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

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06 Jul 2014

Cover art
Cover art

This week's column continues visiting the 1936 version of the landmark musical Show Boat.

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In last week's column, we started our discussion of the 1936 film "Show Boat" [Warner Archive], which incorporates many elements of the original 1927 Ziegfeld production. Part One discussed matters musical, among others; we continue with a discussion of the cast.

While Oscar Hammerstein II's screenplay for the 1936 "Show Boat" opens up the action and alters the ending, it remains reasonably true to his stage script. Thus, we get substantial portions of the book as it was originally intended, and presumably as originally staged. (Hammerstein was not credited as stage director in 1927, but he seems to have supervised the book scenes.) On the film, working with actors who had played these roles under Hammerstein's keen eye — in the original production, in the 1928 London production, in the 1929 U.S. national tour, in the 1932 Broadway return engagement — director Whale seems to have been more than happy to let Oscar and the cast do things as they had on stage.

You need merely look at the first act rehearsal scene. Cap'n Andy rehearses his actors as things grow increasingly melodramatic; leading man Stephen Baker learns that authorities have been alerted that leading lady Julie LaVerne is a mulatto, and that the couple is about to be arrested for mixed-blood marriage; Baker slices open Julie's hand and "drinks' her blood, allowing him — and the Show Boat troupe — to rightfully swear that he has Negro blood in him; and the pair are sent away as outcasts. The scene is played as it was on stage, set to full musical underscoring that turns from nostalgic to comic to melodramatic, and ends with the servant Joe — the conscience of the musical — tagging the scene by reprising the final section of "Ol' Man River."

This sequence remains in stage productions of Show Boat, of course; but here, with original cast members and Russell Bennett's full underscoring, it is riveting. So this is what Ziegfeld's Show Boat was like! One also might profitably examine the "Parson's Bride" scene. This is a play-within-the-play, as the Show Boat audience watches the troupe perform a typical melodrama. A rowdy ticket-buyer vehemently objects to the (on-stage) villainous landlord's lascivious attentions to the heroine, and eventually starts shooting. Cap'n Andy — the proprietor — leaps to the stage to calm the audience and proceeds to give a blow-by-blow description of what was supposed to happen during the rest of play.

Charles Winninger illustrates the fight that the audience is missing by beating himself up and literally tossing himself around the stage like a sack of cotton, all the while motivated by Cap'n Andy's true motivation in the scene: to prevent the audience from asking for a refund. This is an astonishing exhibition of classic musical comedy acting, preserved on film; we've seen numerous Show Boats and numerous Cap'n Andys, but has anyone ever been able to play it half so well? The impact is not unlike Nathan Lane singing "Betrayed" in the jail scene of The Producers.

When Hammerstein originally developed and wrote this scene in 1927, he had Winninger to write it on. Winninger was already a Broadway star, having created the role of the Bible publisher who only wants to be happy in No, No Nanette, but he also had a long vaudeville career behind him. I can't say for sure, but I wouldn't be shocked to learn that this stage business — throwing himself around the floor in a solo comedy fight — was a Winninger specialty. Sure, many actors have and will play this role, some of them excellently so; but Winninger inhabits it, and what might seem quaint in revivals of Show Boat has — in the 1936 film — a sense of inevitability and authenticity, which is part of what makes this film indispensable to musical theatre fans.

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.

Also on hand from 1927 is Sammy White, recreating his somewhat cut-down role of Frank. White and Eva Puck had been a Broadway song-and-dance couple similar to the Astaires; they were featured in The Melody Man, a failed 1924 play-with-songs credited to the pseudonymous Herbert Richard Lorenz. Two years later, Herb Fields, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart wrote Puck and White starring roles in their 1926 hit musical comedy The Girl Friend, which led directly to Show Boat. By 1936, Puck and White were divorced, so White was joined in the "Show Boat" film by Queenie Smith. She was a musical comedy star in her own right, from Kern's Sitting Pretty and the Gershwins' Tip-Toes. Smith is the only Broadway star I can think of who was married to a first-string drama critic, poor thing.

The comedy couple of Frank and Ellie seem to have served as prototypes for Hammerstein when he devised Will Parker and Ado Annie for Oklahoma!, while elements of Ellie are also incorporated into Carrie Pipperidge of Carousel. For that matter, Julie Jordan's ill-fated romance with Billy Bigelow (and her stunning solo, "What's the Use of Wond'rin'?") is similar to the broken marriages of both Julie LaVerne and Magnolia; all three of them, tragically, "can't help lovin' dat man."

Since the 1932 return engagement of the original touring company, Show Boat has played multiple New York engagements: the Kern-Hammerstein production in 1946 (with Jan Clayton as Magnolia and Carol Bruce as Julie); City Center revivals in 1948 (with Carol Bruce as Julie and Sammy White as Frank), 1954 (with Burl Ives as Cap'n Andy and Robert Rounseville as Ravenal) and 1961 (with Joe E. Brown as Cap'n Andy, Jo Sullivan as Magnolia and Carol Brice as Queenie); the Richard Rodgers-produced Music Theater of Lincoln Center production in 1966 (with David Wayne as Cap'n Andy, Barbara Cook as Magnolia and Constance Towers as Julie); the Houston Grand Opera production in 1983 (with Donald O'Connor as Cap'n Andy and Lonette McKee as Julie); and the Hal Prince revival in 1994 (with John McMartin as Cap'n Andy, Rebecca Luker as Magnolia and Elaine Stritch as Parthy); and that's not to mention several notable regional productions plus five in London.

Contemporary theatregoers are likely to have numerous, fond memories of different and varied productions of Show Boat. But for a glimpse of the legendary original 1927 production — what the show was, in the beginning — we now happily have the 1936 film version on our shelf for repeated viewing.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes", "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at ssuskin@aol.com.)