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?
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.
Is it happily ever after for Jean and Nick in The Showboat Affair? This week is your last chance to find out for 99 cents!