Arthouse home movie distributor Criterion Collection has announced they will release the 1936 film adaptation of Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern's Show Boat on Blu-ray and DVD March 31, 2020. The result of a newly restored 4k digital transfer, the release will mark the first time the film has been released in high definition.
Criterion's new release will also include a number of bonus features, including a 1989 audio commentary from musical theatre historian and Show Boat expert Miles Kreuger, an interview with James Whale biographer James Curtis, an interview program with professor and author Shana L. Redmond on the film's depiction of race, a 1979 Academy Award-winning short documentary on Paul Robeson, two performances from the sound prologue of the 1929 Show Boat film and 20 minutes of silent excerpts, two radio adaptations of Show Boat, and an essay by critic Gary Giddins.
Like the 1927 Broadway musical on which it's based, Show Boat tracks a group of roving performers traveling up and down the Mississippi river from the late 19th century through to the 1920s. The work was among the first musicals written for Broadway to cover serious and difficult themes—notably racism—and was a landmark in the development of musical theatre as the first show to successfully blend operetta and musical comedy forms, setting the stage for the revolutionary work Hammerstein would pick up a decade later with Richard Rodgers on musicals like Oklahoma! and South Pacific.
Hammerstein and Kern's hit-filled score contains such songs as "Ol' Man River," "Make Believe," "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," "Why Do I Love You?," and "Life Upon the Wicked Stage."
This particular film version of Show Boat is notable for featuring several members of the work's original Broadway cast recreating their performances for the screen, including Charles Winninger as Cap'n Andy, Helen Morgan as Julie, Sammy White as Frank Schultz, and Francis X. Mahoney as Rubber Face.
The film also stars concert singer and political activist Robeson as Joe, a role that was originally written expressly for him. Robeson ultimately withdrew from the original Broadway production of Show Boat due to scheduling issues, but went on to play the role in London's West End and in a Broadway remount of the original production just a few years before this film adaptation was released. Robeson famously performed a special protest version of his Show Boat character's anthem "Ol' Man River" with slightly re-written lyrics at rallies and other political events throughout the rest of his life.
The 1936 film was the first screen adaptation of the stage musical, though songs from the score had been included in a prologue tacked on to a 1929 silent film adaptation of Edna Ferber's novel, on which the musical is also based. Though the 1951 technicolor remake of the property has remained in wider distribution through the years, it is the 1936 film that is best remembered by film historians and is widely considered the most authentic representation of the stage work. Hammerstein himself adapted his stage book for the screen, tightening and clarifying its sprawling narrative and adding a handful of songs that have subsequently been interpolated into stage productions of the work as well. The film's director James Whale, best known today for helming the horror movie classic Frankenstein and its first sequel The Bride of Frankenstein, is said to have considered Show Boat his favorite among the films he directed.
Since premiering in 1927, Show Boat has been revived on Broadway six times. The most recent production, which ran at the Gershwin Theatre from 1994 to 1997, was substantially revised by director Hal Prince and choreographer Susan Stroman. An operatic production directed by Francesca Zambello played a number of opera venues in recent years—including Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, San Francisco Opera, and Dallas Opera—and was filmed live on stage and released on DVD and Blu-ray.