Show Boat [1936]

Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's Showboat, based on Edna Ferber's 1926 novel, is a seminal American musical, the first to explore serious themes (most notably racism) and to truly integrate song with story and character. The plot follows three generations of a theatrical Mississippi riverboat family from the 1880s to the 1920s. The 1936 film version, directed by Englishman James Whale (Frankenstein), is probably the one that best captures the spirit its creators intended. First and foremost, it features Paul Robeson as Joe. His indelible rendition of "Ol' Man River," delivered strong, straight, and without bathos, is a stunningly powerful anthem about the plight of African Americans in the United States. (The song is set against a fascinating expressionist montage in 1930s social realist style.) Other standout performances include torch singer Helen Morgan as Julie, the actress banished from the showboat for her "mixed race" ancestry. Her "Bill" and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" are simply sublime. Hattie McDaniel (Gone With the Wind) is her usual outrageous self. Irene Dunne (The Awful Truth) is spunky and delightful as Magnolia Ravenal. Her most endearing moment occurs early in the film when she leads the company in a funky cakewalk, swinging her hips with joyful abandon. (She also does a number in blackface!) When Dunne and the narrative leave the riverboat for the big bad city, fame, and heartbreak, the movie loses much of its snap and substance and descends into rather conventional melodrama. Still, this film represents an essential moment in the American musical theater, one not to be missed. --Laura Mirsky

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