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  Show Boat Keeps Rollin' Along
Year: 1936
Director: James Whale
Stars: Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, Charles Winninger, Paul Robeson, Helen Morgan, Helen Westley, Queenie Smith, Sammy White, Donald Cook, Hattie McDaniel, Francis X. Mahoney, Marilyn Knowlden, Sunnie O'Dea, Arthur Hohl, Charles Middleton, Clarence Muse
Genre: Musical, Comedy, Drama, RomanceBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: This show boat paddle steamer travels up the Mississippi, stopping at various towns and cities along the way where it stages performances for the locals, but as this is the late eighteen hundreds, there are rules the staff have to abide by lest they get into trouble: though there is a mix of black and white onboard, the blacks are not allowed to take to the theatre hall contained on the boat. For Magnolia (Irene Dunne), this has never been a problem, as she is white and has learned her craft at the feet of the singers and actors who populate the vessel, and the legacy of both races. Her best friend Julie (Helen Morgan) may be hiding a secret, however, that will sabotage her own career...

This musical version of the Edna Ferber novel, which was brought to the theatre by Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern, was not entirely about racial issues in the United States, but the passing of time has brought them into focus with regard to its production, even more so than the 1951 remake. That was down to it, at least in the first half, being more engaged with its African American characters, and representing them in a mainstream entertainment in a way that was unprecedented for the restrictive times it was made. While charismatic star Paul Robeson carved out a movie career in Britain and was embraced, back home he was not quite so fortunate.

And let's not forget Britain was not exactly a bastion of progressive values in the first half of the twentieth century, but if an obvious talent like Robeson made a name for himself on stage, record and film, yet struggled in the States thanks to the racism endemic in the nation's society, then that reflects badly on the supposed Land of the Free. Robeson towers above everyone else in Show Boat, for he was one of the instigators of the Civil Rights movement before that was even popularised, so naturally as one of its advocates in a film this early that strongly featured performers of colour, the interest was going to be on him. Robeson suffered mightily for his beliefs, and that adds to the interest.

Which makes this film perhaps more intriguing by reputation than the act of watching it, for while Robeson and his screen wife Hattie McDaniel (who won the first acting Oscar for any black performer) were given plenty of screen time, and Morgan played a woman unjustly ruined because she was mixed race, actually the story returned time and again to Magnolia, to the extent that she elbows most of the other characters out of the way, no matter their provenance. This may be frustrating to modern eyes, and while there was a degree of this version being praised because it used language and scenes that would later be judged as "politically incorrect" (minstrelsy, racial slurs) and therefore embraced by a section of the audience who relished stuff you supposedly could show anymore, it was in danger of being overrated.

It was, thanks to a craftsman like James Whale on directing duties, a more cinematically daring and innovative incarnation than the softened remake, and he made some enemies on the project by wanting to make it consciously as a film, rather than a filmed stage play as musicals could be in those days, though Robeson for one loved his ideas and the two became fast friends. The star was right, with a combination of fluid camera, imaginative staging, careful editing and so on, Whale kept things captivating even when Magnolia was trampling over everyone else's storyline, marrying a gambler (Allan Jones) and becoming a singing celebrity. What you really wanted was to find out what happened to Julie, or Robeson and McDaniel's couple, for they were the more intriguing participants in the picture, but the climate of the day would not have allowed it. You can't accuse this Show Boat for not trying, however, it did wonders within narrow censorship and social parameters, and historically it remained vital to the biography of Robeson, a man who was terribly treated by his own country for wanting simple equality: his Ol' Man River became a signature song, adapted at his own insistence over many years, and it's a standout here.

[Criterion release this on Blu-ray with the following, excellent, features:

New, restored 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
Audio commentary from 1989 featuring American-musical historian Miles Kreuger
New interview with James Whale biographer James Curtis
Recognizing Race in Show Boat, a new interview program featuring professor and author Shana L. Redmond
Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (1979), an Academy Award–winning short documentary by Saul J. Turell, newly restored
Four performances from the sound prologue of the 1929 film version of Show Boat, including songs from original Broadway cast members Helen Morgan, Jules Bledsoe, and Tess Gardella, plus twenty minutes of silent excerpts from the film, with audio commentary by Kreuger
Two radio adaptations of Show Boat, featuring stage and screen cast members Morgan, Allan Jones, and Charles Winninger; producer Orson Welles; and novelist Edna Ferber
English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
PLUS: An essay by critic Gary Giddins.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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