Well this one is coming to you a few days late, but better late than never! This week (or last week, rather) I watched and discussed movie #99 on the AFI’s Top 100 list, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” So, for my second movie last week, I watched movie #24 on the AFI’s Top 25 Musicals list, “Show Boat.” And yes, I did omit #25 on that list…the reason being that I ran out of time and also, the #25 movie was “Moulin Rouge.” Since I don’t believe I know a single person who has not seen that movie, and since it’s not a classic movie anyway, I felt no guilt in passing it by.
Now, on to the matter at hand. This will be a very short entry, I’m afraid. You see, the #24 movie on the list was the 1936 version of “Show Boat.” Unfortunately, this version of the movie is not available on DVD. However, while I do not own a VHS player, I was determined to hunt the 1936 version down and then watch it at my parents’ house. I mean to do this right, damn it! And sure enough, I found it at my favorite video rental store (possibly the only video rental store left in all of the Emerald City). I checked their website at the beginning of the day and saw that they had it available on VHS and that it was checked in (Hallelujah!). However, by the time I got there after work that evening, it had been checked out. Now, I have no idea what kind of person (besides myself) would check out a VHS copy of a 1936 musical, but I would love to meet that person someday. In the meantime though, I had a problem. A quick check on Amazon showed that I could not purchase the VHS in question for under $33, and even if I had that kind of money to spend on an extinct form of entertainment, it wouldn’t have gotten here in time anyway. So, I rented the 1951 MGM version of “Show Boat” instead. I figured I could at least discuss the story and the songs and perhaps later I’ll track down the 1936 version and do a compare and contrast entry.
Now, it’s summary time! “Show Boat” is about exactly what it sounds like: a riverboat that carries a traveling theatre troupe from town to town up and down the Mississippi River in the late 19th century. Julie LaVerne (played by the stunningly beautiful Ava Gardner) is the troupe’s leading lady and her husband, the leading man. The captain, Cap’n Andy Hawks (Joe E. Brown), has a beautiful, if naïve, daughter named Magnolia (played by Kathryn Grayson) who dreams of being an actress and looks up to Julie almost as an older sister. Towards the beginning of the movie, the local sheriff is alerted to the fact that one of Julie’s parents was African American and that Julie herself is married to a white man. As this was illegal down South at the time, Julie is forced to leave the troupe in disgrace.
After Julie leaves, Magnolia fulfills her dreams of becoming an actress by becoming the new leading lady. Her leading man is newcomer, Gaylord Ravenal (played by Howard Keel): a gambler on his way to New Orleans. They fall in love and marry despite her mother’s objections (Magnolia’s mother is played by the incomparable Agnes Moorehead). However, their happily-ever-after takes a turn for the worse when Gaylord’s luck runs out.
I have to start by saying that the vast majority of critics agree that the 1936 version is the superior one. In fact, I was hard pressed to find a favorable critic review for the 1951 version at all. I have to say that I’m sure they’re right, and here’s why: this is a fairly gritty story with some pretty heavy themes – especially for a musical. The version I watched seemed to be trying too hard to be another frothy MGM musical and glossed over some of the tough material in favor of focusing on the positive and the musical numbers. I have heard from multiple sources that the 1936 version is much more faithful to the heart and soul of the story (plus, the 1936 version starred Irene Dunne, so how could it not be better?).
That being said, I can really only discuss what I saw. While I did wish that the movie would have taken the time necessary to focus on the darker aspects of the story, I also have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. I’m sure a big reason for that is that I’m a big fan of the light-hearted MGM musical. And while the studio may have chosen to ignore or gloss over some things, the actors did a wonderful job with what they had to work with. I’ve loved Agnes Moorehead since I watched her play Endora as a child, Marge and Gower Champion make a wonderful appearance as a dance team, and Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel are two of my favorite musical stars. However, I believe that this version of the movie belongs to Ava Gardner. Her character, Julie, left the troupe early and only resurfaced occasionally throughout the rest of the film, but she managed to steal every scene she was in. She even made me cry in her final two scenes. It’s such a shame that Ava Gardner was so insecure in her abilities as an actress, because I thought she was truly wonderful. I especially loved it when she sang because the emotion on her face said it all. To show you what I mean, here’s a clip of her singing “Bill”…at this point in the movie, her husband has left her and she’s become a washed up, broken version of herself.
Although this version of the movie is not considered the best, there were a few moments that made the movie for me. The first is Ava Gardner’s character singing “Can’t Help Loving Dat Man.” I’m really only including this scene because I love the song so much. I know I’ve heard better versions, but Ava’s is pretty great too (although Annette Warren dubbed her in the film, Ava actually had a lovely voice herself and her own version is included on the soundtrack).
The second and most important scene stealer for me (and most critics, who agree that this scene was the saving grace of the 1951 version) is William Warfied singing “Ol’ Man River.” He sings it on a foggy morning as Julie is leaving the troupe and it’s appropriately melancholy and hauntingly beautiful.
That’s just about all I can say since I didn’t actually watch the version I was supposed to. I can’t comment on why it has stood the test of time since I didn’t see the movie that really has stood the test of time. However, I can say that the music is wonderful, the story is bittersweet and beautiful, and there were some shining moments despite its flaws. I can only imagine how great the 1936 version with Irene Dunne would be. And all that being said, I would still watch this version again and recommend it to all of you.