Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Can't help loving that Showboat - 1936

There is a new production of SHOWBOAT currently on in London, (which I may have to go and see now) but I only know it from the 1951 MGM film which I may have seen once or twice on television - it now looks like a cartoon compared to the 1936 original (despite valiant work from Ava Gardner - dubbed - and Marge & Gower Champion). The rare 1936 film by James Whale (BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN etc) is the one to see and cherish, a film of such richness I want to see it again right away. Though I knew of Paul Robeson and Helen Morgan I had not somehow seen or heard them before, and I am bowled over.

Adaptation of the Broadway musical. Magnolia Hawks is the lovely daughter of Cap'n Andy Hawks, the genial proprietor of a show boat that cruises the Missisippi, and his nagging wife, Parthy. She is best friends with the show boat's star, Julie LaVerne, but Julie and her husband Steve are forced to leave when it is revealed that Julie has "Negro" blood in her, thereby breaking the state law by being married to the white Steve. Magnolia replaces Julie as the show boat's female star, and the show's new male star is the suave gambler Gaylord Ravenal. Magnolia and Gaylord fall in love and marry against Parthy's wishes. They and their young daughter lead the high life when Gaylord is lucky in gambling, but live like dirt when he's unlucky. During one such unlucky streak, a broken Gaylord leaves Magnolia and she is forced to start over by returning to the stage. Like Old Man River she just keeps rollin' along.
Jerome Kern's SHOWBOAT, from Edna Ferber's book, may well be the first great American musical, and possibly the greatest movie musical of all, this 1936 version of SHOWBOAT has Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, Paul Robeson and Hattie McDaniel joining Helen Morgan and Charles Winninger from the original Broadway cast of 1927. So great that, when MGM made their own version in 1951, they tried to have all prints and copies of the original destroyed. Mercifully they weren't quite successful. Closer to the original stage version, this includes most of the classic songs by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, not least Robeson singing "Ol' Man River" and that's followed by Morgan's "Can't Help Loving That Man", brilliantly staged too, with Irene and Hattie. She was certainly the classic torch singer. Fascinating reading about her and Paul Robeson's life and career. Robeson's rich bass electrifies, I knew he had played OTHELLO and SHOWBOAT in London and how his political leanings had caused such trouble, but he was certainly a trailblazer ahead of his time. We like Irene Dunne a lot here too, as per label - one of the essential 1930s stars like Margaret Sullavan. Allan Jones was the father of singer Jack Jones.  
Jerome Kern has his finest moment here with unforgettable songs following one after the other. "Ol Man River", "My Bill","Can't Help Loving That Man of Mine", "Ah Still Suits Me", "Make Believe", After The Ball" The film remains a classic piece of Americana. James Whale's direction captures it all perfectly, its certainly an essential 1930s film. The last section though when Magnolia and Gaylord's daughter Kim becomes a stage star too in the then modern 1930s setting seems unnecessary now - we just want to be back on the Showboat with Paul and Hattie and Helen and all of them,

The film also show the ugly racism of the time, that blackface number seems grotesque now but was acceptable then ....
The Paul Robeson and chorus rendition of "Old Man River" has to be  one of the greatest numbers in the history of Hollywood musicals, up there with Judy;s "Over The Rainbow" or "The Man That Got Away" or the "My Forgotten Man" number from GOLDDIGGERS OF 1933. And what makes it even more impressive is that the number was directed by a director who had made his reputation directing monster movies (thats the gay James Whale of GODS AND MONSTERS).

Next: One of the great 1950s musicals: THE PAJAMA GAME. Book your tickets now ...

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