Musical 52

Watch 52 musicals, one every week, in 2015.

SHOW BOAT (1936)

Show Boat is a movie about a boatful of performers traveling up and down the mighty Mississipp putting on shows, save for the last 40 minutes where there’s no boat at all. Boo! Misleading title! Booooo! Anyway, the film is primarily a meditation on the hardships of being black in America in the late 1800s. Just kidding! There’s two scenes tops regarding that theme, and the rest focuses on the not-as-hardships of being an attractive white couple in love (Irene Dunne and Allan Jones). Toot toot!

So I found this movie’s plot and pacing to be all over the map, and I was going to go on a big ol’ rant about it, but then I did some research and discovered that the stage version runs over three hours and was based on a novel, so I’m guessing that a lot was cut out (or added) over the course of multiple adaptations. As much as I just love reading source material for Cinema 52 assignments, I have less than a week to write this article, so please accept my wild assumptions for now. Anyway, here comes the show boat!


So the boat rolls into town and Cap’n Andy Hawks (Charles Winninger) introduces everybody in the show, and I thought, “Oh, okay, this is going to be about the backstage lives of all these performers.” Then we meet Joe (Paul Robeson) and some other black dock workers and learn about how shitty their lives are, and there’s a scandal because the leading lady Julie (Helen Morgan) is half-black and illegally married to the all-white leading man Steve (Donald Cook), and I thought, “Oh, okay, this is going to be about how blacks were still mistreated post-slavery.”

Finally, a ’30s musical with something to say.

But instead of taking a stand, the captain’s wife Parthy (Helen Westley) tells the two leads to get the fuck off the boat and out of the show. They’re replaced by the captain’s daughter Magnolia (Irene Dunne) and some random local named Gaylord (Allan Jones), and the rest of the movie is about the same damn thing as every musical I’ve reviewed so far this year: showbiz types in love.

This IS the year that I stopped watching the same movie over and over, right?

So, yeah, they fall in love after the first 40 minutes of movie have already gone by, and then, just to throw me for another loop, the last 40 minutes follow their relationship for a few decades, the titular boat of shows nowhere to be seen. Sure. Okay. Do that. Pacing’s more of a nice bonus than a requirement, right? Anyway, while the couple has their difficulties, Magnolia and Gaylord’s lives seem to be easier than those of any other characters in the movie, which may subtly but intentionally be the point but more likely, um, isn’t at all.

I hate bringing the hammer down on an actor when the script is more likely at fault, but holy hell, Gaylord Ravenal is one bland-ass character. He comes into town, makes sex eyes at Magnolia or her clothing (more on this later), and sings like a gigantic cheeseball. There’s nothing particularly memorable about Allan Jones’s performance and who was I even talking about?

Why is this picture here? Huh? Anyway, next.

Irene Dunne, on the other hand, is damn near perfect as the sweet, naive Magnolia Hawks. She never goes too over the top with her innocence, and shows off quite a bit of emotional range as she learns more and more about the world through the years.

What a lovely spirit, just waiting to be crushed.

Helen Morgan IS Julie LaVerne, serving triple plot duty as Magnolia’s best friend on the show boat, a half-black woman rejected for her half-blackness, and a thankless secret savior of Magnolia’s career, and she brings the right amount of warmth and heartbreak to each situation.

Also, she acts her age. Some actors forget to.

Sadly only present for half of the film is Paul Robeson as the poor dock worker Joe. He’s a weary soul but nevertheless kind, and not only does he have one hell of a set of pipes, but unlike some musical stars I could name, he remembers to act while using them. When Paul sings a sad song, his expression punches you in the heart.

SB Joe

I’ve, uh, got something in my eye.

Also memorable are Hattie McDaniel as the ship’s cook and Joe’s wife Queenie, Charles Winninger as Cap’n Andy, and Francis X. Mahoney as a guy with a rubbery face named Rubber Face.

Alright, I try to cover the musical numbers in order of appearance, but I’ve gotta make an exception for this one. We’ll get to the white people’s problems in a bit, but for now, “Ol’ Man River” is the most haunting sequence I’ve seen so far this year. The music, the lyrics, the vocals, the acting, the cinematography, the editing, the choreography… they all come together to create a powerfully cinematic representation of the struggles of African Americans after the emancipation, the ignorance of which is both criticized and envied by Joe as he despondently compares it to the steadfast might of the Mississippi River. It is poignantly tragic and shockingly effective.

And I watched it ten times.

What baffles me is that it’s in the same movie as this utter horseshit:


There’s sweet, white protagonist Magnolia all blackfaced up and singing “Gallivantin’ Aroun’.” I’m no dummy, I know blackface is in lots of old movies, but what’s it doing after one of the most sympathetic musical numbers about the plight of black people in the South that I’ve ever seen? There’s no scene where anyone pooh-poohs this reminder that black performers are considered unacceptable on the stage while pretending to be them for shits and giggles is a veritable hoot, and if that is the point of its inclusion, its “subtlety” sure comes across like just a lot of harmless fun. Are you getting why this movie confused me so much yet?

Anyway, back to chronological. The first full-length song in the movie is a duet between Gaylord and Magnolia called “Make Believe,” and it is straight-up about safely imagining fucking each other because slapping crotches together is inappropriate when you’ve only just met. This kinky pre-Internet cybersex ditty is sung in that overblown, barely intelligible semi-operatic style that I can’t stand in musicals.

Just bang already!

After “Ol’ Man River,” the next tune up is “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” which is catchy and furthers the plot in more ways than one (a neat trick musicals seem to be starting to figure out around this time!). Julie sings it to explain what love is like to Magnolia, Queenie asks why Julie is singing a song most white people don’t know (our first hint that Julie is biracial), and Magnolia does this charmingly weird dance.

SB Magnolia Dance

It’s doing it for me.

Afterward, Gaylord again lets out his kinky side by singing to one of Magnolia’s stockings hanging on a clothesline. This really happens; he even grabs it for a quick fondling. He pretends Magnolia can’t overhear his tune about his secret love for her in “I Have the Room Above Her.” She joins him and makes it a duet, which is nice, considering if she hadn’t jumped in, he’d probably be jackin’ it into her pantyhose.

SB Stocking

Gaylord, his one true love, and also some woman named Magnolia.

After they’re a couple and the show’s a hit, Gaylord and Magnolia duet “You Are Love.” Again, it’s big, loud, and show-offy and I hate that shit. Maybe you think it’s romantic, but to me, without good acting it’s just braggy noise.

We get it, you can sing. And dude, she’s right there.

Then Joe and Queenie get a duet, because… I have no idea, honestly. It has no bearing on the plot, but Joe sings “Ah Still Suits Me,” about how Queenie nags him for being lazy but he’s still happy. Ha?

A little sexist, a little racist, a lot unnecessary.

The rest of the songs in the movie are performed on a stage or reprises of earlier songs. Julie sings a song called “Bill” though we never see a character named Bill, Magnolia sings a song from another musical, and some old tunes come back but now the context is different because this movie can be clever sometimes. Eh.

Hey, sometimes I declare a lyric to be awful just because of the images it conjures up in my own (questionable) brain, and this is one of those times. The writers of “Make Believe” probably didn’t intend for the following line to make me picture human mouths in a blender and ghosts making out, but it did.

“Make believe our lips are blending
in a phantom kiss or two, or three…”

I’ll call it; “Ol’ Man River” is the best self-contained musical number I’ve seen so far in my Musical 52 journey. It’s worth watching this movie for that sequence alone. The rest of the film comes down to preference, though, and I am just burnt out on showbiz romances. There are some fairly powerful dramatic moments, but they feel sloppily woven together at times. This film has too much to say or nothing to say. Either way, I’ve said enough. See you for the ’51 version?

Road to Singapore (1940)