Turner Classic Movies has once again begun its season-ending marathon that is 31 DAYS OF OSCAR®, and I happened to stumble upon this film that I’ve heard so much about over the years being one of the first to air in this year’s edition. It follows the workers on a Mississippi River showboat (i.e. a floating theater) called the Cotton Blossom and, in particular, the romance which, um…blossoms between the captain’s daughter Magnolia (Kathryn Grayson) and a gambling man named Gaylord Ravenal (Howard Keel).
This is actually the third adaptation of a stage musical produced by Florenz Ziegfeld and based on Edna Ferber’s eponymous novel, with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics and book by Oscar Hammerstein II. The first adaptation, in 1936, was fairly faithful to the stage version and was released the same year as the Best Picture Oscar®-winning biopic THE GREAT ZIEGFELD. An abbreviated medley of songs from the film forms part of MGM’s 1946 Jerome Kern biopic TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY; the same studio released their full-fledged screen adaptation of SHOW BOAT five years later.
This version of SHOW BOAT trades many of its stage roots for a much more refined story. There have been many arguments as to whether this adaptation is superior or not to the original stage musical and its more faithful 1936 adaptation—which of course, I have not seen up to this point—but regardless, this production of the Arthur Freed Unit really stands on its own as a wonderful romantic tale with timeless musical numbers, excellent choreography (particularly in a number involving the artful dancing team of Marge and Gower Champion), a stellar cast, and brilliant Oscar®-nominated Technicolor cinematography, all of which combine into a sheer triumph of the screen, and of the MGM musical tradition.
One other note: As the vessel’s leading lady, Julie LaVerne, is partially black, Lena Horne was originally slated to star as the vessel’s leading lady, Julie LaVerne (and actually did appear as her in TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY), but studio executives were nervous about casting her in the role. The Motion Picture Production Code of the time also forbade the depiction of interracial romance, although ironically such a relationship is outright stated as the reason for Julie and Steve (Robert Sterling) being forced to leave the company. In any event, Ava Gardner was cast as Julie instead and, ultimately, had her singing voice dubbed by Annette Warren due to a series of failed previews, though her original voice tracks appeared in certain other places, including a Horne-narrated segment of the retrospective compilation THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT! III (1994).