Can't Help Lovin' 'Show Boat'; Film Versions Invite Review as Musical Turns 80

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The 80th anniversary of the musical version of "Show Boat" will be commemorated next weekend by the National Symphony Orchestra, which will present pops concert revivals of the show on Nov. 23 and 24. The original production began its trek to Broadway at the National Theatre, as Washington was the first of four tryout cities. The decisive opening night was Dec. 27, 1927, at the namesake New York theater of producer Florenz Ziegfeld.

I recently spent several gratifying hours refreshing my memory of the film versions of "Show Boat." A DVD compilation evidently is in the works at Warner Bros. Home Video that will collect all three movies - originally released in 1929, 1936 and 1951 - in a comprehensive set.

The original musical remained on Broadway until the summer of 1929. The first movie version, a semi-talkie that owed more to the Edna Ferber novel than the musical, wasn't released until the latter part of the year. This relic is still an open-ended restoration project, unavailable in any video format. James Whale's movie version of 1936, the most faithful replica of the original show, still can be found in a VHS edition but hasn't been transferred to DVD. Only the remake of 1951, directed by George Sidney, has made the jump to DVD.

Every version is worth seeing, and even cherishing, for distinctive reasons, but it will be a blessing when comparisons can be made and differences appreciated in a single package.

A best-seller in 1926, Miss Ferber's novel quickly attracted Jerome Kern's interest. Universal promptly acquired the film rights but took two years to complete a silent adaptation. By that time, the musical "Show Boat" couldn't be overlooked. The inevitability of talking pictures also was sinking it. The studio played catch-up, inadequately. Four dramatic episodes were reshot with sound, and a prologue acknowledged the musical, incorporating three numbers with cast members from Ziegfeld's show, plus greetings from Ziegfeld himself and Universal proprietor Carl Laemmle Jr.

Turner Classic Movies, a partner in the restoration effort, has shown the partially restored version that must suffice for the time being. It features only soundtrack material from two of the prologue inserts (Helen Morgan remains singing "Bill," but Jules Bledsoe's "Ol' Man River" is missing); the Ziegfeld and Laemmle segments have vanished. Two sound sequences recovered intact are very effective, but they also underline the case for a consistently talking version of "Show Boat," circa 1929.

As a curiously European but charming version of gambler Gaylord (Gay) Ravenal, Joseph Schildkraut is the most diverting and accomplished performer. The premature death of showboat impresario Capt. Andy Hawks will surprise spectators familiar only with the musical, which wisely preserves him. The racial subplot involving Julie is eliminated, but the character returns with a jolt in episodes that chronicle the decline of Gay's marriage to Magnolia Hawks after they move to Chicago.

Helen Morgan, the original Julie, is only heard in the 1929 film, which casts Alma Rubens as the visible character. Morgan reclaimed the role in the 1936 version, which also invited Charles Winninger to re-create his Captain Andy (an irresistible performance), Irene Dunne to re-create Magnolia (she was in the 1929 touring company) and Paul Robeson to re-create Joe and enjoy a cinematic triumph with "Ol' Man River. …