Starring-Ava Gardner, Robert Sterling, Kathryn Grayson
Scott’s Review #1,177
Reviewed September 14, 2021
Show Boat (1951) is a liberal-slanted musical centering around racism. It mixes comedy and drama well while remembering it is meant to entertain audiences. But it never loses sight of the important message it’s portraying.
Ava Gardner, who stars, never looked more beautiful.
The picture is based on the 1927 stage musical of the same name by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, and the 1926 novel by Edna Ferber. The vibrant colors and sentimental songs combined with a very southern flair make it a winner.
In fact, Kern and Hammerstein provide the score for this adaptation of their Broadway hit which adds oodles of authenticity.
My favorite song is the devastatingly poignant and haunting tune, “Ol’ Man River” which is reprised at the end of Show Boat.
Julie LaVerne (Gardner) and Steve Baker (Sterling) are successfully married entertainers who are forced to leave the showboat Cotton Blossom when it becomes known that Julie is of mixed race. Meanwhile, the captain’s daughter Magnolia (Kathryn Grayson) and gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Howard Keel) take over the act, fall in love, marry and leave the boat for Chicago.
There, they live off his gambling earnings, which dry up fast. The ending of the film is not happy.
I love the tone of the film. It is a very big budget production and it shows. Each number is belted out with gusto at the risk of feeling too uptight or stagey but regardless I fell for it hook, line, and sinker. The grandness of the numbers was what got me and never so evident is it with Julie’s big number “Bill”, a very emotional song.
Her other famous number, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” isn’t so bad either.
In a perfect world the powers that be would have cast a black actress for authenticity’s sake. Someone like Dorothy Dandridge comes to mind and as wonderful as Gardner is this point gnawed at me throughout. The actress is clearly caucasian though it could almost be the belief that she is of mixed race.
Nonetheless, Gardner also doesn’t sing her own songs. Instead, they are sung by Annette Warren. I’m betting this is why she didn’t receive an Oscar nomination.
But, Show Boat isn’t all about Gardner. Showcasing a spectacular cast of black and white actors leads like Grayson and Keel are fabulous. I cared about their character’s trials and tribulations the most and ruminated how much I found Grayson to resemble legendary Judy Garland.
Supporting players like William Warfield as Joe simply must be mentioned. His rendition of “Ol’ Man River” moved me. A bass-baritone singer and actor he makes the number quite simply and by far the best moment, both musically and pictorially, in the film.
I could watch this scene on replay.
And Agnes Moorehead as Parthy Hawks or the resident bitch provides delicious comedy, intended or unintended.
Some are critical that the 1936 film version is superior and provides a grittier feel and I am conscious of that. I’ve never seen it but the 1951 version does have that Technicolor grandness. Maybe I’ll check it out for a one-day comparison.
For now, for a slice of southern flavored showboatin’ check out Show Boat (1951). With a summery flavor, dancing, and superior photography, it is a good old time.
Oscar Nominations: Best Cinematography, Color, Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture