By spring of 1950 MGM’s resident producer Arthur Freed had a lot to smile about. Freed, who was arguably the greatest proponent the movie musical has ever known, had established his preeminence at the ultimate dream factory; Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and – almost single-handedly – had reshaped and defined the precepts and production value we today regard as synonymous within that genre. Other studios tried to compete with Freed’s creations, other producers too, but for a time between 1930 and 1949 the MGM musical was an untouchable commodity much sought after by film fans and readily receiving the A-list booking treatment at Radio City’s Music Hall.
That both Freed and the musical were to suddenly – almost inexplicably – fall out of favor by the mid to late 1950s was as yet unknown and perhaps even unexpected. But in 1950, the year Freed undertook to remake the immortal Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein stage classic Show Boat, he was undeniably at the top of his game, still riding the crest from his Oscar-winning victory; An American in Paris – the first musical to take home the Best Picture statuette since 1936’s The Great Ziegfeld.
Show Boat was a cultural touchstone in the American theater long before its silent movie debut in 1929, or its even more iconic 1936 movie made over at Universal. It had perhaps always irked Arthur Freed that Universal had outbid Metro for the bragging rights to what eventually became one of their most popular and a much beloved screen adaptations, the ’36 version costarring Irene Dunne and Allen Jones, making beautiful music together aboard the Cotton Blossom. Freed had, in fact, attempted to rectify this oversight with a considerable prologue dedicated to Kern/Hammerstein’s masterpiece that opens Till The Clouds Roll By (1946); a grossly self-indulgent and wholly fictionalized bio pic reporting to be the life of Jerome Kern, and, that had featured Kathryn Grayson and Tony Martin as Magnolia Hawks and Gaylord Ravenal, with the studio’s resident black chanteuse, Lena Horne positively glowing in the role of the ill-fated mulatto, Julie Laverne.
But casting Horne in the actual remake presented a problem for Freed in that virtually all of her previous appearances in MGM’s musicals – with the exception of Cabin in the Sky (1940) had been cameos excised from their respective movies to appease the still prevalent anti-black sentiment in the south. By 1950, Tony Martin was no longer the crooning headliner he had briefly been in the late 1940s. Curiously, Martin would reemerge in popularity in a costarring role opposite Esther Williams in Easy to Love (1953). But opposite Grayson, who had already been decided upon by Freed to reprise the role of Magnolia, Freed elected to have a richer baritone; the part ultimately going to then rising singer Howard Keel instead.
There are those today who hold dear to the resolve that MGM’s remake is a wan ghost flower to 1936’s Universal outing; and, at least in retrospect the 1951 re-envisioning does seem to ‘lack’ just a little something by way of that very distinct personality that permeated virtually every frame of the James Whale directed original. Where the MGM version excels is arguably in its lavish production values, sumptuously photographed by Charles Rosher in 3-strip Technicolor.
The studio edict under L.B. Mayer was two-fold; first – make it big, do it well and give it class, and second; all men should be handsome/all women, beautiful. Perhaps this is where the remake falters, in its basic lack of understanding that Show Boat is a story about common river folk trolling the Mississippi to put on their lowbrow series of melodramatic skits and spirited buck n’ wings. The MGM movie is perhaps too glossy, its cast – especially Grayson and Keel, but also Marge and Gower Champion - so seasoned and pitch perfect that one begins to wonder why they haven’t all left the river for the lights of Broadway or Europe long ago. And Grayson, by 1951 was a woman, still ravishingly beautiful but far too old to play the ingénue.
To be sure, MGM’s remake made several necessary revisions to the Kern/Hammerstein narrative that, in fact, did improve the overall structure and timeline of the piece. In the original stage play as well as the 1936 movie, Julie Laverne is exiled from the show boat after it is discovered that her mother was black and her father white. She is never seen in the production again.
Also, on stage Magnolia and Gaylord become estranged for a period of twenty years; the show concluding with a chance meeting between the two, united in their love for their now adult daughter, Kim. In rethinking the story, Freed brought in writer John Lee Mahin whose forte was not musicals. But Mahin was an exceptional constructionist who managed the coup of at once tightening the story while retaining its basics and condensing the timeline to a more manageable length. Mahin also suggested that Julie remain a presence in the film, perhaps even to become the catalyst that helps reunite Gaylord and Magnolia while Kim is still a child.
Just as production began to kick off MGM’s corporate boardroom was rocked with an upset that arguably no one saw coming. In 1945 President Nicholas Schenk of Loew’s Incorporated, the theater chain that had actually put MGM on the map, had plotted to have L.B. Mayer hire a new production chief. After the untimely death of wunderkind Irving Thalberg in 1936, Mayer had supremely reigned over the most extraordinary dominion of talent any one studio has ever known. Prior to Thalberg’s death, Schenk had conspired to sell MGM to rival, Fox Studios for some quick cash – a deal narrowly thwarted by Mayer who had formidable connections both in Hollywood and inside Washington D.C.
The rift created by this intervention never entirely healed and after L.B. was ‘encouraged’ to hired Dore Schary as his new V.P. in Charge of Production in 1949 the working relationship between these two utterly soured. Schary had been at RKO where he made some very impressive ‘message pictures’ and B-grade film noirs.
But he was completely at odds with Mayer’s vision of MGM as purveyors of old time/big time glamor. Schary had no particular interest in musicals either – arguably, the studio’s bread and butter. After a particularly nasty conflict Mayer picked up his direct line to Loew’s New York office with an ultimatum, believing he would be backed. Instead, the Board of Directors under Schenk’s initiative elected to oust Mayer from his throne. Henceforth, Dore Schary would assume absolute control of MGM. It was a case of gross miscasting; Schary’s tenure barely lasting until 1957 and the horrendous debacle of Raintree County.
For a time, Schary’s installation as ‘boss’ at MGM did little to impact the studio’s product, although infrequently he stuck his fingers into pies he had no business disturbing. In Show Boat’s case, Schary had promised close friend, Dinah Shore the part of Julie Laverne. When Freed heard this he promptly telephoned the star, explaining, “I’d love to do something with you but you’re not a whore and that’s what the part is!”
In the meantime, Freed turned his attentions to casting William Warfield, whose rich baritone had made a sensation in a classical recital in New York. Director George Sidney had initially showed some concern over Warfield’s lack of movie experience. But Warfield came to Show Boat after a series of stage successes in Call Me Mister, Regina and Set My People Free. And in retrospect the part of Joe was hardly taxing from a dramatic standpoint; what had been an integral role on stage distilled in the movie to mere cameo whose highlight undeniably remained ‘Ol’ Man River’ – the iconic Negro dirge embodying the struggles and strife of a particular period in American life.
The initial plan had been to shoot the movie’s exteriors entirely in Natchez and Vicksburg, finding a real show boat to sub in for the iconic Cotton Blossom. But on the eve of his departure to the south to scout locations, production designer Jack Martin Smith had a brainstorm and began to sketch out details. Ultimately all of the film except for a handful of establishing shots would be photographed on the MGM back lot: Tarzan Lake redressed with false fronts and a newly constructed dock. It was, in hindsight, a stroke of utter genius that saved the production millions.
Meanwhile, Sidney set off for the Deep South where he became enamored with the idea of shooting ‘The Sprague’ – a genuine riverboat from the 1800s. The Sprague had not seen active service in more than forty years. It had no engine to power it and had to be dragged into the middle of the Mississippi by a pair of tugs tactfully kept out of sight, and with pots lit aboard its decks to simulate acrid black smoke spewing from its towering stacks. Unfortunately for all, the churning waters of the Mississippi caused the tugs to slip and lose their tow lines, The Sprague becoming caught in a drift and rolling unexpectedly, causing the pots to tip and catch fire.
Back in Hollywood Smith had come up with a more credible and in fact, incredible solution to the dilemma of the Sprague. The MGM Cotton Blossom, 171 ft. in length and towering 57 ft. in the air, with three tiers of deck and a 19 ½ ft. paddle wheel was by far one of the most impressive props the studio had ever built for a movie. As Tarzan Lake was only flooded to a depth of roughly ten ft. the massive paddle-wheeler was arranged on a series of retarding cables and touring winches operated by thirty-seven men who were constantly in contact by radio to maneuver her. Inside, the ship was a veritable marvel of studio craftsmanship, thoroughly un-useable to shoot interiors, but containing two oil burning asbestos boilers to create convincing black smoke coming from its stacks, a steam whistle, a calliope and a steam piston engine to turn the paddle wheel.
With the back lot forest sufficiently trimmed in moss and redressed with facades to suggest the South, its banks laden with a manmade fog for added effect, the first sight of the Cotton Blossom emerging slowly from around the bend was not only uncanny but drew immediate applause from both cast and crew. Meanwhile, George Sidney and musical arranger Roger Edens were met with a force of nature of a different kind.
Co-star Ava Gardner had agreed to play the part of Julie Laverne but only if she could sing her own songs. Both men reluctantly agreed after consulting with Arthur Freed, but it became almost immediately apparent that the score was beyond Gardner’s capabilities. Edens worked tirelessly to coax a performance from Gardner while Sidney quietly went about casting a singer to dub in her vocals – eventually settling on contract player Annette Warren because her octaves were closest to Gardner’s speaking voice. Decades later Gardner’s original audio recordings resurfaced. In realigning them to picture, while it remains quite obvious that the voice issuing from those lips is not that of a trained professional, Gardner’s intonations rather excellently capture the forlorn dramatics of both the lyric and the character – particularly when Gardner reduces the final stanza in the song, ‘Bill’ to a rather husky, whisky-drenched whisper; perfectly in keeping with Julie Laverne’s spiraling alcoholism and dejected romantic sadness.
Show Boat opens with the iconic arrival of Captain Andy Hawk’s (Joe E. Brown) menagerie in a small Mississippi backwater. Capt. Andy’s wife, Parthy (Agnes Moorehead) is a stern manager, overseeing the troop while keeping a watchful eye on her husband who has a penchant for drink. The show boat’s arrival is greeted with excitement by the locals who race down to the docks to catch a glimpse of the spectacle unfolding along the water’s edge.
However, when a fistfight between handsome leading man, Steve Baker (Robert Sterling) and the boat’s engineer, Pete (Leif Erickson) breaks out during Frank Schultz (Gower Champion) and Ellie Chipley’s (Marge Champion) buck n’ wing, Capt. Andy dismisses Pete without question, putting into play a series of events that will destroy two lives. For Steve is very much in love with Julie Laverne (Ava Gardner); the sultry dramatic star who, it is later discovered, has been derived from mixed parentage; miscegenation (a mixing between races) an illegal act in the state. Forced to choose, Steve takes Julie away; the pair skulking off into the night, leaving Capt. Andy’s show without a viable couple to perform the pivotal dramatic skit in the show.
Enter the utterly charming Gaylord Ravenal (Howard Keel), who offers up his services while flirting with the captain’s juvenile daughter, Magnolia (Kathryn Grayson). Parthy is dead set against employing Gaylord or allowing Magnolia to assume the dramatic roles once played by Julie because it includes the sensation of an on-stage kiss between its two principles. Capt. Andy quells Parthy’s concerns by altering the scene so that the kiss will be administered cordially on the hand rather than the lips.
However, as the show boat steams on and the sketch featuring Gaylord and Magnolia becomes its centerpiece, Gaylord frequently inserts chaste kisses on the cheek, before securing a delay in Parthy’s arrival to the theater one night, and thus using the opportunity to ravage Magnolia rather intensely on the lips. The crowd loves it, and indeed, so does Magnolia who begins a romance with Gaylord under Capt. Andy’s watchful eye. When Parthy discovers the lover’s embraced she orders Gaylord off the Cotton Blossom. In reply, Gaylord proposes to Magnolia who accepts and the couple leaves the show boat together.
Gaylord’s past profession was as a gambler. Now he reverts to his old ways and haunts, winning and winning some more; spending lavishly to furnish them both with a very good time. This tide of good luck, however, is not to last. The streak seemingly broken for good, the couple pares down their lifestyle; Magnolia encouraging Gaylord to remain true to himself and standing behind him even as he falters and lands them both in extreme debt.
Ashamed of the financial ruin he has brought upon them both, Gaylord elects to abandon Magnolia in Chicago inside a rundown boarding house where she is discovered by Ellie and Frank who are in town to entertain at the Trocadero. Recognizing how badly Magnolia needs a job, Frank and Ellie take her with them to the open auditions. The Trocadero’s stage manager (Chick Chandler) is having a rough time keeping his star attraction, Julie Laverne sober long enough for a rehearsal. Julie’s bittersweet rendition of ‘Bill’ brings down the house. But when she spies Magnolia from the wings, Julie nobly withdraws from the show, allowing Magnolia to replace her without the two ever reuniting for old time’s sake.
On New Year’s Eve, Magnolia is terrified, the crowds inebriated and unkind. Her confidence is bolstered by the sight of her tipsy father who has come to the Trocadero alone to ring in the New Year and is quite unaware his daughter is part of their floor show. Afterward, Magnolia confides to Capt. Andy that she is expecting a child – her secret never revealed to Gaylord for fear it would upset him.
Returning to the Cotton Blossom, Magnolia gives birth to Kim (Sheila Clark). From here on in director George Sidney’s narrative devolves into a montage spanning five long years. Kim grows up and Gaylord is seen slowly reclaiming his fortunes as a gambler aboard various floating palaces. A chance meeting with Julie – who has hit the skids and is being abused by her latest lover – alerts Gaylord to the fact that he has a daughter. The news is humbling and Gaylord makes his journey back to the Cotton Blossom where he discovers young Kim playing with her dolls on the docks.
Moved to engage the child in a conversation, Gaylord learns that Kim has been named ‘geographically’ – having been born somewhere in the middle of Kentucky, Illinois and Missouri. From the balcony Magnolia spies the pair and comes down to see Gaylord. Given the circumstances of their separation, she miraculously harbors no ill will, and in fact reveals how much she still loves him.
On board the Cotton Blossom Capt. Andy looks on approvingly, Parthy too – who playfully chides her husband for his predilection for strong drink before encouraging him to cast off for their next port of call. As Gaylord and Magnolia embrace on the decks of the Cotton Blossom – presumably to resume their relationship – a darkened figure emerges from the shadows on the docks; Julie – aged well beyond her years, tears of satisfaction majestically caught in the glint of evening sunset as the Cotton Blossom pulls from port, regrettably with no happy ending in sight for her.
Show Boat is exactly the kind of musical extravaganza MGM used to mass market to the public throughout its heyday; full of pageantry and spectacle and the ultra-sheen of spellbinding perfectionism for which Metro remains justly famous. This panache doesn’t really suit Show Boat’s grittier aspects and visually, the movie tends to look just a tad overinflated at times. Marge and Gower Champion are much too sophisticated for the riverboat circuit; their dancing peerless, their dramatic performances echoing more affluence than anything else.
William Warfield’s rendition of Ol’ Man River rattles the timber, but in retrospect sounds more like a professional recital than indigenous suffrage exalted through a lifetime of bitter bondage. Still, there is nothing to touch Jack Martin Smith’s impeccable production design; always gorgeous and occasionally even in keeping with the true intent of the material.
Mid-way through production George Sidney became ill, necessitating Roger Edens taking over the directorial duties. Edens, who had never directed before, seems to instinctively know where the camera belongs, retaining Sidney’s visual continuity so that it remains virtually unperceivable which sequences in the film were not directed by Sidney – or rather, directed by Edens and vice versa.
Show Boat is without a doubt an MGM musical in the very best tradition of that distinct studio-bound style. The sets, while obviously retaining their ‘set-like’ quality are nevertheless authentic, lavishly appointed and stunningly handsome in glorious Technicolor. Ditto for Walter Plunkett’s costumes; a veritable potpourri of fabrics, colors and patterns cleverly integrated to give the illusion of authenticity while still caught in the immediacy of 1950s pop culture.
In January 1951 principle photography on Show Boat wrapped to less than enthusiasm after a rough cut screened by Arthur Freed seemed to illustrate a production badly dragging in its third act. Roger Edens came to a decision – Magnolia and Gaylord’s troubled romance took too much time to evolve. Hence, the last act of the movie was intensely reworked in the editing room with Edens aggressively hacking out whole portions of dialogue, distilling everything down to dramatic action only. This gave the picture new momentum and, in fact, moved it along like gangbusters.
Ava Gardner’s original vocals were allowed to stay in for the first studio preview at the Bay Theater. But by the time Show Boat had its national release Annette Warren’s tracks had been laid over Gardner’s voice much to Gardner’s dismay. In retrospect, one can thoroughly understand why the decision was made. While Gardner’s tracks may have captured the reality and essence of her beleaguered half-caste, they most certainly did not live up to MGM’s overriding edict of silky-smooth quality; a desired commodity even at the expense of authenticity.
When Show Boat debuted it was an immediate sensation with audiences who almost universally filled out their preview cards with glowing/gushing praise. The movie went on to gross $8,650,000.00 on a $2,295,429.00 budget; a qualified hit by any standard. However, when it was decided to release a soundtrack recording to coincide with the film’s popularity, only Gardner’s tracks – not Warren’s – were included on the original cast album. In the infancy of cast recordings only a handful of songs were retained. Virtually none of the underscore – not even the bombastic main title – made it. Viewed today, Show Boat is an exceptionally well-orchestrated entertainment; its polish and panache beyond reproach. Yet, oddly enough the movie does not retain its status as one of MGM’s finest musical offerings.
Today, when one thinks upon that musical greatness in perpetuity the A-list titles begin with The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Meet Me In St. Louis (1944) and end with An American in Paris (1950), Singin’ In the Rain (1952), The Band Wagon (1953), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), High Society (1956) and Gigi (1958). To be sure, and even more, to be clear, MGM’s list of exceptional musical entertainment hardly ends there. And certainly no claim is made to the contrary. But at least in retrospect, Show Boat falls into a very solid, and much broader second tier of musical contributions made by the studio; movies arguably just as beloved but decidedly not quite in the same league as the aforementioned.
Warner Home Video’s reissued DVD of the same tired old print originally made available under the old MGM/UA banner back in 1997 is a colossal disappointment. Fans have been patiently waiting for the much anticipated reissue of the old laserdisc triumvirate of the 1929, ‘36 and ‘51 versions of Show Boat – a project long promised by Warner Home Video’s VP George Feltenstein but more recently passed off once again as a restoration effort ‘too costly’ to undertake at the present time. In general, Warner Home Video has been rather remiss of late in their dedication to classics on DVD and Blu-ray.
Where once they were the undisputed leaders with monthly box sets being pumped (and on occasion, dumped) into the marketplace, the studio’s about-face policy seems to have shifted almost entirely in concentration on the Warner Archive – their burn-on-demand apparatus where basic adherence to quality remains suspect or at least spotty at best. Some films in the archive have obviously been remastered, while others have received no such consideration and fare marginally better in quality than old VHS transfers.
So too does Warner’s overwhelming acquisition of the MGM, RKO, Selznick and now Paramount holdings suggest a philosophy that is more repository-based than restoration-minded. For now, I suppose we have no choice but to comfort ourselves with this current DVD of Show Boat – of little comfort indeed. The image is softly focused and colors seem strangely bright and/or boosted, but just as readily muddy throughout. From a purely archival perspective is very disappointing to see some of the biggest and brightest movies of a generation looking so utterly horrendous on home video.
Warner’s fallback remains thus: that complete restorations cost far too much to make them feasible. But this defense is, frankly, a cop out – merely delaying classics from coming to home video even as their original film elements continue to deteriorate past the point of no return. While other studios, most notably Universal for their 100th anniversary, and Fox Home Video this past year have been aggressively remastering their catalogue to hi-def Blu-ray – the technology has obviously attained a level of financial feasibility for these studios to make such restorations not only possible but plentiful at the same time. Why Warner has been unable, or at the very least unwilling, to achieve similar results within their own embarrassment remains a genuine mystery.
In brief – Show Boat’s DVD contains some age-related artifacts, color bleeding, color fading and wholly unnatural flesh tones. Contrast seems a tad low at times, but not terribly distracting. We also get edge enhancement and slight chroma bleeding. Yuck! The 5.1 audio is a credible attempt to remaster the movie’s soundtrack, but lacks the depth of more contemporary remastering efforts. Bottom line: Show Boat needs a new transfer – preferably with some well-intended extra features to enhance our appreciation of the movie for which this current disc regrettably provides us with none. Bottom line: not recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)