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

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06 Jul 2014

Cover art
Cover art

This week's column continues visiting the 1936 version of the landmark musical Show Boat.


In last week's column, we started our discussion of the 1936 film "Show Boat" [Warner Archive], which incorporates many elements of the original 1927 Ziegfeld production. Part One discussed matters musical, among others; we continue with a discussion of the cast.

While Oscar Hammerstein II's screenplay for the 1936 "Show Boat" opens up the action and alters the ending, it remains reasonably true to his stage script. Thus, we get substantial portions of the book as it was originally intended, and presumably as originally staged. (Hammerstein was not credited as stage director in 1927, but he seems to have supervised the book scenes.) On the film, working with actors who had played these roles under Hammerstein's keen eye — in the original production, in the 1928 London production, in the 1929 U.S. national tour, in the 1932 Broadway return engagement — director Whale seems to have been more than happy to let Oscar and the cast do things as they had on stage.

You need merely look at the first act rehearsal scene. Cap'n Andy rehearses his actors as things grow increasingly melodramatic; leading man Stephen Baker learns that authorities have been alerted that leading lady Julie LaVerne is a mulatto, and that the couple is about to be arrested for mixed-blood marriage; Baker slices open Julie's hand and "drinks' her blood, allowing him — and the Show Boat troupe — to rightfully swear that he has Negro blood in him; and the pair are sent away as outcasts. The scene is played as it was on stage, set to full musical underscoring that turns from nostalgic to comic to melodramatic, and ends with the servant Joe — the conscience of the musical — tagging the scene by reprising the final section of "Ol' Man River."

This sequence remains in stage productions of Show Boat, of course; but here, with original cast members and Russell Bennett's full underscoring, it is riveting. So this is what Ziegfeld's Show Boat was like! One also might profitably examine the "Parson's Bride" scene. This is a play-within-the-play, as the Show Boat audience watches the troupe perform a typical melodrama. A rowdy ticket-buyer vehemently objects to the (on-stage) villainous landlord's lascivious attentions to the heroine, and eventually starts shooting. Cap'n Andy — the proprietor — leaps to the stage to calm the audience and proceeds to give a blow-by-blow description of what was supposed to happen during the rest of play.

Charles Winninger illustrates the fight that the audience is missing by beating himself up and literally tossing himself around the stage like a sack of cotton, all the while motivated by Cap'n Andy's true motivation in the scene: to prevent the audience from asking for a refund. This is an astonishing exhibition of classic musical comedy acting, preserved on film; we've seen numerous Show Boats and numerous Cap'n Andys, but has anyone ever been able to play it half so well? The impact is not unlike Nathan Lane singing "Betrayed" in the jail scene of The Producers.

When Hammerstein originally developed and wrote this scene in 1927, he had Winninger to write it on. Winninger was already a Broadway star, having created the role of the Bible publisher who only wants to be happy in No, No Nanette, but he also had a long vaudeville career behind him. I can't say for sure, but I wouldn't be shocked to learn that this stage business — throwing himself around the floor in a solo comedy fight — was a Winninger specialty. Sure, many actors have and will play this role, some of them excellently so; but Winninger inhabits it, and what might seem quaint in revivals of Show Boat has — in the 1936 film — a sense of inevitability and authenticity, which is part of what makes this film indispensable to musical theatre fans.


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