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Saturday, August 18, 2012

THE STORY OF SHOWBOAT


I'm gathering double (and triple)-bill movie packages I will be watching and featuring over the next few months.  One will surely be the Wizard of Oz (which could take all day because there are three different films, plus The Wiz and, soon to come, Wicked) and the  combination of Casablanca and Play it Again, Sam.  But let me start with SHOWBOAT, for it has historical significance.

The 1926 novel by Pulitzer Prize winner Edna Ferber (left), broadway shows and films of SHOWBOAT were salient events stimulating what America is today.  Ferber, who was Jewish and an old maid, wove in a lesson of miscegenation to what was in part a dark book.  However, even though the mulatto character Julie was named after her mother,  Edna herself might not have been particularly sympathetic to the black cause.   She also wrote So Big, Giant and Cimarron, all made into successful movies, several times.  There is a recurring theme involving downtrodden rights


When reviewing any historical publication, you need to interpret the story through the eyes of the times.  Whether a broadway show or in text, you must admire the courage shown by the producer or author for gallantly defying tradition and dealing with controversial issues, for SHOWBOAT was the first broadway show in America to portray racial relations with a mixed cast.  Old Man River was a breakthrough protest song, made memorable by Paul Robeson (left), although William Warfield (right) was fine, if not exceptional, in 1951.

New York and Hollywood added entertainment to Ferber's bestseller with, sometimes, happy endings, for Showboat served as the foundation for six broadway (plus London West End) shows (1927, 1932, 1946, 1966, 1983 and 1994) and three films (1929, 1936 and 1951).  However, with Oscar Hammerstein (Jerome Kern wrote the music) in command of the words, there was this opportunity to bring to light social problems.  In Showboat, it was racism and alcoholism.  Hammerstein later with Richard Rogers continued similar crusades for racial equality and temperance in South Pacific, King and I, and Flower Drum Song.

The story (at least in the book--same timeframe for all, but some end earlier) takes you from the 1870's through the 1920's on a Mississippi River paddle showboat moving from river town to the next, where interwoven are two tales of failed marriages.  One is rescued in the later films, and in the latter two, the music was fabulous:

  Ol' Man River (1936, Paul Robeson)
  Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man (1951, Ava Gardner, but voice of Annette Warren)

A couple of years ago, late at night, I just happened to turn to a TCM channel where the 1936 version was just beginning.  I did not even know there was this earlier film , for the the MGM Technicolor 1951 blockbuster regularly pops up on various cable channels.  Then, I later found out there was also a 1929 silent original.  The 1936 adaption remains my favorite.  Something about the performance of Irene Dunne was memorable.  However, Magnolia is supposed to be 18 years old and Dunne in 1936 was 36.  I remember her well for singing Smoke Gets in Your Eyes from the 1935 movie Roberta.  Allan Jones, the Gaylord Ravenal gambler in this film, incidentally, is also remembered singing Donkey Serenade to Jeanette MacDonald in Firefly, and is Jack Jones' father.  Florenz Ziegfield was a major player in the 1936 Showboat.

Kathryn Grayson was "only" 29 when she played Magnolia in 1951.  As an elfin-like counterpoint with a uniquely pleasant pitch, she was perfectly type cast opposite Howard Keel:


He was the ideal lovable heel.  They also teamed for Kiss Me Kate.  How can you forget "Wunderbar?"  She passed away only two years ago at the age of 88.

All three SHOWBOAT films on one DVD were expected to be marketed in 2007.  Nothing so far, although this trio was made available on laser disc.

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Hurricane Gordon, now at a significant 105 MPH, is in the middle of the Atlantic heading for the USA, but should soon weaken and dissipate.  Tropical Depression Tembin, now east of the Philippines, will strengthen into a typhoon and move towards north Taiwan.

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