Criterion Corner: Show Boat (#1021)

What is it I look for in a Criterion release? Why do I not just get every single film released by the Criterion Collection? It would certainly save me some time – upfront, at least, though not necessarily afterwards, when I actually have to watch these films. Not that it’s a chore, but my various media backlogs and the increasing unlikelihood that I’ll actually get to finish all the films, series, books, games etc. that I’ve amassed in my life to date are already making me more anxious than I like. (#firstworldproblemsamirite?)

So, what is it that makes me buy a Criterion release? Obviously, the first reason is that they release a film that I already like, or the work of filmmakers and actors that I already enjoy. Next, sometimes it’s a film that I’ve heard a lot about, one of those stone-cold classics that I’ve never got around to watching on TV, and what better way to first see a classic than a good remaster with interesting extras included on the disc? (Okay, the correct answer to this is often: at the cinema. But while I’m very happy with our local cinema releases of classics, they will never cover everything I’m interested in.) Sometimes it’s simply that I’ve never heard of a certain Criterion release, or perhaps only snippets and a still here and there, but what I read makes it sound intriguing, strange or fascinating in some other way. I mean, if it’s Criterion, it’s gotta be good, right?

The final type of Criterion purchases I make comes from me feeling somewhat guilty that I’m not more broadly interested in the history of cinema. Obviously I am interested, but then I look at Julie or Alan, our two resident movie historians, and I see their fascinating with and breadth of knowledge on classic Hollywood, whether we’re talking about the classics of silent movies or pre-Code Hollywood, and there’s a part of my movie-fan ego that feels vaguely inadequate.

I didn’t get Show Boat directly because of any feelings of inadequacy: instead it’s that they were showing it at the best (local) cinema and we didn’t get around to watching it (probably because we were already there three or four other evenings that week). So, instead, I consulted the internet and found out that Criterion had done a release – which, obviously, was a sign. If there’s a Criterion issue of Show Boat, that’s the universe telling me to add the film to my collection, right?

My hesitancy to actually get around to talking about the film may already hint at it: Show Boat won’t exactly show up at the top of my list of favourite Criterion releases – and, more importantly, it’s in part because, unlike Julie or Alan, I’m just not enough of a movie historian. It’s an often charming film, and there are lots of things about it that are interesting or fascinating, but I came away from the film feeling that, in the end, I would have preferred to watch it once, in combination with a lecture by someone who can provide the necessary historical context and point out what it does that was unique for the time. My problem is that I am not sure these things translate altogether well to a 2023 context – and while it would be unfair for a film that is almost 90 years old to conform to modern tastes and predilections, it’s one thing to know the historical context and quite another to enjoy a film in an entirely different context.

Show Boat is a musical that originally came out in 1927, adapted from Edna Ferber’s novel, with music written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, including the classic song “Ol’ Man River”. It was adapted for the screen by James Whale, the director of Universal’s Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, and was released in 1936. Show Boat tells the story of Cap’n Andy Hawks (Charles Winninger) and his wife Parthy Ann Hawks (Helen Westley) travelling the Mississippi in the late 1880s, the couple’s daughter Magnolia (Irene Dunne) disastrous marriage to Gaylord Ravenal (Allan Jones), and the later stage success of both Magnolia and her daughter Kim (Sunnie O’Dea). There is a parallel plot about the show boat’s leading actress Julie LaVerne (Helen Morgan), who is part black but passing as white and who, due to being married to a white man (Donald Cook), is forced to leave the boat.

This latter plot strand highlights Show Boat‘s interest in matters of race in the Southern states of the US, but this interest is also seen elsewhere: Show Boat begins with a title sequence in which black dock workers sing “Cotton Blossom”: “Here we all work on de Mississippi/Here we all work while de white folks play/Loadin’ up boats wid de bales of cotton/Gettin’ no rest till de Judgement Day”. It’s not exactly W.E.B. Du Bois, but neither would I have expected a big Hollywood musical of the 1930s to address the legacy of slavery. Later, we get “Ol’ Man River”, sung by Paul Robeson – and it is startling to see how the film handles race, and especially its African American character Joe and actor Robeson. Like “Cotton Blossom”, the song speaks of the situation of black labourers in the South: where the Mississippi “don’ plant taters,/He don’t plant cotton”, “dem dat plants ’em/Is soon forgotten”. The song, and Robeson’s performance of it, carries a degree of pathos and humanity that makes it easy to forget “Make Believe”, the romantic song that precedes it – and the romance that is reserved for the white protagonist. Moreover, the way “Ol’ Man River” is staged doesn’t just focus on Joe’s humanity and the deplorable treatment of African American labourers in the South even after the official end of US slavery: the way the camera shoots Robeson highlights his attractiveness. He brings a charisma to Show Boat that makes you wish the film was about him.

All of which sounds interesting, doesn’t it? A 1930s musical dealing with issues of race and America’s toxic legacy. It’s also there in the music: Kern uses traditionally black styles and forms, e.g. in “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man”, which Julie teaches to Magnolia, another example of the strict lines of racial division being blurred. The thing is this: most of what is surprising and interesting about Show Boat comes in the first half hour of the film, and afterwards it is either undermined or dropped for considerably more conventional, melodramatic plot developments. Joe is granted pathos and humanity, but he is also depicted as something of a lazy good-for-nothing, which isn’t far removed from harmful stereotypes about blacks in the American South. Julie does reenter the story later, but only to literally cede her place to Magnolia, and that’s the last we see of her. The show boat too vanishes from the story, and so do Joe and his wife Queenie (played by Hattie McDaniel, who had the ambivalent honour of winning an Oscar for her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind). There is little in the film’s second half that hints at the earlier engagement with the theme of race. What we get instead is the white characters’ melodrama, plus one musical number in blackface and another with a romantic (though very brief) depiction of what seems to be the antebellum South. Go figure.

Verdict: Don’t get me wrong: Show Boat does a lot of things that I wouldn’t have expected in a musical film from the 1930s. It’s also not that the rest of the movie is bad; it is engaging, funny and sweet, though audiences must be able to stomach the era’s style of melodrama. But after the way the film starts, and especially after “Ol’ Man River”, it is difficult not to feel like, once the plot is set into motion, Show Boat loses interest in its black characters in favour of a relatively standard showbiz melodrama focusing exclusively on the white protagonists. I’ve yet to watch the extras included in the Criterion release, and they may make me more well disposed towards Whale’s film – but I generally find it difficult to engage with a film emotionally if the key to understanding it is entirely intellectual. The more I have to learn about the era and its culture, the more my engagement with the film shifts onto an entirely different level. And even with a lot of explanation and goodwill, I find it difficult to imagine that I wouldn’t mind Show Boat‘s shift after its first third or so. It certainly starts in an interesting place, and I understand enough of the historical context to acknowledge and enjoy this, but while watching the film it felt a bit as if Huckleberry Finn had dropped Jim after a hundred pages and had focused exclusively on its white protagonist. As a result, I’d find it difficult to recommend Show Boat to anyone who doesn’t already have a strong interest in the genre as well as the era and its society, politics and culture… and at that point, chances are that a person already knows the film. If, like me, you have a fairly generalised or even vague idea but are interested in the film, my suggestion would be to do some research beforehand. It limits the likelihood of disappointment when the film’s first half hour proves to be quite a bit more interesting than what follows.

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