Release Date(s)1951 (February 23, 2021)
Studio(s)MGM (Warner Archive Collection)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B+
Show Boat is based on the 1927 stage musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II and the 1926 novel by Edna Ferber from which it was adapted. Two previous film adaptations were made, in 1929 and 1936, before Arthur Freed’s unit at MGM gave the project the full lush Technicolor treatment in 1951 with an all-star cast under director George Sidney.
The Cotton Blossom show boat paddle-wheels up and down the Mississippi River, stopping at Southern towns to present plays of song, dance, and melodrama. Captain Andy (Joe E. Brown) and wife Parthy (Agnes Moorehead) rely on their headliners: beautiful leading lady Julie LaVerne (Ava Gardner), handsome leading man Stephen Baker (Robert Sterling), and dance team Ellie May and Frank (Marge and Gower Champion).
Because it’s the post-Civil War South, when word gets out that Julie is a mulatto passing for white and married to Stephen, a white man, they are forced to leave the Cotton Blossom. Capt. Andy’s daughter, Magnolia (Kathryn Grayson), replaces Julie while gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Howard Keel), who’s taken a shine to young Magnolia, becomes the new leading man. The relationship between Magnolia and Gaylord deepens and eventually they marry and leave the boat on their honeymoon. Things go well for a time until Gaylord’s luck changes for the worse and the marriage deteriorates.
The script is darker than most musicals of the time, centered on marital responsibility, gambling addiction, alcoholism, and racial prejudice, but it balances these themes with glorious songs. The musical is a bridge between old-style operetta and the modern book musical, in which songs are integrated into the plot.
Make Believe, sung by Gaylord and Magnolia when they first meet, tests the waters by using lots of “ifs” and “woulds” to show how they’d react if they were, indeed, in love. Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel also duet on You Are Love and Why Do I Love You, and Grayson solos on After the Ball. Keel’s only solo is Where’s the Mate for Me?, sung just before he encounters Magnolia on the deck of the Cotton Blossom. Show Boat was the first of three musicals co-starring Grayson and Keel, and they make a fine romantic team.
William Warfield sings Ol’ Man River, a song in the style of a Negro spiritual that’s a metaphor for life’s disappointments and sadnesses, and the need to muddle through and “just keep rolling along.” It’s a powerful song, movingly delivered in Warfield’s bass-baritone.
Marge and Gower Champion have two peppy song-and-dance numbers in I Might Fall Back on You and Life Upon the Wicked Stage, with clever choreography that showcases the couple’s athletic as well as terpsichorean abilities.
Ava Gardner’s songs are Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man and Bill, the former sung aboard the Cotton Blossom, the latter in a dive where Julie’s had to earn a living after falling on hard times. Julie is, by far, the most interesting character in the film, and her role has been expanded from earlier versions. Gardner beautifully sells Julie’s earthiness and sensuality. Though she disappears for quite a while, she provides a powerful plot thread. Times being what they were, the studio bypassed its own contract player, Lena Horne (who would have been perfect as Julie), because the studio feared that a black actress in the role would alienate Southern audiences.
Many Hollywood musicals, such as Good News (recently reviewed here) are sheer cotton-candy fun. Others have a strong story, such as Singin’ in the Rain and West Side Story. Show Boat deals with troubled individuals, which gives it an edge, but never really explores their issues in depth. Screenwriter John Lee Mahin introduces conflict, but just enough to assure viewers that things will work out in the end.
This version of Show Boat hardly acknowledges the presence of African Americans. With the exception of William Warfield and a fleeting glimpse of two minor black characters towards the beginning of the film and a group of men and women picking cotton, the South in MGM’s concept is practically all white. The 1936 version did a much better job of showcasing both black characters and talent. Though the film tries to handle racism deftly, the extent of Southern bigotry is relegated to the story of Magnolia and Gaylord.
Show Boat is presented by Warner Archive in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The new 1080p master, transferred from a 4K scan of the original Technicolor negatives, is vibrant and makes the film look as if it’s brand new, not 70 years old. Bold colors, especially reds, greens, and yellows, really pop. Overall quality is excellent. The picture is crisp and details nicely delineate. The first scene, the Cotton Bloom coming into port, is beautifully shot and edited with views of the boat from the shore and views of people rushing down to the levee seen from the boat. As the boat is moored, scores of performers in loud costumes crowd onto the decks and staircases to sing and ballyhoo. Flesh tones are creamy smooth in typical MGM glamour photography fashion. Cinematographer Charles Rosher isn’t experimental with the shots but nicely frames the actors during the musical numbers. The boat itself, constructed from scratch for the film, is utilized often for settings or backgrounds and features prominently in the Make Believe and Ol’ Man River numbers.
Two soundtrack options are included: the original theatrical mono track and a stereo version for this Blu-ray release. Both are presented in English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. The stereo track is truly breathtaking. Dialogue is crisp throughout and the songs sound fantastic—lively, even exhilarating. With a film so steeped in music, the Blu-ray definitely enters a new level of sound excellence. Sound mixing is effective in the After the Ball sequence when Magnolia starts her song hesitantly and nervously, and impatient, drunken audience members heckle her. The celebratory sounds of a New Year’s Eve crowd nicely reflect people having a high old time. The Cotton Blossom’s horn is sounded whenever the boat is in motion, and especially in the first scene. A calliope accompanies the chorus of singers on the show boat’s decks to further ballyhoo the troupe’s arrival. Optional English SDH subtitles are included as well.
Bonus materials include a director’s audio commentary, the Show Boat sequence from Till the Clouds Roll By, Ava Gardner’s vocals on two songs, a radio broadcast, a song selection menu, and the film’s theatrical trailer.
Audio Commentary – Director George Sidney tells some interesting anecdotes about the making of the film, as well as what it was like to make movies during the era of the Hollywood studio system. He and producer Arthur Freed brought the idea of remaking Show Boat to studio head Louis B. Mayer, who green-lighted the project. The film cost $800,000 to make, a sizable amount in 1951. Sidney went to Natchez, Mississippi to film scenes of townspeople rushing down to the levee to greet the show boat. Local residents were used as extras. On MGM’s Lot 3, the lake used for the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies doubled for the Mississippi and accommodated the Cotton Blossom. The boat cost $100,000 to build. To save money, the production department wanted to build only half the boat but Sidney demanded the entire boat be built. It turned out to be too small to accommodate the huge Technicolor camera, so a thirty-foot addition was tacked on. During production, two fires broke out on the vessel. The Cotton Blossom was moved into place by underwater cables and operated by two Sherman tank engines. It was sold in the famous 1970 MGM auction. Sidney discusses Ava Gardner’s growing career at MGM. She initially had a thick Southern accent. With elocution training, she became one of the studio’s top stars. In the film, Annette Warren sings for Gardner, but on the soundtrack recording, Gardner herself sings. Sidney dispels the rumor that Lena Horne was up for the role. He says she was never considered. Other actresses, including Ginny Sims, Nanette Fabray, and Dinah Shore, were screen tested. Gower Champion contributed his ideas to the choreography for the two numbers he and wife Marge performed. He had an interest in directing and Sidney sponsored him to become a member of the Directors Guild. He went on to direct TV programs and, later, Broadway shows, including Hello, Dolly! Sidney speaks about the long creative process of moviemaking and the collaborative efforts of a talented team. A director lives with the film for months, not knowing how an audience will react until the first screening. Sidney “gets a glow when it works” and the audience reacts as hoped.
Till the Clouds Roll By – Show Boat Excerpt (1946) – This sixteen-minute high definition clip from MGM’s fictionalized musical biopic of composer Jerome Kern features six songs from the show, performed by Tony Martin, Kathryn Grayson, Virginia O’Brien, Lena Horne, and Caleb Peterson.
Ava Gardner Singing – Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man and Bill are performed by Gardner in audio clips. In the film, Gardner is dubbed by Annette Warren.
Radio Broadcast – This is an episode of the radio program Lux Radio Theater from February 11, 1952. The stars of the film reprise their roles in this condensed version of the story. The audio quality is not perfect due to the source material.
Song Selection Menu – This feature allows one to access any of the musical numbers quickly.
Theatrical Trailer – Dramatic and musical excerpts make up this 4-minute coming attraction trailer. Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel duet on Make Believe and Why Do I Love You, Marge and Gower Champion dance a little, Ava Gardner sings a few bars of Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man and William Warfield sings a bit of Ol’ Man River. The film’s title and the stars’ names are shown in bold, glittery block letters.
Show Boat is MGM at its finest in terms of star power and technical quality. It opens up the story visually while streamlining it to its essentials. The film provides great entertainment, terrific staging of the Kern & Hammerstein songs, touching performances, and a nice blend of humor, romance, and pathos.
- Dennis Seuling