SHOW BOAT (MGM, 1951) Warner Archive

By Spring of 1950, MGM producer Arthur Freed was sitting pretty at the most profitable movie studio in the world. Freed, arguably the greatest proponent the movie musical has ever known, had established his preeminence at the ultimate dream factory and – almost single-handed – reshaped and defined the genre’s precepts and production values we regard today as synonymous with those gala glamour days. Throughout the 1930's and 40's, other studios tried to compete with Freed’s confections - other producers on Metro’s back lot too. But for this brief wrinkle in time MGM musicals in general, and Freed’s in particular, were the envy of the industry; lavishly appointed, untouchable money makers, much sought after by movie lovers and readily to receive advanced A-list bookings at premiere movie palaces like New York’s Radio City’s Music Hall. That Freed and the musical were to suddenly – almost inexplicably – fall out of favor by the mid to late 50's was as yet unknown and perhaps even more unanticipated. But in 1950, the year Freed undertook to remake Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein’s immortal stage classic, Show Boat, Freed 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, costarring Allan Jones and Irene Dunne. It perhaps always irked Arthur Freed Universal, not readily known for musicals, had outbid him for the bragging rights to what eventually became one of their most popular and a much-beloved screen adaptations. The ’36 version made beautiful music at the box office, as well as aboard the Cotton Blossom. Freed in fact, attempted to rectify this oversight with a considerable prologue dedicated to Kern/Hammerstein’s masterpiece, opening Till the Clouds Roll By (1946); his self-indulgent and wholly fictionalized bio pic, reporting to be the life of Jerome Kern. This prologue featured Metro’s rising soprano, Kathryn Grayson and pop fav, Tony Martin as Magnolia Hawks and Gaylord Ravenal respectively, and, with the studio’s resident black chanteuse, Lena Horne positively glowing in the role of the ill-fated mulatto, Julie Laverne. Alas, casting Horne in an actual remake of Show Boat was a problem: virtually the same problem that precluded Horne from appearing in anything except cameo performances in other MGM musicals with the exception of Vincente Minnelli’s superb, all-black Cabin in the Sky (1940). Freed’s resistance to Horne owed its racial prejudice to the appeasement of the very much prevalent anti-black sentiment in the south. Also, by 1950 Tony Martin was no longer the crooning headliner he had briefly been in the late 40's. Curiously, Martin would reemerge in popularity, costarring 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 needed a richer baritone. The part ultimately went to rising singer, Howard Keel instead.
There are those today who hold dear to the opinion MGM’s remake of Show Boat is a wan ghost flower to 1936’s Universal outing. At least in retrospect, the 1951 re-envisioning does seem to ‘lack’ just a little something by way of that very distinct sparkle that permeated virtually every frame of director James Whale’s original. The personality of the piece is missing, replaced on this outing with superior and undeniably opulent production values. Freed’s Show Boat is a virtual feast for the eye, sumptuously photographed by Charles Rosher in 3-strip Technicolor. MGM’s resident arbitrator of good taste, Cedric Gibbons oversees Jack Martin Smith’s spectacular production design, while Walter Plunkett’s stunning costuming conspires to create a magnificent – and at times, appropriately gaudy - screen spectacle in shimmering silks and satin.  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 must be handsome/all women, beautiful. Perhaps this is where the remake falters, in its basic lack of understanding Show Boat is a story about common river folk trolling the Mississippi to put on their lowbrow melodramatic skits and spirited buck n’ wings. The MGM movie is perhaps a tad too glossy for its own good; its cast – especially Grayson and Keel, but also Marge and Gower Champion - so seasoned and pitch perfect one begins to wonder why they have not yet left the river for the lights of Broadway and/or Europe. And Grayson, by 1951 was a woman, still ravishingly handsome, but decidedly a far cry from the coquettish ingĂ©nue as written by Kern and Hammerstein, who throws her heart into the ring for a no-account gambler.
To be sure, MGM’s remake made several necessary revisions to the Kern/Hammerstein narrative that did improve the overall structure and timeline of the piece. In the original stage play as well as the 1936 movie, Julie Laverne – passing for white – is exiled from the show boat after it is discovered her mother was black. She is never seen in the production again. Also, on stage, Magnolia and Gaylord become estranged for a period of some twenty years; the show, concluding with their chance meeting, united in their love for an adult daughter, Kim. To rethink the story, Freed brought in writer, John Lee Mahin whose forte was not musicals. However, Mahin is an exceptional constructionist who manages the coup of tightening these narrative threads while retaining the play’s basic structure, also condensing its sprawling timeline into a more manageable ‘movie’ length. Mahin also suggested Julie remain a presence, perhaps even the catalyst for Gaylord and Magnolia’s reunion.  The one unforgivable, but necessary change to this version of Show Boat occurs at the outset of the story. The opening number in the Kern/Hammerstein show – a product of its time and social climate, further to harking back to another vintage entirely – had included the lyrics, ‘niggers all work on the Mississippi, niggers all work while the white folks play…’ For the 1936 adaptation, Whale changed ‘nigger’ to ‘darkie’, an only slightly less offensive reference. By 1951, Freed could have run with the more racially tolerant alteration, ‘Here we all work on the Mississippi, here we all work while the while the white folks play…’ that had become something of the ‘standard’ whenever pop singers of the day elected to cover the song. Instead, Freed dumped the lyrics entirely, the opener now an orchestral arrangement by Conrad Salinger - a rather boisterous introduction to the Cotton Blossom as it lazily sails through MGM’s moss-draped lagoon before pulling into its fictional port.  
Just as production on Show Boat was getting underway, MGM’s corporate boardroom was rocked with an upset that, ostensibly, no one saw coming. In 1945, Loew’s Incorporated President Nicholas Schenk, the theater chain having actually put MGM on the map, plotted to have L.B. Mayer hire a new Production Chief – the incumbent, Dore Schary, arriving with his own professional baggage to spare. To say Schenk never cared for Mayer is an understatement. In fact, just prior to the death of MGM’s wunderkind producer, Irving G. Thalberg, 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 Washington D.C. After Thalberg’s untimely death in 1936, Mayer held dominion over the most extraordinary assemblage of talent under one studio. But the rift created by his intervention in the Fox deal never entirely healed. After L.B. was ‘encouraged’ to hire Schary as his new V.P. in 1949 the working relationship between these two quickly soured. Schary, whose forte at RKO was some very impressive ‘message pictures’ and B-grade film noirs, was completely at odds with Mayer’s enduring vision of MGM as the purveyors of old time/big time, grand and glamorous entertainments.  Schary also had no particular interest in musicals either, even if, in 1950, these were still very much an integral part of the studio’s bread and butter. So, after a particularly nasty conflict, Mayer confidently picked up his direct line to Loew’s New York office and presented Schenk with an ultimatum, believing he would be backed. Instead, the Board of Directors under Schenk’s initiative unseated Mayer from his throne. Henceforth, 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 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 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 was now distilled in the movie as a mere cameo, whose highlight undeniably remains ‘Ol’ Man River’ – the iconic dirge embodying the struggles and strife of a particular period in American life. Freed’s initial plan was to shoot at least some of the movie’s exteriors in Natchez and Vicksburg, finding a real show boat as stand-in for the iconic Cotton Blossom. Alas, on the eve of Freed’s departure to the South to scout locations, production designer Jack Martin Smith had a brainstorm and began to sketch out its details. Ultimately, and except for a handful of establishing shots, Show Boat would be photographed on the MGM back lot: Tarzan Lake, redressed with false fronts and a newly constructed dock. In hindsight, this was a stroke of 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 1800's. The Sprague had not seen active service in more than forty years. It had no engine to power it and needed to be dragged into the middle of the Mississippi by a pair of tugs tactfully kept out of sight, with pots lit aboard its decks to simulate acrid black smoke spewing from its towering stacks. Unfortunately, the churning waters of the Mississippi caused the tugs to slip and lose their tow lines, The Sprague caught in a drift and rolling unexpectedly, its pots, tipping and catching fire. Back in Hollywood, Smith arrived at a more credible and in fact, incredible solution to counteract the dilemma of the Sprague. The MGM Cotton Blossom, 171 ft. long 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 invested to build 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 37 men, constantly in contact by radio to successfully maneuver her into position. Inside, the ship was a veritable marvel of studio craftsmanship, thoroughly unusable to shoot interiors, but containing two oil burning asbestos boilers to pump smoke from its stacks. There was also a working steam whistle, a calliope and a steam piston engine built in to turn the paddle wheel.
With the backlot forest sufficiently trimmed in moss and redressed with facades to suggest the South, the banks of Tarzan Lake laced in a man-made 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 before consulting with Arthur Freed. Regrettably, it became almost immediately apparent 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 hiring contract player, Annette Warren, as her octaves were closest to Gardner’s speaking voice. Decades later Gardner’s original recordings of ‘Bill’ resurfaced. In realigning them to picture, while it remains quite obvious Gardner’s voice is ‘untrained’ her intonation of the lyrics rather excellently captures the forlorn dramatic intensity of Julie Laverne with a husky, whisky-drenched whisper, perfectly in keeping with the fictional character’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, Steven 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, is 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 role 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 on the Cotton Blossom’s moonlit deck after hours, she orders Gaylord off for good. In reply, Gaylord proposes to Magnolia who accepts him 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; enough to spend quite lavishly and furnish his new bride with a very good time. This tide of luck, however, is extremely fickle and not to last. The streak seemingly broken for good, the couple pares down their lifestyle; Magnolia, encouraging Gaylord to remain true to himself. She stands beside him, even as he falters and lands them both into extreme debt. Ashamed of the financial ruin brought upon them both, Gaylord elects to abandon Magnolia in Chicago where a tearful Magnolia 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. Indeed, 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 being reunited for old time’s sake. On New Year’s Eve, Magnolia suffers an acute attack of stage fright. The crowds, inebriated, are unkind. But Magnolia’s confidence is bolstered by the sight of her tipsy father who has come to the Trocadero with a gaggle of friends to ring in the New Year, quite unaware his daughter is part of their floor show. Afterward, Magnolia confides to Capt. Andy 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, director George Sidney’s narrative devolves into a montage spanning five years in a matter of moments. 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 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 polite conversation without divulging his paternity to her, Gaylord learns Kim has been named ‘geographically’ – for being born somewhere in the middle of Kentucky, Illinois and Missouri. From the Cotton Blossom’s balcony, Magnolia spies father and daughter together and makes her presence known to Gaylord. Given the circumstances of their separation, she harbors no ill will, and, in fact, reveals how much she still is in love with him. On board the Cotton Blossom Capt. Andy looks on approvingly, miraculously, 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, bittersweet and with tears of satisfaction majestically caught in the glint of evening sunset as the Cotton Blossom pulls away from port, regrettably, with no happy ending in sight for her.
Show Boat is precisely the sort of musical extravaganza MGM used to mass market to the public during its heyday. It teems with pageantry, spectacle and that ultra-sheen of spellbinding perfectionism for which Mayer’s fantastic empire remains justly famous. Such lavish panache does not really suit the grittier aspects of Show Boat’s sordid tale. Indeed, and visually, the movie tends to look just a tad over-inflated at times. Marge and Gower Champion are much too sophisticated for the riverboat circuit; their dancing is peerless, their dramatic performances echoing more social affluence than anything else.  William Warfield’s rendition of Ol’ Man River rattles the timber. And yet, in retrospect, it sounds more like the recital of a professional singing star rather than the indigenous suffrage exalted through a lifetime of bitter bondage. Even so, Warfield’s rendition remains the centerpiece of this Show Boat’s musical repertoire and deserving of high praise.  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 It is virtually imperceivable which sequences in the film were not directed by Sidney – or rather, directed by Edens and vice versa. Without a doubt, Show Boat is an MGM musical in the very best tradition of that distinct – now defunct – classical strain of studio-bound style. The sets, while obviously retaining their ‘set-like’ quality, are nevertheless authentic 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.  In January 1951, principle photography on Show Boat wrapped. However, Arthur Freed was less than enthusiastic with the results, believing its 3rd act dragged. Roger Edens came to a decision – Magnolia and Gaylord’s troubled romance took too much time to evolve. Hence, in the editing process, these scenes were intensely recut with Edens aggressively hacking out whole portions of dialogue, distilling everything down to dramatic action only. This gave the story a new momentum.
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 vocals were laid over Gardner’s much to the actress’ dismay. 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.  When lists are compiled of Metro’s true musical genius, the A-list titles are always the same, beginning with The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Meet Me In St. Louis (1944) and ending with An American in Paris (1950), Singin’ In the Rain (1952), The Band Wagon (1953), and, Gigi (1958). With so much entrancing entertainment on tap, it is perhaps forgivable Show Boat never makes this cut. To be sure, and furthermore to be clear, MGM’s list of exceptional accomplishments in the musical genre hardly ends there. And certainly, no claim is made to the contrary. But at least in retrospect, Show Boat settles into this very solid, and much broader second-tier, arguably just as beloved but decidedly not quite in the same league as the aforementioned.
Warner Home Video’s endlessly reissued DVD is of the same tired old print master originally made available under the old MGM/UA banner back in 1997. It remains a colossal disappointment. Fans have been patiently awaiting a 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 over as a restoration ‘too costly’ to undertake at the present time. Exactly when a viable ‘future date’ might present itself on the horizon, thus remains open for discussion. In general, Warner Home Video and its Warner Archive offshoot has been rather remiss in their devotion to 3-strip Technicolor releases in hi-def; I suspect, as many require costly clean-up and realignment of the original negatives in order to ensure their integrity.
Warner’s overwhelming acquisition of holdings from the MGM and RKO libraries, not to mention the vast holdings from their homegrown product, suggest a repository-based than restoration-minded philosophy when it comes to archiving these ancient goodies.  Thus, for now lovers of Show Boat have no alternative to this crummy DVD offering. The image is softly focused and colors seem strangely bright and/or boosted, if just as readily muddy throughout. From a purely archival perspective, Show Boat is very disappointing.  This DVD contains some age-related artifacts, color bleeding, color fading and wholly unnatural flesh tones. Contrast is a tad weak 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 for contemporary tastes. But it lacks the depth and clarity of other remastering efforts. Bottom line: Show Boat needs a new to Blu 1080p restoration – preferably with some well-intended extra features to enhance our appreciation of the movie. Bottom line: not recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)