I’ve got a fun musical today, as I revisit the Show Boat story (although this time, it’s the 1951 version starring Kathryn Grayson, Ava Gardner and Howard Keel)!
The Cotton Blossom is in town! Everybody is looking forward to seeing what show Cap’n Andy Hawks (Joe E. Brown) and his troupe are putting on! His current troupe includes popular leading man Steve Baker (Robert Sterling), his equally popular leading lady (and wife offstage) Julie LaVerne (Ava Gardner), and dancers Ellie May Shipley (Marge Champion) and Frank Schultz (Gower Champion). However, the boat’s engineer, Pete (Leif Erickson), who has been trying to flirt with Julie, gets into a fight with Steve (and loses). Out for revenge, Pete goes to the local sheriff with some information about Julie. Meanwhile, Cap’n Andy’s daughter, Magnolia (Kathryn Grayson), meets gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Howard Keel) while she is trying to air out the costumes, and they quickly fall for each other. That night, the sheriff comes during the show, threatening to arrest Julie, a mulatto, for being married to a white man. They are able to avoid arrest, but they are forced to leave the Cotton Blossom, much to everybody’s regret (well, everybody except Cap’n Andy’s wife Parthy, played by Agnes Moorehead). But, Cap’n Andy is a quick thinker, and secures Gaylord’s services as a leading man, while giving his daughter Magnolia a chance as the leading lady. Audiences take to them, and the two become quite popular. Offstage, they fall in love, and decide to get married. They leave the show boat, and move to Chicago. Things are fine for a while, as Gaylord’s gambling is successful. However, his luck starts to run out, and they have to give up their lavish lifestyle. When they hit rock bottom and Magnolia calls him out for his obsession with gambling, he leaves her. Just in the nick of time, Magnolia runs into Frank and Elly, who help her get a job at a local nightclub for New Year’s. That night, Cap’n Andy goes out to see Frank and Elly perform, hoping to learn where his daughter is, only to find her faltering in her first performance. With her father’s support, Magnolia pulls herself together and wins over the audience. Afterwards, she tells her father what happened (including the fact that she is now pregnant), and asks if she can return home to the show boat (which obviously thrills Cap’n Andy). As time goes on, both Gaylord and Magnolia continue to go their separate ways. Will they ever be reunited, or will time forever keep them apart?
MGM bought the film rights to Show Boat a few years after Universal Studios released their 1936 version. The plan was to feature Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, but by then their box office appeal was on the decline. Still, producer Arthur Freed wanted to do something with the property, and ended up doing so when MGM produced their musical biopic on composer Jerome Kern, Till The Clouds Roll By. In that film, they borrowed some of the score from Show Boat as they presented a highly shortened version (including actress Kathryn Grayson playing Magnolia Hawks several years before the 1951 film). At one point, it was also planned to have Lena Horne play the role of Julie (since she had done the part in Till The Clouds Roll By), but a combination of the Code and her stuff being cut in some Southern states prevented her from getting the part. Ava Gardner got the role, practicing singing to Lena Horne’s recordings, but then she got dubbed by Annette Warren (although her recordings are still extant, and included as extras on the recent Blu-ray release). The movie proved to be fairly popular with audiences, and they got the gang back together (Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel and the Champions) the next year for another remake of a Jerome Kern musical, Lovely To Look At.
This is a movie that I’ve seen for years, and was first introduced to it by my late grandmother. It’s one that I’ve come to appreciate more each time I get the chance to see it. From the first time I saw it, I will readily admit that the moment that has stuck with me the most is William Warfield’s rendition of the classic “Ol’ Man River.” He does such a WONDERFUL, fantastic job singing it. It’s always guaranteed to give me goosebumps, it’s so powerful. Howard Keel is, in my mind, perfectly cast here, and is very enjoyable to listen to. I will admit, it took me a while to come around to the husband-and-wife dance team Marge and Gower Champion, but after I saw them in Lovely To Look At (and really took to that film), I’ve come to appreciate their dancing here as well. While I do wish that Lena Horne could have been cast as Julie, I will readily admit that I like Ava Gardner’s performance here, as I have yet to see anything else she did that moves me as much as she did here, as somebody whose life is going downhill, and yet still tries to take care of a friend that tried to defend her. It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s one I will quite readily admit to wanting to watch with some frequency! So I would certainly give it some of my highest recommendations!
This movie is available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive Collection, featuring a new master from a 4K Scan of the original Technicolor negatives. One thing that has long been in this particular version of Show Boat‘s favor has been its three-strip Technicolor look. However, that hasn’t been the case for some time, as the film has had less-than-stellar transfers that have robbed it of that look. Finally, FINALLY, this movie has been given a new restoration that has returned it to its former glory! The colors are so fantastically vivid, and the detail is much improved! I know this Blu-ray was only just released in February 2021, but, honestly, I’d be surprised if this isn’t considered one of the best (if not THE best) restorations of the year! So, if you’ve never seen this movie and want to try it (or have seen it, but only through its previous terrible transfers), don’t stop, don’t hesitate, get this one! You won’t regret it!
Film Length: 1 hour, 48 minutes
My Rating: 9/10
My Rating (after the Blu-ray): 10/10
*ranked #3 in Top 10 Disc Releases Of 2021
List Of Actor/Actress Filmographies/Collections
Ziegfeld Follies (1945) – Kathryn Grayson – Lovely To Look At (1952)
Ava Gardner – Mogambo (1953)
Annie Get Your Gun (1950) – Howard Keel – Lovely To Look At (1952)
You Said A Mouthful (1932) – Joe E. Brown
The Story Of Vernon And Irene Castle (1939) – Marge Champion – Lovely To Look At (1952)
Gower Champion – Lovely To Look At (1952)
Dark Passage (1947) – Agnes Moorehead – The Opposite Sex (1956)
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