(director: James Whale; screenwriters: from the novel by Edna Ferber/from the play by Oscar Hammerstein II & Jerome Kern/ Oscar Hammerstein II; cinematographer: John J. Mescall; editors: Bernard Burton/Ted Kent; music: Jerome Kern; cast: Irene Dunne (Magnolia Hawks), Allan Jones (Gaylord Ravenal), Charles Winninger (Captain Andy Hawks), Paul Robeson (Joe), Helen Morgan (Julie LaVerne), Helen Westley (Parthenia “Parthy” Hawks), Donald Cook (Steve Baker), Hattie McDaniel (Queenie), Charles Middleton (Sheriff Ike Vallon), J. Farrell MacDonald (Windy McClain), Francis X. Mahoney (Rubber Face Smith), Marilyn Knowlden (Kim as a child), Sunni O’Dea (Kim as a teenager), Sammy White (Frank Schultz), Queenie Smith (Ellie); Runtime: 112; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Carl Laemmle Jr.; The Criterion Collection; 1936)

“The great booming voice of Paul Robeson singing “Ol’ Man River” throughout is as good a number as was ever done in a musical.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Showboat is based on Edna Ferber’s 1926 novel, which was turned into a Broadway musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II in 1927. James Whale’s imaginative black-and-white version is much superior to the lavish but uninspiring 1951 Technicolor remake directed by George Sidney starring Ava Gardner, Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel. There was a semi-talkie version filmed in 1929 directed by Harry A. Pollard starring Laura LaPlante and Joseph Schildkraut that is lost, but reportedly is not as good as this version. The great booming voice of Paul Robeson singing “Ol’ Man River” throughout is as good a number as was ever done in a musical. Helem Morgan enchantingly sings “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” and “Bill.” Some other classic operetta songs include “Make Believe,” “Why Do I Love You,” and “You Are Love.” Three new songs were composed for the film: “Gallivantin’ Around,” “I Have the Room Above Her,” and “I Still Suits Me.”

It opens to a Mississippi river showboat pulling into port in a small southern town to put on a show. The boat’s impresario is the genial and vibrant Captain Andy Hawks (Charles Winninger), who is saddled with his sourpuss wife Parthy (Helen Westley). Their overprotected piano playing daughter Magnolia (Irene Dunne) is someone mom won’t allow to act in the show, thinking of show business people as riff-raff. The show’s stars are the married actors Julie (Helen Morgan) and Steve (Donald Cook); the black servants are the forceful and comical Queenie (Hattie McDaniel) and the sly and lazy Joe (Paul Robeson). When a disgruntled boatman who was spurned by Julie after giving her a brooch reveals that Julie had a white father but a black mother, the sheriff forces her to leave the showboat because in Mississippi there’s a law of miscegenation. Julie was best friends with Magnolia and taught her all her songs, including the ones only Negroes sing. Stuck without a leading couple as they depart for their next stopover, Andy convinces a handsome gambler passenger, Gaylord Ravenal (Allan Jones), booted out of town by the judge for murdering another gambler, to be the show’s costar with his daughter Magnolia. They fall madly in love and marry against her mom’s wishes, as the show becomes a hit. The married couple exit the showboat and live in Chicago, where Gaylord prospers at first as a gambler and does not permit his wife to work. Their daughter Kim is sent to a convent school. When Gaylord gets into a big financial jam, he bolts his family leaving only a letter of explanation and his last $200. Magnolia’s parents visit on the day she plays for the first time in the Knickerbocker Theater, a job she gets hooked up with through one of the supporting actors from her father’s showboat, Frank Schultz (Sammy White), and by the generous act displayed behind the scene by the show’s fallen star Julie (the same Julie from the showboat, who is now an alcoholic) who realizes that her good friend must be desperate and thereby immediately leaves the show so that Nola can get the gig. Nola becomes a hit, her father becomes her business manager, and she becomes an international star playing in such places as London and on Broadway. When Nola retires after a great career, her 16-year-old daughter Kim takes her place in a Broadway show. After all these years, a broke Gaylord returns and is discovered working as the stage doorman. When Nola spots him, she welcomes him back to the family and he sings onstage a duet with Kim.

The film offers a good mix of music and melodrama, great performances, a toning down of the story’s racial stereotyping (at least for the time period), and a smart and stylish production. It hits a few dull spots but there are also a few brilliant moments, and overall it remains oddly appealing. It also brings a warning against being lazy, an alcoholic (Julie turned into one), a gambler or a racist society.