The Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II Show Boat jes' keeps rollin' alon', ever since the illustrious pair adapted Edna Ferber's best-selling novel for the musical stage in 1927. This was a musical with a near-perfect score matched by a pioneering but not exactly workable libretto; as a result it has turned up in many alternate versions over the years. In fact, Kern — at the time of his death in 1945 — was still busy working on new material for Show Boat's undercooked second act.
We'll never see Show Boat as it was in the landmark 1927 production. But we can get a decent idea from one of the film versions. Not the first, a 1929 part-talkie based more closely on the 1926 novel; and certainly not from the third, the colorful, MGM-i-zed 1951 extravaganza. There is however a second filmed Show Boat [Warner Archive], from 1936, which gives us our closest glimpse at the look and the feel of Florenz Ziegfeld's original production.
This film has not been totally impossible to view over the years — it even turns up occasionally on cable — but it has long been obscured. In part due to MGM's efforts to establish their expensive version as the standard; in part due to some sequences that have become racially offensive; and in part due to the persona non grata, blacklisted status of one of the stars.
This was a movie version of the musical, shot at Universal with a movie director (James Whale, of "Frankenstein"); they did not simply plunk down cameras in the theatre and film the performance. However, the movie was strongly connected to the original stage show and its creators. Ziegfeld was gone; he died in July 1932 during the run of his final show, a gala Broadway return engagement of Show Boat. But Universal, which owned the film rights to the novel and made the 1929 version, asked Kern and Hammerstein to write five new songs (three of which were used); hired Hammerstein to write the screenplay; and filled the leading roles with Show Boat veterans.
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