From the 1870s to the 1930s, show boats were common along the major rivers of the United States. In 1926, Edna Ferber immortalized such a floating theatre, the Cotton Blossom, in her novel Show Boat. She actually spent time aboard a showboat to gather background information for the book. Who could know her tale of love and loss on the Mississippi River would spin into one of the world’s best-loved musical productions?
The romance (and tragedy) on these vessels plays out in the stories of Cap’n Andy, Magnolia, Julie, Steve, and the dashing gambler Gaylord Ravenal performed on Broadway and in three movie versions. In 1927, Jerome Kern (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (lyrics) brought the romantic drama to the Broadway stage as a musical. It ran for a year and a half—527 performances. Helen Morgan, herself a tragic figure in real life, played the role of Julie LaVerne whose forbidden interracial marriage would end her idyllic life on the show boat.
In 1929, Carl Laemmle produced a silent version of the book’s story. Eventually, with sound being integrated into movies, some found its way into this first on-screen version. Originally thought to be lost, the film has been (mostly) recovered.
Scarcely six years later, a second version with Irene Dunne and Alan Jones as Magnolia and Ravenal premiered. Then, in 1951, Kathryn Grayson (Magnolia), Howard Keel(Ravenal), and Ava Gardner (Julie) returned the poignant story to the screen. Other major stars rounding out the cast were Joe E. Brown (Cap’n Andy), Agnes Moorehead (Parthy, his wife), and Marge and Gower Champion doing what they did best—dancing.
I was six or seven when I saw this version of Show Boat, and I’ve loved it ever since. Whenever I need a good “weep”, I pull it out. Of course, I have the record album, too. All of the music soars beautifully, but Ol’ Man River is the dramatic song everyone remembers and associates with the story. No one sang it better than Paul Robeson in 1936. (His is an interesting life. Be sure to follow the link. He was an athlete, Phi Beta Kappa, and earned a law degree from Columbia University.) William Warfield reprised the classic song in the 1951 version.
The story line doesn’t hold true to the book in all the versions, but I find the 1936 and 1951 adaptations mutually satisfying. It’s HEA for Magnolia and Ravenal, though not for poor Julie, in both.
Even though the characters and music of Show Boat provide background nostalgia for my romantic suspense The Showboat Affair, the idea didn’t come from the original story but rather from a dinner theatre tour on the Branson Belle in Branson, Missouri. My pivotal characters, unlike Magnolia and Gaylord Ravenal, are (1) older (2) contemporary and (3) in love with each other and not with love itself. Nick and Jean are second-time-arounders. He lost his wife to cancer 20 years earlier, and Jean’s husband recently dumped her for a younger woman. Nick’s grown son and law partner and Jean’s married adult daughter express definite disapproval for the relationship—and someone else isn’t happy with it either. In fact, someone somewhere is doing his or her dead level best to put both Nick and Jean out of action—maybe permanently!
Leaving the Branson Belle after a satisfying evening of food and entertainment, I mentioned to my traveling companion the possibility of writing a book, something like The Showboat Murders. Properly horrified she responded immediately, “Oh, no! The Showboat Affair!”
Obviously I took her advice. (The book is written under the pen name Gwyneth Greer. In retrospect, I wish I’d used my own name.)