THE DVD SHELF: "Only Make Believe": Game-Changing Musical Show Boat On Film

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29 Jun 2014

Cover art
Cover art

This week's column visits the 1936 film adaptation of the landmark musical Show Boat.


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.

The 1936 version was thus more or less withdrawn from circulation. A laser disc appeared in 1989, although few consumers ever bothered to buy a laser disc player, and there was an early VHS in 1990. But that's it. Those of us who managed to catch the film somewhere along the way were impressed by a cascade of musical theatre riches and have placed it high on our list of DVD wishes. Now, courtesy of Warner Archive, the 1936 "Show Boat" is here — and provides a dazzlingly important addition to our understanding of the real, authentic Show Boat.

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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