This time around, Universal got it right. Carl Laemmle, Jr., whose father produced the 1929 version of SHOW BOAT that owed more to Edna Ferber's novel than to the 1927 Hammerstein and Kern musical, took over the reins here and the result is splendid. It's still the same romance between gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Jones) and Magnolia Hawks (Dunne), daughter...read more
This time around, Universal got it right. Carl Laemmle, Jr., whose father produced the 1929 version of SHOW BOAT that owed more to Edna Ferber's novel than to the 1927 Hammerstein and Kern musical, took over the reins here and the result is splendid. It's still the same romance between
gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Jones) and Magnolia Hawks (Dunne), daughter of showboat captain Andy Hawks (Winninger). The stars of this mobile 19th century theatre, Julie (Morgan) and Steve (Cook), must leave the showboat when it is found out that Julie is half-black. Gaylord and Magnolia step in and
play their romance onstage and off, but an unlucky gambling streak spells trouble for the young couple.
SHOWBOAT's many-tiered plot is secondary to its extraordinary score, but it does make for some beguiling romance, delightful comedy and potent dramatics. Master director Whale, here essaying his first musical, does some typically marvelous things with the camera and mise-en-scene and gets
wonderful performances from his cast. Many of them had essayed their roles previously onstage, so their dazzling assurance should come as no surprise. Dunne's lilting soprano does full justice to such favorites as "Make Believe" and "You Are Love" and she is sidesplittingly funny acting the role
of a schoolteacher in a barnstorming melodrama aboard the showboat. It is fortunate that Winninger's legendary performance has been captured on film. His greatest moment comes when, with incredible dexterity and panache, he enacts the entire finale of a play before an audience. Jones, too, a
likable actor-singer underused by Hollywood, does excellent work as a roguish but loving gambler. The rest of the supporting cast, including the ever-marvelous Westley and the one-and-only Hattie McDaniel, are in grand form, but Robeson and Morgan must be singled out for special praise. Robeson's
immortal rendition of "Ol' Man River" is stunningly staged by Whale, as a 270 degree pan sweeps around him and the lyrics are enacted with Expressionistic vignettes. The film really suffers when Robeson is no longer around, but his presence haunts even the last reels. The same goes for Helen
Morgan, whose decline at this point in her brief life and career is clearly apparent. She makes Julie almost unbearably poignant. Her tremulous voice and slight gestures convey volumes, and one is grateful when she briefly turns up again in Magnolia's life at just the right moment. When Morgan
sings "Bill" (with that amazing close-up near the end), one feels privileged to witness one of the greatest filmed performances of a song in the history of cinema. If you doubt that two minutes of a woman singing can break your heart, guess again.
Universal really poured its money into this film, and it shows in Hall's lovely set designs, Mescall's sumptuous cinematography, and the actual riverboat built for the film. Whale's trademark theatricality lends itself perfectly to this film, and he plays the famous miscegenation scene for all
it's worth. The film is only really flawed in the last third, as we are rushed into the 1930s while Magnolia's daughter becomes a stage star herself. It's quite improbable that Capt. Andy and Parthy would still be alive, and other contrivances mar the impact of what has come before.
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