehend.
The DTS-HD Master Audio mono track is equally good, but the center-based sound somewhat dulls the aural experience...at least when compared head-to-head with the stereo track. Excellent fidelity and tonal depth bring the songs to life, and all the dialogue and effects are well rendered. Purists may prefer this presentation, which is just a bit more intimate and less grand than its stereo counterpart. Both are free of any age-related hiss, pops, or crackle, so you can't go wrong with either option. Which one you choose just might depend on your particular mood at the time of viewing.
A boatful of extras gussy up an already attractive release.
Audio Commentary - Director George Sidney recorded this enjoyable, nostalgic commentary way back in 1995 for the Show Boat laserdisc. With great warmth, sincerity, and occasional humor, he looks back on Hollywood's Golden Age and praises many aspects of the studio system. Sidney recalls seeing the original stage production of Show Boat on its opening night in 1927 as a 10-year-old, identifies the location shooting in Natchez, Mississippi, reviews the previous film versions of Show Boat, and remembers screen-testing a 16-year-old Gardner and a young Grayson as well. He admits his version of Show Boat "[doesn't] dig into the material too deeply," jokes about Grayson's pug nose as "a perfect little ski jump," puts to rest the myth that Lena Horne was up for the part of Julie (she wasn't), discusses dubbing Gardner's vocals, and likens Grayson and Keel to Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. One thing Sidney neglects to mention - as he praises the "Ol' Man River" sequence - is that he didn't direct it due to a brief illness that kept him off the set for a couple of days. Uncredited associate producer Roger Edens - the heart and soul of MGM's great musicals - shot the scene in his stead. Despite the memory lapse, Sidney's commentary is a wonderful historical document and a must for fans of this film.
Show Boat Excerpt from Till the Clouds Roll By (1946) (SD, 15 minutes) - In 1946, MGM produced a lavish musical biopic chronicling the life of composer Jerome Kern. The story, told in flashback, begins on Show Boat's opening night in 1927, and several numbers from the show are performed in a theatrical setting. Kathryn Grayson gets her first crack at Magnolia five years before she would play her for real, performing a lovely version of "Make Believe" with Tony Martin. The delightfully wry Virginia O'Brien nails "Life Upon the Wicked Stage" and little-known Caleb Peterson sings a rousing "Ol' Man River," but the sequence's undisputed highlight is Lena Horne's riveting rendition of "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man." Horne always wanted to play Julie, and Till the Clouds Roll By allowed her to step into the character's shoes for this signature number. This lengthy excerpt also provides a glimpse of what a stage production of Show Boat might look like, thanks to inventive direction from Richard Wharf. Though not in HD, the picture quality is quite good (hopefully a Blu-ray release of the entire movie is in the offing) and the addition of lossless audio is a nice surprise that also maximizes the impact of this stirring medley of classic songs.
Ava Gardner's Vocals (8 minutes) - Gardner wasn't a trained singer, but her vocals were certainly good enough to be used in the film. Her renditions of "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" and "Bill" brim with emotion and are laced with a world-weary smokiness that suits Julie's character. It's a treat to hear these rare audio tracks, but it's a shame the visuals weren't included as well, especially since Gardner lip-synced to the tracks during shooting. (If you want to see Gardner singing "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" to her own vocal track, check out That's Entertainment III, which merged the video and audio for the first time. Some YouTube videos do the same.)
Vintage Radio Adaptation (51 minutes) - The Hollywood Radio Theater broadcast this adaptation of Show Boat on February 11, 1952. Grayson, Keel, Gardner, both Champions, and Warfield all recreate their film roles, and though both the story and songs are truncated, their emotional power and entertainment value come through. Warfield's rendition of "Ol' Man River" is especially stirring, but the biggest attraction of this broadcast is hearing Gardner sing both "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" and "Bill" for herself. Producer Arthur Freed and director George Sidney join host William Keighley for some scripted chatter at the end of the broadcast.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 4 minutes) - The film's original preview, which spotlights the music and pageantry, is presented in high definition, but its faded, fuzzy, and speckled appearance only makes us appreciate Show Boat's magnificent restoration all the more.
What a difference a transfer makes. I'll always prefer the 1936 version of Show Boat, but thanks to Warner Archive's absolutely stunning Blu-ray presentation, my affection for director George Sidney's 1951 remake has grown by leaps and bounds. Staggeringly beautiful Technicolor coupled with two robust soundtracks elevate Edna Ferber's timeworn tale of showbiz highs and lows and romantic heartbreaks, and bring it to brilliant life. Sure, it's all slathered with a hefty layer of MGM gloss, but thanks to the wizards at Warner, this vibrant, vivacious version of Show Boat will just keep rolling along for years to come. Even if you're not a Golden Age musicals junkie like me, this glorious disc comes very highly recommended.