Wednesday, February 27, 2013


One of the most beloved broadway musicals of all time was Show Boat. This wonderful tale of performing on a riverboat had a magical score written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. The music was by Jerome Kern and book and lyrics  was by Oscar Hammerstein II. The show not only featured timeless songs like "Ol Man River" and "Make Believe", but the musical itself dealt with issues such as racial prejudice and inequality. Dealing with those themes was quite new to society in 1927 when the musical debuted.

The original show opened on Broadway at the Ziegfeld Theatre on December 27, 1927. The critics were immediately enthusiastic, and the show was a great popular success, running a year and a half, for a total of 572 performances. It made a star of Helen Morgan who played Julie LaVerne, an actress on the riverboat who is hiding the secret of her true ethnicity. For Morgan, the show was a role of a lifetime, and she never had a bigger success than Show Boat.

Show Boat was actually first filmed in 1929 as a silent movie with some sound added. It did not feature any of the Kern-Hamerstein score. The 1929 film was long believed to be lost, but most of it has been found and shown on TCM. The successful Broadway show would not get a proper transfer to film until 1936 when the film was made for Unviersal Studios.

Carl Laemmle, head of Universal, had been deeply dissatisfied with the 1929 film, and had long wanted to make an all-sound version of the hit musical. It was originally scheduled to be made in 1934, but plans to make this version with Russ Colombo as the gambler Gaylord Ravenal fell through when Colombo was killed that year in a shotgun accident, and shooting of the film was rescheduled. The film, with several members of the original Broadway cast, was begun in late 1935 and released in 1936.

This film version of Show Boat stars Irene Dunne as Magnolia and Allan Jones as Ravenal, with Charles Winninger, Paul Robeson, Helen Morgan, and Hattie McDaniel.
Morgan, already battling alcoholism reprised her role as Julie. What was the biggest shock of this new version is the choice of director. James Whale directed the film, and he was the top director at the time at Universal, but he was known for his directing of their horror movies like Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein. However, Whales suprisingly was a great director on this musical, and his attention to detail gave the movie a very authentic look.

The movie would be remade again in 1951 by MGM, and although their version was well made, it paled in comparison to this 1936 version. Irene Dunne, because of her dramatic movies, is really underrated as a singer. She had a wonderful voice that blended well with her co-star Allan Jones (the father of crooner Jack Jones). Paul Robeson gives the definitive version of  "Ol Man River" in the movie, and he would forever be associated with the song. Helen Morgan as well did well in the movie, but her years of alcohol abuse had its toll on her looks and she looks older than she is in the movie. Her voice was still there, and she gave a wonderful portrayal of Julie that is forever etched on movie celluloid. Unfortunately, this would be Morgan's last film, and she died of liver failure in 1941 at the age of 41.

What is equally as sad as the young death of Helen Morgan was that the 1936 version is not yet on DVD. Show Boat was successful at the box office, but was withdrawn from circulation in the 1940s, after MGM bought the rights so that they could film their own Technicolor remake; however, MGM's version did not begin filming until 1950, and was released in the summer of 1951. The fact that Paul Robeson, who played Joe in the 1936 version, was blacklisted in 1950 further assured that the 1936 film would not be seen for a long time, and it was not widely seen again until after Robeson's death in 1976. In 1983 it made its debut on cable television, and a few years later, on PBS. It was made available on VHS beginning in 1990, but it has yet to be released on an authorized DVD, although a Brazilian company, Classicline, released a DVD version in 2003. Until this excellent movie is released on DVD, I will be thankful for my DVD copy I recorded off of TCM. The best of the three movie Show Boats, this 1936 version deserves to be released. TCM/Warner Brothers owe it to the talents of Irene Dunne, Helen Morgan, and Paul Robeson as well as to the original visionaries of the show to issue this masterpiece...


  1. It's wonderful to be able to see Paul Robeson as Joe and to enjoy the duet "I Still Suits Me" with Hattie McDaniel. The movie is wonderfully cast and has great atmosphere.

    There are many things to enjoy in the 1950 version, but I find it galling that they basically eliminated the character of Queenie and took everything away from Joe except for "Old Man River".

  2. I saw the 1936 version about 20 years ago in a theater in Manhattan called the Biograph. The Biograph was owned by Cineplex Odeon and showed nothing but older films, usually in double feature format. It was like TCM but on the big screen, and was fantastic. Unfortunately, it closed because Cineplex Odeon did not feel they were making enough money from it. You would think with all their other theaters bringing in money they could have kept the Biograph open. I saw movies there all the time, and there were occasions when it was quite full of people.

  3. I remember seeing the 1936 version at the BBC Film Unit, where I was tasked to record the soundtrack at the time of Robeson's death. The songs account for a mere 22 minutes of the film, but what gold it is! The film has been shown on British TV, probably in the 1980's, as I have a Betamax copy of it somewhere.