April 26, 2021

Show Boat (1936)
Grade: 61/100

Director: James Whale
Stars: Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, Charles Winninger

What it's about. Set circa 1900 to 1930. A riverboat plies the Mississippi, and holds a large theater where plays are performed. Charles Winninger is the gregarious captain and company owner. His scornful wife is Helen Westley. Their grown goody-two-shoes daughter is Irene Dunne, who dreams of becoming an actress despite her mother's disapproval.

The play's two leads, Donald Cook and Helen Morgan, are forced to leave the production once it becomes known that Morgan has a black parent, due to racist miscegenation laws in the Deep South. This opens the door for Dunne to become the play's star, with gambler and aristocrat Allan Jones as her leading man.

In supporting roles are black bass singer Paul Robeson and Hattie McDaniel, who plays a character much like her counterpart in Gone With the Wind (1939).

Queenie Smith and Sammy White are a married couple within the troupe. Dunne and Jones marry and have a child, Kim, played at first by Marilyn Knowlden, and later by Sunnie O'Dea.

Carl Laemmle founded Universal Studios, and his son Carl Laemmle Jr. was the film's producer. They became overextended financing Show Boat, and lost control of the studio. They never worked in Hollywood again.

How others will see it. Show Boat began as a Broadway musical, with melodies by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. There are three Hollywood adaptations, with the present version preceded by a 1929 talkie and a 1951 technicolor production. The 1936 movie is considered best, with the celebrated James Whale (Frankenstein) as director and the mesmerizing Paul Robeson in his signature role. It was added to the prestigious National Film Registry in 1996, but was never nominated for any Oscars.

Today at imdb.com, the film has a respectable 7.4 user rating, which rises to 7.6 among viewers over age 45. Non-Americans grade it lower, at 7.0 (out of 10). The user reviews are highly favorable, with the consensus that this Show Boat is the Show Boat, despite its black and white cinematography.

How I felt about it. Show Boat is an uneven film that begins well before somewhat fizzling out. The biggest problem is that the plot covers thirty years, during which everyone ages except for Cap'n Hawks and his meddlesome wife. Events move too quickly; in one scene, Magnolia is newly married. Then she has a baby, then she is well-to-do, then she is poor, then she is a theatrical star, now she is retired and her daughter is a star. Onstage success comes so easily; it only takes a timely sacrifice on the part of Helen Morgan, and a little persistence from a pair of old friends.

We are to believe she never divorces her long-absent husband, and has only one man her entire life. Born in the 19th century, Irene Dunne was too old to play the lead, whose character is supposed to be a teenager as the film begins. Man-of-the-world Jones is a compulsive gambler, but hasn't he ever dated anyone but Magnolia?

We do like Charles Winninger as the hard-working, fun-loving captain. Show Boat is probably his best role, though his sidekick character in Destry Rides Again comes close. The captain's compatibility is dubious with his shewish wife, played with disdainful discontent by Helen Westley. Also agreeable is Helen Morgan, but the film's breakout stars were Paul Robeson and Hattie McDaniel. The former steals the show with "Old Man River," and the latter displays the sassy charisma that made her the only black actor to win an Oscar prior to 1964.

Although Robison and McDaniel provide sterling performances, Show Boat loses some of its prestige with a blackface performance by Irene Dunne and several others. The number is unthinkable today, and must be seen to be believed, though we must keep in mind that 1936 was a long, long time ago.