THE DVD SHELF: "Can't Help Lovin'" Show Boat on Film

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06 Jul 2014

Winninger was the biggest "name" among the original cast. Also recreating her role in the film is Helen Morgan as Julie. Morgan was already known as a torch singer and was already notorious for operating her own mob-backed speakeasy, but Show Boat — with "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" and "Bill" — made her a major star. Kern and Hammerstein quickly wrote another musical for her, the 1929 Sweet Adeline, which gave her the quintessential torch song, "Why Was I Born?" At the same time, Morgan entered the movies, starring in Rouben Mamoulian's innovative "Applause." She returned to Broadway with the 1932 Show Boat, but by the time she made the 1936 film alcoholism had taken its toll; the Chicago scenes, with a drunken and unsteady Julie, were no great stretch, which may well be why her performance of "Bill" here is so stunning: We see Julie on the verge of obliteration, clinging to the memory of this "ordinary man" who — in effect — started the downward spiral which ruined her life.

Magnolia, the central role, is played by the obvious candidate for the part: Irene Dunne. After spending a decade as an ingenue, Dunne took the role in the 1929 national tour and immediately became the favorite. She began her film career in 1930; received her first of five Best Actress Oscar nominations in 1931; and starred in the film versions of Kern and Hammerstein's "Sweet Adeline" (1934) and Kern's "Roberta" (1935). She is indeed a wonderful Magnolia, albeit with two sequences that are difficult for modern audiences. During the Queenie-and-Joe section of "Can't Help Lovin' dat Man," she dances in what you might call a stereotypical manner. ("Look at dat gal shuffle!" exclaims Joe.) This is from the original production and was not gratuitous: It helps establish that this was a plantation song that no white woman would sing, foreshadowing the discovery that Julie was "passing" for white. (Watch Morgan's momentary terror when Queenie points this out.) The scene works well, but Magnolia's shuffling is offensive. Even moreso is "Gallivantin' Aroun'," the blackface number added to the film (as discussed in Part One).

The other major player in the film is Paul Robeson, as Joe. Robeson had achieved increasing prominence through the 1920s. An All-American end during his football-playing days as the only Negro student at Rutgers University in New Jersey, Robeson played in the newly-established N.F.L. in 1921 and 1922. He then turned to acting, creating a furor in Eugene O'Neill's 1924 All God's Chillun Got Wings and following it up with the 1925 revival of O'Neill's The Emperor Jones. Robeson took the latter to London, where he became a major star. He was the initial choice for the role of Joe and apparently contracted when the opening was scheduled for February 1927. The show was postponed, and by the time new dates were set — it finally opened December 27 — Robeson was otherwise committed. He was available for the May 1928 London production, and immediately became the preferred Joe (repeating the role in the 1932 Broadway revival and in the 1936 film). Increasing fame brought international attention; support of the Spanish Civil War and Russia made Robeson a target of the F.B.I. and other agencies, and by 1950 he was a blacklisted pariah. But the power of his "Ol' Man River" is unquestioned, even though the song is accompanied by flimsy footage of the men as they "tote dat barge" and "lift dat bale."

Unlike the others, Allan Jones (as Ravenal) had not previously done the show in New York or London. He had, though, played the role in an important production at the St. Louis Muny in 1934. This was followed by his Hollywood stint as the juvenile (opposite Kitty Carlisle) in the 1935 Marx Bros. classic, "A Night at the Opera." Thus he was a sudden Hollywood singing star just as Universal was casting "Show Boat." He does a fine job in the role, as it happens.

The sixth of the top-billed players also never appeared in a stage version. Helen Westley, though, was a Broadway fixture of the 1920s. She had appeared in 1916 as Madame Arkadina in the American premiere of The Seagull. This was produced by a small group of theatrical idealists called The Washington Square Players. The group disbanded when several members went to war. They reformed in 1918 as The Theatre Guild, with the board composed of three aspiring playwrights, one set designer, one banker and one actor: Westley. She was a steady presence on the Guild Board and on the stage, regularly appearing as the matronly harridan in Guild offerings. These included Mrs. Zero in Rice's The Adding Machine; Shavian roles in Major Barbara (Lady Undershaft) and Caesar and Cleopatra (Ftatateeta); Mama opposite the Lunts in The Guardsman; and Mrs. Amos Evans in O'Neill's Strange Interlude. While Westley didn't appear in musicals, she created major roles — Aunt Eller and Mrs. Muskrat (AKA Mrs. Mullins) — in the Guild plays that were later adapted into Oklahoma! and Carousel. As Parthy, she is hard as nails.


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