MGM’s 1951 remake of Show Boat might not be the most faithful of the productions to the original show, but there is no denying that MGM’s Technicolor version is brimming with entertainment and is slickly produced, directed, and acted by folks who know their way around a musical.
The Production: 4/5
Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Show Boat occupies a most unique place in the history of the American musical theater. Serving as a kind of transition show between the early century operettas and the later musical comedies that were beginning to gain favor in the 1920s, Show Boat amalgamated both musical styles within its score while relating a narrative that contained serious themes such as miscegenation, spousal abandonment, and gambling addiction woven among its tale of show folk along the Mississippi River. With a musical menu of classic show tunes, many of which became standards still recognizable almost a century later, Show Boat is one of the great achievements of the American musical. MGM’s 1951 remake of Show Boat following two prior incarnations of the show produced on film by Universal might not be the most faithful of the productions to the original show (see James Whale’s magnificent 1936 Show Boat on a fantastic Criterion Blu-ray to get a clearer idea of the stage original), but there is no denying that MGM’s Technicolor version is brimming with entertainment and is slickly produced, directed, and acted by folks who know their way around a musical.
When he learns that his married show boat stars Julie LaVerne (Ava Gardner, singing voice of Annette Warren) and Steven Baker (Robert Sterling) must leave the cast due to her mixed race heritage, Captain Andy Hawkes (Joe E. Brown) recruits his daughter Magnolia (Kathryn Grayson) to take over leading lady duties as the boat makes its way down the Mississippi. Starring opposite her is riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Howard Keel) brought on at the last minute as a replacement for Baker. After the two fall in love, Ravenal tires of the show biz life on the riverboat and longs to live with his now-wife Magnolia in Chicago as Lady Luck continues to smile on his gambling addiction. But when his luck eventually turns sour, Magnolia and Gaylord find themselves at odds over money and impending poverty, their troubles exacerbated by her pregnancy that she’s kept from her husband until he can win himself another fortune.
While John Lee Mahin’s screenplay squeezes in as many of the classic Jerome Kern tunes as he can muster (though none of the new tunes Kern wrote for the 1936 version made it into this production), the new script pretty much negates the characters of dockhand Joe (except for his magnificent ballad “Old Man River” sung three times in this adaptation) and show boat cook Queenie (who’s barely in the movie with a line or two) and changes the show’s ending to allow not only a happy reconciliation between the loving couple but to make their separation one of only four years instead of a lifetime. The show’s three famous duets between Magnolia and Gay (“Make Believe,” “You Are Love,” “Why Do I Love You?”) are all present and accounted for unlike the previous movie which excised the latter and cut “You Are Love” to a quick chorus. The character of Julie has also been built up in this version (done because Judy Garland was producer Arthur Freed’s original choice for the role before she and MGM parted company), a fine idea since she invariably becomes an audience favorite with her sacrifices throughout the show for the people she loves.
The musical comedy aspects of the show are emphasized in this adaptation with the casting of Marge and Gower Champion as second leads Frank and Ellie Schultz. Their three extended dance routines in the movie are super slick and most effective (just watch those high kicks in “I Might Fall Back on You” and Gower’s quick wardrobe changes throughout “Life Upon the Wicked Stage”). Since Captain Andy’s comedic role has been somewhat reduced throughout (no one-man show acting out all of the parts in an aborted performance of “Tempest and Sunshine,” no Chicago wedding strut when his daughter weds), Ellie and Frank must carry much of the comic burden in the film. Director George Sidney employs close-ups quite judiciously to show the deepest emotions the characters reach during the climaxes of their songs (Ava Gardner’s in particular are heart-stopping), and three different montages track the steady rise in popularity of Gay and Magnolia as show boat stars, the rising and falling fortunes of the Ravenals as their luck ebbs and flows, and Magnolia’s daughter Kim’s birth and early birthdays as they settle back into life on the show boat.
While the role of Gaylord Ravenal was written for a tenor, something Howard Keel most definitely isn’t, there’s no denying his magnificent singing throughout (his “Make Believe” reprise when he meets his daughter for the first time is quite special), and in this their first of three starring roles together, Keel blends both dramatically and musically quite well with Kathryn Grayson’s chirpy soprano. While Grayson’s upper register does tend to thin out when she reaches for the rafters, she does manage to suggest through her acting and the clever costuming and hairstyling a teenaged girl maturing into a handsome woman. Joe E. Brown may not have been the original Captain Andy, but he brings off all of the comic and warm-natured qualities of the role and makes it his own. William Warfield’s Joe may have had a portion of his role erased in the new screenplay, but his singing of “Old Man River” is one for the ages, even if the tempo is eons slower than Paul Robeson’s original rendition of the famous tune. Ava Gardner is a delectable Julie, genuinely kind and loving and eventually turning to alcohol to forget her troubles. She’s unbelievably gorgeous as Charles Rosher’s camerawork captures every flicker of an eyelash, and she’s likely the character most people will remember as she’s ingeniously worked into the film’s climactic scenes. In other roles, Agnes Moorehead is a suitably fussy Parthy (in the best tradition of Parthys), Robert Sterling is a noble Steven Baker, and Leif Erickson is a blustering Pete who causes all the trouble for Julie and Steve when she rejects his advances.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s 1.37:1 theatrical aspect ratio is faithfully reproduced in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. After suffering through the artifact-riddled DVD version of the film for decades, I found this new Blu-ray release to be a revelation. You’ll see details in costumes, hairstyles, skin tones, and backgrounds that you never noticed before, topped off by truly sumptuous Technicolor and glorious contrast that dials in each scene crispy and concisely. Long gone are those annoying purple reel change cues from the DVD. The movie has been divided into 46 chapters.
When one selects “Play Movie” on the main menu, you’re offered the choice of the stereo or mono audio mix (both in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0). Having heard the mono for many years (and it’s solid and sound with no age-related problems), I chose the (default) stereo audio mix which offers astonishing dynamics for the listener with great soundstage spread of the splendid MGM orchestrations but all dialogue and song lyrics focused in the center channel. When the singers soar to magnificent heights in their songs, you’ll feel the special embrace of the orchestra in the stereo mix, a most appreciated bonus for listeners who adore this classic score.
Special Features: 4.5/5
Audio Commentary: ported from the laserdisc release of the movie, director George Sidney reminisces about making the movie (though his memory is sometimes faulty: he claims the film was made for $800K while Hugh Fordin’s book on the Arthur Freed unit at MGM reveals the movie cost more than $2 million) and shares some rambling stories about his long, long career at the studio. He eventually runs out of gas, however, so be prepared for some long stretches of silence.
Show Boat excerpt from Till the Clouds Roll By (15:29, HD) six songs from the show are sung by the likes of Tony Martin, Kathryn Grayson, Virginia O’Brien, Lena Horne, and Caleb Peterson from the 1946 Jerome Kern biographical film.
Ava Gardner Vocals: the audio (but no video) of Ava Gardner’s renditions of “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man of Mine” (5:00) and “Bill” (3:25).
Lux Radio Theater (50:50): the 1952 radio adaptation of the film with the major stars recreating their roles excepting Captain Andy played by Jay C. Flippen.
Theatrical Trailer (4:04, HD)
Song Selection Menu: a quick jump to twenty-one musical moments in the movie.
Warner Archive have done themselves proud with their release of the 1951 Show Boat on Blu-ray. With spectacular Technicolor, an all-star cast, and a stereo soundtrack worthy of this classic music, there isn’t much to criticize about this wonderful new release. Highly recommended!
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