Saturday, March 06, 2021

Tonight's Movie: Show Boat (1951) - A Warner Archive Blu-ray Review

The MGM version of SHOW BOAT (1951) is another stunningly beautiful new Blu-ray release from the Warner Archive.

MGM's colorful presentation of the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II musical about love and loss on the Cotton Blossom in the late 19th century has been a favorite since I was first enthralled by excerpts in THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT! (1974) as a pre-teen.

Not long after THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT! came out my parents took me to see the movie at Cerritos College; I suspect it was probably a 16mm Films Incorporated print, but what I know for certain is I was thrilled to see it. Keep in mind there was no home video or cable television in the '70s, so the only chance to see a complete, unedited film without commercials was on a big screen.

Throughout my teen years I immersed myself in SHOW BOAT; I read the novel by Edna Ferber and Miles Kreuger's important history, SHOW BOAT: THE STORY OF A CLASSIC AMERICAN MUSICAL. I was also fortunate to see a 35mm print of the 1936 version starring Irene Dunne, Helen Morgan, and Paul Robeson at the Vagabond Theater in Los Angeles.

While many classic film fans and historians have a preference for the 1936 version, I find MGM's production superior for myriad reasons.

Though I'm a big fan of Dunne, overall I prefer the exceptional casting of the 1951 version; this includes Ava Gardner, who was unfortunately dubbed (by Annette Warren). Existing audio tracks show Gardner was more than capable of singing her numbers. I find Gardner deeply moving as the tragic Julie, who is hounded off the show boat due to a claim of miscegnation.  SHOW BOAT is a beautiful film which has dramatic heft in part due to its exposure of the ugliness which existed in times past.

Kathryn Grayson perfectly captures young Magnolia's naive sweetness, with Howard Keel the dashing gambler, Gaylord Ravenal. Joe E. Brown and Agnes Moorehead are Magnolia's parents, Cap'n Andy and Parthy Hawks.

The MGM version also has the delightful dancing of Marge and Gower Champion, who are not only marvelous to watch but also serve to provide some relief from the heavier drama.

Importantly for me, the MGM version also includes William Warfield as Joe, who sings "Ol' Man River." I grew up listening to Warfield on an LP album with John Raitt and Barbara Cook, and I find his performance of the song thrilling. It never fails to give me chills.

Another plus for the MGM version is that John Lee Mahin's screenplay excises and/or condenses much of the prolonged sad drama from the latter part of the story. There's enough heavy going as it is, between the two star-crossed love stories, without dragging it out for decades. The film hits all the key story points and emotional notes in its 108 minutes, and I'm good without the film showing Kim (Sheila Clark) growing to adulthood!

What really makes MGM's SHOW BOAT a winner for me is the way the cast is utilized as part of the overall staging, as directed by George Sidney, with costumes by Walter Plunkett, gorgeous orchestrations by Conrad Salinger, and the lush Technicolor photography of Charles Rosher (SCARAMOUCHE).

There are three key sequences which are so perfectly staged and orchestrated that they never fail to bring tears to my eyes: The opening appearance of the Cotton Blossom, with the chorus performing as the boat pulls into the dock; Warfield singing "Ol' Man River" on a foggy morning as Gardner and Robert Sterling leave the show boat; and the finale, with Grayson and Keel reunited on the boat as Warfield reprises "Ol' Man River" and Gardner blows them a kiss.

As that last scene fades out and "The End" comes up, including the words "Made in Hollywood, U.S.A.," I always tear up for the Hollywood that is no more, but which I'm grateful once existed.

A couple interesting side notes on the staging of "Ol' Man River" come from Hugh Fordin's classic 1975 book on MGM's Freed Unit, THE WORLD OF ENTERTAINMENT: Director Sidney fell ill and associate producer Roger Edens actually directed the memorable scene with Gardner and Sterling leaving the boat, which leads into the song. Additionally, the studio was shooting in November and December and taking advantage of real early morning fog rolling in, but each day's light looked somewhat different; cinematographer Rosher had the "uncanny" ability to light each day for a consistent appearance.

My previous DVD copy only had a trailer as an extra. The Blu-ray has a wonderful array of supplemental material in addition to the trailer, including an archival commentary track by director George Sidney; the SHOW BOAT sequence from TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY (1946) with Grayson, Tony Martin, and Lena Horne; outtakes of Ava Gardner singing; and the 1952 Lux Radio Theater production with Grayson, Keel, Gardner, and Warfield, plus Jay C. Flippen as Cap'n Andy.

The disc also includes a song selection menu and the choice of two soundtracks, the mono release version or a stereo mix.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray. Warner Archive Blu-rays may be ordered from the WBShop or from any online retailers where Blu-rays are sold.


Blogger Vienna said...

Terrific review, Laura . Your love of the film comes across strongly. I still prefer the 1936 version maybe because it is the nearest we will get to the original Broadway production, with a cast many of whom had appeared in the Florenz Zeigfeld show.
How wonderful that you saw the ‘36 version at the Vagabond,
I have a feeling that if you took a straw poll, the MGM version would win.
Like you, I treasure the Miles Kreuger book on the show’s history.

1:09 AM  
Blogger Caftan Woman said...

Like you, I am besotted by Show Boat, on stage, on screen, Ferber's novel, and Miles Krueger's detailed history. The final shot of Ava Gardner's Julie blowing a kiss to the ship, to Nola in the 1951 movie always brings tears.

6:27 AM  
Blogger DKoren said...

This one makes me tear up so many times, including all the places you mentioned. That ending kills me! In a good way. LOL. This version of Show Boat is in my top 5 musical movie list. I just ADORE Marge and Gower Champions dance numbers. They were probably my favorite part when I was young. Ol' Man River is one of the best songs in any musical, and this version is just wonderful. I'm also very partial to "You are Love." I think I have to pick this up as this blu ray sounds lovely.

8:24 AM  
Blogger gscarfe said...

I prefer this MGM version of SHOW BOAT to the 1936 Universal release precisely because it makes some very judicious changes to that interminable Edna Ferber storyline that made the original such a slog. Even with Universal hewing close to the Broadway production, that depressing final act of Years and Years Passing as Magnolia's daughter takes center stage for her own career had to be cut down to a dizzying 30 year montage. All this to have Irene Dunne and Allan Jones finally reunited but only after they're doddering, white-haired and old.

Much better to dump that characteristic Ferber multi-generation nonsense (see GIANT, CIMARRON, SO BIG, etc.) and let Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel get back together before they're senior citizens.

I also prefer Joe E. Brown as Cap'n Andy. And the Champions add some more youthful pizzazz to the mix.

1:12 PM  
Blogger barrylane said...

Could not agree more about dumbing the Ferber storyline, and both this version and the James Whale/Irene Dunne incarnation do it, differently, but very well.

7:55 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Circling back to answer comments this weekend after a hectic workweek! Thank you all so much for your comments, I've enjoyed each and every one as they've come in.

Vienna, thank you so much, I'm glad I was successful in conveying some of my feelings about the film. You make a good point about the 1936 being the closest thing we have to the original state production. I'm so glad you and Caftan Woman have also enjoyed the Miles Kreuger book. I used to check it out of the library over "on repeat" until I got my own copy! So much detailed history, it's fascinating.

Caftan Woman, it sounds like we have both enjoyed a whole lot of SHOW BOAT over the years. I so agree about that last shot of Ava.

Deb, I love that we cry in the same spots. That ending affects me so deeply, on multiple levels. How wonderful this version is in your Top 5 favorite musicals! I hope you can get the Blu-ray, you'll love it.

GScarfe and Barrylane, interesting that we all agree that a cut-down SHOW BOAT story is a better SHOW BOAT. :) I'm usually all for hewing pretty closely to original source material but Ferber did have a way of going on and one for generations LOL.

As a side note, it's been a good long while since I watched the '36 version since I tend to go back to '51 when I want a SHOW BOAT fix. I recently picked up the Criterion release of the '36 film on sale and hope to revisit it before long.

Best wishes,

10:32 AM  

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