(director: George Sidney; screenwriters: from the novel by Edna Ferber/from the play by Oscar Hammerstein II & Jerome Kern/John Lee Mahin; cinematographer: Charles Rosher; editor: John Dunning; cast: Kathryn Grayson (Magnolia Hawks), Ava Gardner (Julie LaVerne), Howard Keel (Gaylord Ravenal), Joe E. Brown (Captain Andy Hawks), Marge Champion (Ellie May Shipley), Gower Champion (Frank Schultz), Agnes Moorehead (Parthy Hawks), Robert Sterling (Stephen Baker), William Warfield (Joe), Leif Erickson (Pete), Emory Parnell (Jake Green); Runtime: 107; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Arthur Freed; MGM; 1951)

“A much weaker Show Boat version than the 1936 one by James Whale.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A much weaker Show Boat version than the 1936 one by James Whale. This third version of the classic play, there was one in 1929 now lost, is a lavish MGM Technicolor one but lacks the commitment to be anti-racist and the mystique of Whale’s, as it comes through as a dull but efficient rendering of Edna Ferber’s 1926 novel that was transformed into a musical operetta by Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern. It can be enjoyed for its spectacle, the hoofing of Marge and Gower Champion, the rich Kern tunes (“Ol’ Man River,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man,” “Why Do I Love You,” “You Are Love” and “Bill”) and on the worth of the play itself. The leads, Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel, have fine voices, but their acting is drab. The third lead, Ava Gardner, in the part played so brilliantly by Helen Morgan in the 1936 version, has her voice dubbed.

The plot sticks close to the play and the 1936 version, but alters somewhat the third act. The Mississippi River showboat, the “Cotton Blossom,” arrives in a small southern town bringing great excitement to both the white and black part of town. Magnolia (Kathryn Grayson), daughter of the genial showboat impresario Captain Andy (Joe E. Brown) and his sourpuss wife Parthy Hawkes (Agnes Moorehead), falls in love with the dashing gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Howard Keel). When the show’s married couple, leading lady Julie (Ava Gardner) and leading man Steve (Robert Sterling), must leave when Julie’s mixed race heritage is revealed to the sheriff by a rejected suitor (Leif Erickson), Magnolia and Gaylord are asked to assume their stage roles and have success. The two are married over her mother’s objections and for a short time find bliss. After heavy gambling losses, Gaylord splits not knowing Magnolia is expecting a baby. With the help of her former showboat colleagues Ellie and Frank Schultz (Marge and Gower Champion) and by Julie from a distance, Magnolia gets a gig as a cabaret singer in Chicago. Her New Year’s Eve debut is saved by the help of her father, who quiets some hecklers and assists her in singing “After the Ball.” Thereby Magnolia reunites with her family. When Gaylord discovers through alcoholic Julie that he has a daughter named Kim, he returns to the fold and everyone lives happily ever after.