Original Vs. Remake: Show Boat (1936 Vs. 1951)

I’m back again for another round of “Original Vs. Remake!”  This time, I am back to doing two versions of the same film (although, considering the story, it’s more like “Remake Vs. Remake”).  The story?  Show Boat.  The films? The 1936 and 1951 versions (I haven’t seen the 1929 film and, given the excerpts included on the 1936 film’s Blu-ray that I did watch, I’m unlikely to want to see it anytime soon).  Of course, these two films aren’t exactly the same, so I’ll borrow the plot synopses from each film.

Show Boat (1936): Captain Andy Hawks (Charles Winninger) runs the show boat The Cotton Palace with his family and his theatrical troupe, which includes leading man Steve Baker (Donald Cook) and his leading lady Julie LaVerne (Helen Morgan), plus comedic dance team Frank Schultz (Sammy White) and Elly (Queenie Smith). Trouble comes, though, when it is revealed that Julie, who had one black parent, was married to Steve, a white man, which was illegal in that area. While they got out of that trouble, Steve and Julie were forced to leave the Cotton Palace just the same. Captain Hawks decided to promote his daughter, Magnolia Hawks (Irene Dunne), to the leading lady, and brought in river gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Allan Jones) to be the leading man, since he was seeking passage elsewhere anyways. Magnolia and Gaylord fall for each other, much to the dismay of her mother Parthy Ann Hawks (Helen Westley). Soon, they get married in spite of Parthy’s objections. A year later, Magnolia gives birth to their daughter, Kim, and Gaylord decides the three of them should move to Chicago. At first, all seems to go well, but then Gaylord gambles and spends all their money. Frank and Elly come to Chicago looking for a cheap place to stay since they got a job at a local nightclub, and they find the apartment they are looking at is being rented by none other than Magnolia and Gaylord! Of course, their timing couldn’t be worse, as Magnolia and Gaylord are being evicted and Gaylord decides to leave her, so she must find a job to survive. She auditions at the club where Frank and Elly are working, but it is only after the club’s current singer (which turns out to be Julie LaVerne) leaves that Magnolia is given the job. Magnolia’s parents have come to town in time for New Year’s Eve to see her, but it is her father who comes across her singing at the nightclub. When he sees her start to falter, he tries to support her, giving her the needed confidence that allows her to become a star on stage and make a comeback.

Show Boat (1951): 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?

As I’ve admitted previously, I’ve seen the 1951 version many a time over the years, whereas I’ve only had the chance to see the 1936 film a few times.  I had actually planned to write my review of the 1951 film and compare the two last year (2020), after the 1936 version got released on Blu-ray and I finally got the chance to see it.  Had I done so, my opinions would have been different, with the 1936 version newly restored, and the 1951 film working from a pitiful transfer, which, to be fair, was the only way I had known the movie.  But, my gut was telling me that the 1951 film was likely to get restored soon (and I had a bunch of other stuff to review anyway), so I decided to delay.  After a year, my gut feeling was proven correct, and so now I have the two restored films to work with in commenting.

Warning to everyone: it’s hard to write about the differences between the two films without getting into how the stories turn out, so consider this your spoiler warning.

Story-wise, both films start out more or less telling the same story.  Sure, you get some differences like different songs or “Ol’ Man River” in different spots, but they are essentially the same.  The differences start to occur when the characters Magnolia and Gaylord get married.  In the ’36 film, they stay on the show boat until after Magnolia gives birth to their daughter, Kim.  Then they leave, enjoy some success, and things go downhill, with Gaylord leaving them.  Magnolia recovers, has a career of her own, before retiring and helping daughter Kim prepare (with Magnolia and Gaylord being reunited on their daughter’s first success).  In the ’51 movie, Magnolia and Gaylord leave the show boat when they marry, and after some ups and downs, they separate when Gaylord realizes how much Magnolia wasn’t ready for his constant failures.  Of course, he leaves before she can tell him she’s pregnant.  She tries to go on stage, but when her father finds her, she decides to return home (where she still has a small career), with Gaylord returning when he is told about their daughter, Kim.

Of course, there are more than just a few changes in story to differentiate the two movies.  The 1936 version was made while composer Jerome Kern was still alive.  As such, there were three new songs written specifically for the film (to take advantage of the cast’s abilities): “I Have The Room Above Her,” “Gallivantin’ Around” and “Ah Still Suits Me.” By the time the ’51 version rolled around, Jerome Kern had passed away (in 1945 at the age of 60), and the three newer songs weren’t included. It made up for it, though, by putting “Life Upon The Wicked Stage” back in as a full musical number (as opposed to background music in the ’36 film), as well as “I Might Fall Back On You.”

When you get down to it, though, there are a number of trade-offs between the two films, and how you feel about them will certainly affect how you like the movies. For instance, one difference between the two films are the characters of Frank and Ellie (played by Sammy White and Queenie Smith in the ’36 film, and Marge and Gower Champion in the ’51 version). In the ’36 film, they are mostly a comedy act, who play the secondary characters in the show. In the 51 version, they’re more of a song-and-dance team (who also do stuff in the actual play, but we don’t see it). I personally prefer Marge and Gower Champion, as I enjoy watching them dance (and the earlier pair really don’t do much of it). The trade-off, though, is that they don’t have as much to do with the story, and I wonder how much of that is their acting ability, or lack thereof (since it sounds like Joe E. Brown played the part of Cap’n Andy on the stage after this, and did the whole bit of telling the end of the story for the play). Sammy White and Queenie Smith are the better actors in the roles, but, as I said, I like Marge and Gower’s dancing better.

Another trade-off is how the black characters are portrayed. In the ’36 film, we have Paul Robeson playing Joe, and Hattie McDaniel playing Queenie, both fairly prominent characters but also close enough to being the stereotypical blacks that their portrayals haven’t aged well. And a number of the other blacks that appear in the film are also troublesome stereotypes. The ’51 film removes a lot of those stereotypes, but, in the process, essentially removes the characters, too. Queenie, played by Frances Williams, has a few brief lines at the very start of the film, and is otherwise relegated to being a background character. Joe, played by William Warfield, fares better (as far as presence is concerned), and is less of a stereotype than in the earlier film (although he’s still not there as much). The worst part of it is that neither way is great, considering you get representation in the ’36 film (but heavily stereotyped), and no stereotypes in the ’51 film (but also no representation).

When it comes to which film I prefer, it’s the ’36 film, but only by a hair. I think the overall film is better, but there are individual elements that, in my mind, make the ’51 more enjoyable. I much prefer Howard Keel as Gaylord Ravenal (who, with his bass-baritone voice, was different than the usual tenors in the role, like Allan Jones from the ’36 film). As I said, I also prefer the husband-and-wife dance team of Marge and Gower Champion, as much as I enjoy their dancing. Of course, one of the most famous songs from the show is “Ol’ Man River,” and, in this, I also prefer the ’51 film. Visually, the song is more appealing in the earlier film, but I just like the orchestration and William Warfield’s singing in the latter film. It gives me chills every time I hear it. But, as a whole, the ’36 film is far, far better. Regardless, I could easily sit down and watch either of them, and, for that reason, I would certainly recommend either version!

My own opinion:

Show Boat (1936)

Film Length: 1 hour, 54 minutes

My Rating: 10/10

Show Boat (1951)

Film Length: 1 hour, 48 minutes

My Rating: 10/10

The Winner (in my opinion): Show Boat (1936)

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