THE DVD SHELF: "Can't Help Lovin'" Show Boat on Film

By Steven Suskin
06 Jul 2014

Also on hand from 1927 is Sammy White, recreating his somewhat cut-down role of Frank. White and Eva Puck had been a Broadway song-and-dance couple similar to the Astaires; they were featured in The Melody Man, a failed 1924 play-with-songs credited to the pseudonymous Herbert Richard Lorenz. Two years later, Herb Fields, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart wrote Puck and White starring roles in their 1926 hit musical comedy The Girl Friend, which led directly to Show Boat. By 1936, Puck and White were divorced, so White was joined in the "Show Boat" film by Queenie Smith. She was a musical comedy star in her own right, from Kern's Sitting Pretty and the Gershwins' Tip-Toes. Smith is the only Broadway star I can think of who was married to a first-string drama critic, poor thing.

The comedy couple of Frank and Ellie seem to have served as prototypes for Hammerstein when he devised Will Parker and Ado Annie for Oklahoma!, while elements of Ellie are also incorporated into Carrie Pipperidge of Carousel. For that matter, Julie Jordan's ill-fated romance with Billy Bigelow (and her stunning solo, "What's the Use of Wond'rin'?") is similar to the broken marriages of both Julie LaVerne and Magnolia; all three of them, tragically, "can't help lovin' dat man."

Since the 1932 return engagement of the original touring company, Show Boat has played multiple New York engagements: the Kern-Hammerstein production in 1946 (with Jan Clayton as Magnolia and Carol Bruce as Julie); City Center revivals in 1948 (with Carol Bruce as Julie and Sammy White as Frank), 1954 (with Burl Ives as Cap'n Andy and Robert Rounseville as Ravenal) and 1961 (with Joe E. Brown as Cap'n Andy, Jo Sullivan as Magnolia and Carol Brice as Queenie); the Richard Rodgers-produced Music Theater of Lincoln Center production in 1966 (with David Wayne as Cap'n Andy, Barbara Cook as Magnolia and Constance Towers as Julie); the Houston Grand Opera production in 1983 (with Donald O'Connor as Cap'n Andy and Lonette McKee as Julie); and the Hal Prince revival in 1994 (with John McMartin as Cap'n Andy, Rebecca Luker as Magnolia and Elaine Stritch as Parthy); and that's not to mention several notable regional productions plus five in London.



Contemporary theatregoers are likely to have numerous, fond memories of different and varied productions of Show Boat. But for a glimpse of the legendary original 1927 production — what the show was, in the beginning — we now happily have the 1936 film version on our shelf for repeated viewing.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes", "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at ssuskin@aol.com.)