thu 01/10/2020

Blu-ray: Show Boat (1936) | reviews, news & interviews

Blu-ray: Show Boat (1936)

Blu-ray: Show Boat (1936)

Paul Robeson's few scenes dominate James Whale's great backstage musical

Just keeps rollin': Paul Robeson in 'Showboat'.Universal Pictures

Stretching from the 1880s through the 1920s, Edna Ferber’s 1926 novel Show Boat, about three generations of entertainers aboard a Mississippi steamer, became the 1928 Jerome Kern–Oscar Hammerstein musical, a part-musical 1929 film, next the 1936 James Whale masterpiece for which Kern and Hammerstein wrote three new songs.

Stretching from the 1880s through the 1920s, Edna Ferber’s 1926 novel Show Boat, about three generations of entertainers aboard a Mississippi steamer, became the 1928 Jerome Kern–Oscar Hammerstein musical, a part-musical 1929 film, next the 1936 James Whale masterpiece for which Kern and Hammerstein wrote three new songs. Whale brought in Charles Winninger, Helen Morgan, and Sammy White from the original Broadway cast, Irene Dunne from the US touring version, Paul Robeson from the 1928 Drury Lane production and 1932 Broadway revival, and Hattie McDaniel and tenor Allan Jones from the 1933 Californian show.

Not all this casting was felicitous all the time. Dunne is a lovely screen presence but she was too ladylike and, at 38, too old to play the heroine Magnolia at 18, but she’s terrific as her older incarnation. Dolores Costello similarly played the young and mature Isabel in 1942’s The Magnificent Ambersons; Norman Shearer was 34 when she starred in MGM’s superannuated 1936 Romeo and Juliet. Still, power to them for taking their chances. Then, as now, many actresses are washed up by their early thirties, cruelly supplanted by younger models.

Imagining an actor other than Robeson playing the riverboat worker Joe is impossible. Early in the movie this nonchalant godhead ruminates on his people’s recent past as he sings “Ol’ Man River" in his melancholy bass baritone as John J. Mescall’s camera spirals around him – Whale intercutting “memories” of Joe and other formerly enslaved Africans and their descendants effectively "toting barges and lifting bales" like so many Sisyphuses. Robeson’s rendition gives the lie to the good-natured complaints of Joe's wife Queenie (McDaniel) that he’s a lazy good-for-nothing and iterates the song’s bitter metaphor: ol’ man river just keeps rollin’ along as the suffering of blacks continues.

Show Boat’s take on racism is confusing. It embodied Uncle Tom-ism in the performances of McDaniel and the stereotypical mugging of black extras, shot in closeup, amid the hundreds of black extras who provide scenery for the arrival of the steamer in one Mississippi town. Dunne, shockingly (by today’s standards), performs one number in blackface. Yet there’s more than a degree of empathy and admiration in her joyful mimicking of a black girl dancing in Robeson and McDaniel’s presence. A moving subplot involving the half-black Julie (Morgan), who’s passing as white, and her devoted white husband (Donald Cook), excoriates Mississippi’s anti-miscegenation laws, which weren't repealed until 1987.

The Criterion Collection enlisted the music, race, and politics professor Shana L Redmond to parse Show Boat’s approach to race issues – her video presentation could scarcely be more enriching. It’s backed up by an Oscar-winning 1979 short, narrated by Sidney Poitier, that shows how Robeson changed lyrics in “Ol’ Man River” over the years as he and the song became icons of the Civil Rights movement and of his personal struggle against censorship; footage of him talking to interviews is unmissable. An interview with Whale biographer James Curris on the director’s career – belatedly liberated from its Gothic horror ghetto – deepens our appreciation of the visual mastery he brought to Show Boat.

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