Show Boat

Movie Information

In Brief: Long suppressed by MGM, James Whale's 1936 film of the classic Broadway show, Show Boat, is far and away the best version ever made. Much more faithful than MGM's rather tacky 1951 film, it works on every level, thanks to Whale's masterful blending of cinema and theater. He gets every last bit of good out of the admittedly awkwardly structured original, and brings his unique filmmaking flair to the material while preserving the innate sense of theater. A few moments may come across as politically incorrect today, but the tone makes the overall film come across as anything but.
Genre: Musical
Director: James Whale
Starring: Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, Charles Winninger, Paul Robeson, Helen Morgan, Helen Westley
Rated: NR

In keeping with the birthday salute to James Whale by the Thursday Horror Picture Show, the Asheville Film Society screens his 1936 film Show Boat this week. This was the last film Whale had total control over, and he approaches it almost as if he knew he’d never have this much freedom again. Everything about the film is just a little bit better, and a little more creative than it actually needed to be. Unfortunately, it’s also a film that just isn’t seen that often. That started back in 1951 when MGM bought the film from Universal for the express purpose of keeping it from being compared to their gaudy Technicolor remake. (MGM was famous for this tactic.) In the 1980s when that was no longer a concern — and when home video made it a potentially marketable commodity — it started being seen again, which made it immediately apparent why MGM didn’t want their film compared to it. Interestingly, the first time I saw the film was in New York in 1982 when it was being paired with another Jerome Kern musical, Roberta (1935) — which had also been suppressed by MGM for another inferior remake. Whale’s Show Boat did get both a VHS and a laserdisc release, but has yet to make it to DVD — a strange omission that might be because of Irene Dunne’s blackface number, “Gallivantin’ Around.” If that’s why, are we that incapable of viewing a film in the context of its time? Even more, the number in question isn’t even meant to represent 1936, but to duplicate a standard convention of the era that the film was depicting. It is, in any case, something of a cultural crime to keep a film that’s the definitive version of a classic of American musical theater from being seen.

For more on Show Boat go here:

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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