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Show Boat (1936)

Show Boat (1936)
May 19, 2012 - 4:00 pm
actress/author Marilyn Knowlden; author Miles Kreuger, "Show Boat: The Story of a Classic American Musical."

Directed by James Whale

Carl Laemmle purchased rights to Show Boat, Edna Ferber’s sprawling Southern novel about life on the Mississippi, in 1927, several months before the opening of Florenz Ziegfeld’s Broadway smash. Hollywood’s scramble to convert to sound, however, overtook Universal’s production and it became apparent to the studio that it would now have to include the tremendously successful Kern and Hammerstein musical score at considerable additional expense ($165,000 for rights alone). The subsequent part-talkie/musical was released in 1929 to mostly scathing reviews, a plodding 14-reeler that exemplified Hollywood’s mostly awkward transition to the sound era.

By 1935, the Laemmles had mortgaged the studio’s future productions as well as their controlling interest in the studio and were in desperate need of a box office smash. Everything appeared to be resting on a Show Boat remake that had been languishing for years. Ultimately, Universal’s prominent horror director James Whale was the incongruous choice to direct a cast of principals drawn mostly from the stage version, including Charles Winninger as the affable Cap’n Andy, Helen Morgan as the tragic Julie LaVerne, and the incomparable Paul Robeson as Joe. Currently under a three-picture contract with the studio, an eager Irene Dunne reprised the role of Magnolia for which she had received great acclaim during the stage tour. Whale, however, incensed the theater veterans even before shooting began, telling them to “forget whatever ideas you have, because I will interpret, through you, my conception of each role.” Much later, Dunne reflected on the experience: “Whale wasn’t the right director. He was more interested in atmosphere and lighting and he knew so little about that [Southern riverboat] life.”

Despite the chilly relationships, production delays, and cost overruns, Universal’s 1936 Show Boat is a lovingly crafted and deeply emotional musical that received unanimous critical praise. The New York Times gushed that it was “one of the finest musical films we have seen.” Unfortunately, the film’s success could not be leveraged to save Universal from insolvency. The studio’s new owners, Standard Capital Company and Charles R. Rogers, immediately dismissed Laemmle and son, and a new era of cost-cutting and modest productions commenced.

—Todd Wiener

Universal Productions. Producer: Carl Laemmle Jr. Based on the novel by Edna Ferber and the musical by Edna Ferber, Jerome Kern, and Oscar Hammerstein II. Screenwriter: Oscar Hammerstein II. Cinematographer: John J. Mescall. Editor: Ted Kent. Cast: Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, Charles Winninger, Paul Robeson, Helen Morgan.

35mm, b/w, 115 min.