For years, Whale’s version of the Show Boat stage show was suppressed by MGM, which had bought the rights for the studio’s own 1951 remake of it — and went out of its way (as MGM also did with the 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the British version of Gaslight and, ironically, Whale’sWaterloo Bridge) to prevent any chance of comparison between the two. Universal’s version is, in fact, the second pass at the story; Universal had filmed it as a part talkie (with a prologue that contained some of the Broadway show’s songs) that was based more on the far-grimmer Edna Ferber novel than the play. Whale’s film, on the other hand, is an almost perfect encapsulation of the stage show — material that benefited from the filmmaker’s innate theatricalism.
As with all Whale films, Show Boat is an overt theater piece, but here Whale is at his absolute best, because he’d rarely — if ever — had access to this kind of talent. (All right, so Allan Jones as Gaylord Ravenal is no better than he has any right to be — someone once aptly described him as coming across as if he was being pressed between two pieces of glass — but it’s pretty much an impossible role.) Irene Dunne is a positively luminous Magnolia, but the real treats are the legendary Paul Robeson as Joe and Helen Morgan as Julie. Robeson is not only the quintessential Joe, but Show Boat is one of the few movies to adequately showcase the performer. From the onset, it’s obvious that Whale knew he was blessed with a unique talent in Robeson — check out the introductory shot of the actor as the director tracks in for a typically Whalean tight close-up, not to mention the thrilling almost-360-degree panning shot around Robeson’s head at the climax of “Ol’ Man River.”
Show Boat marked Helen Morgan’s last film appearance — and despite the fact that she apparently had to have coffee poured into her, or even had to be thrown into a cold shower between takes, it’s easy to see why she was one of the chanteuses of her era. The movie’s not perfect, but it’s primary flaws are those of a rather soapy stage original and a book that places all the most memorable songs — “Make Believe,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man of Mine” and “Ol’ Man River” — at its outset. But as a splendid piece of theater on film and an example of a brilliant, often undervalued, filmmaker at his creative zenith, Show Boat is hard to beat.
The Asheville Film Society will screen Show Boat Tuesday, July 21, at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.