Like Indiana Jones when faced with identifying the Holy Grail in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," Warner Archive chose wisely in selecting the 1936 version of "Show Boat" as the DVD release to kick off the year-long celebration of its fifth birthday. Although the status of "Boat" being one of the most-requested titles for release largely prompted the honored release, the uber-awesomeness of it more than validates this decision.
On the surface (pun intended), "Boat" is the story of the romance between ingenue turned leading lady Magnolia and dashing cad/professional gambler Gaylord Ravenal. Finding more depth in this wonderful tale penned by Edna Ferber and adapted for film, set to music by Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern, and directed by James Whale of the classic "Frankenstein" films requires minimal effort.
Magnolia, played by Irene Dunne of "My Favorite Wife" and numerous other all-time favorites, is mostly staying in the background of the productions presented on the titular river-going vessel owned and operated by her father/director/producer Cap'n Andy Hawks when two events change her world and set spectacular entertainment in motion.
The first momentous development is a very dramatic (but far from melodramatic) confrontation between leading lady Julie and the local sheriff that is well known to theater buffs and sociologists alike. This scene also ends with the rapid departure of Julie and her husband/leading man from the show boat. This departure necessitates Magnolia stepping into the spotlight in a manner that is very far from how the equally famous character Eve Harrington travels the 20 feet required to achieve stardom.
Anyone whose heart does not ache for Julie, does not completely change his or her opinion regarding her husband, and does not cringe regarding the law after watching this scene simply lacks a soul.
Helen Morgan deserves special notice for this perfect portrayal of Julie in this scene and in the rest of her performance. Her rendition of "Can't Help Lovin' that Man" comes a close second to Paul Robeson, who plays the very laid back Joe, putting his Mariana Trench deep baritone to good use in "Old Man River" as the best musical number in the film.
The following clip, courtesy of YouTube, allows judging the performance of Robeson for yourself.
Cook Queenie Smith commenting that Julie is the only white woman who Queenie ever heard sing "Man" ultimately adds a great deal of power to Morgan's diva moment. It is difficult to imagine any high school girl even wanting to attempt the role of Jule in her drama club production of "Boat" after seeing Morgan in that part.
Ravenal meeting Magnolia while strolling by is the second event that rocks the world of the latter. It is a classic good girl meets (and quasi-reforms) bad boy story. Their courtship, marriage, and subsequent highs and lows relate to Ravenal not always knowing when to hold 'em, fold 'em, not walk away, and definitely not when to run. His worst betrayals earn him the title "Coward of the County."
Cinemaphiles with a particular taste for diva films of the '30s and '40s will recognize elements of "Gone With the Wind," "Stella Dallas," and "Mildred Pierce" in the Magnolia/Ravenal storyline. All three ladies have serious man trouble and go well above and beyond regarding the love that they show their daughters.
A scene in which the audience of a Cap'n Andy production that Magnolia and Ravenal are performing really get into the story to the extent that one audience member acts out in a manner that literally leads to bringing down the curtain is one particularly terrific moment. This is a terrific reminder of this era in which the folks in the seats, up front and cheap alike, really get wrapped up in what is occurring on stage.
On a larger level, "Boat" is a delightful two-hour ride because it relies on talent over splash. No one bursts into song for no apparent reason, and even the larger numbers lack choruses of boys and girls who magically appear to sing and dance their scale-compensated hearts out.
The epilogue to these thoughts regarding this classic is that any film in which the pieces fit so perfectly as well as they do here should not be missed.
Anyone with questions regarding "Boat" is welcome to email me; you can also connect on Twitter via @tvdvdguy.