Despite being readily available on pretty much every format out there, I admit I’d been avoiding Show Boat, the 1951 film version of the stage musical, until now, when I’m running low on titles for my That’s Entertainment quest. It’s partly because I haven’t really been drawn to the musicals I’ve seen so far that are set around that time period—I think they require a certain level of nostalgia to stretch back into that time, which I don’t quite have—and I’d also read the brief description of the film, which signaled that I should be expecting some vintage, 1951 racial politics. That’s not something I seek to expose myself to on a typical basis, but I mustered onward for the sake of completion.
Show Boat documents the life and times of the cast and crew of a traveling show boat floating along the Mississippi River. The cast features Steve (Robert Sterling) and his wife Julie (Ava Gardner), as well as Ellie and Frank (Marge and Gower Champion); the crew includes the villainous Pete (Leif Erickson), Captain Andy (Joe E. Brown), and Andy’s daughter, Magnolia (Kathryn Grayson). When Pete is scorned by Julie, he snitches to the local sheriff that, though she appears to be fair-skinned, she’s technically part African-American, and thus part of an illegal interracial marriage with Steve. The quick-thinking Steve pricks her hand and drinks some of her blood (?!?!) so that he can claim in good conscience that he has black blood in him. This satisfies the sheriff in terms of not arresting them at that moment, but since it’s now illegal for them to be performing for a white audience, they shuffle off the boat and out of the picture. I’d thought their story was going to be the focus of the film—in part because the DVD cover had misleadingly featured Howard Keel and Gardner, who barely interact in the film—but, sadly, that was not the case. Although Julie does appear later, which is not true for some of the other incarnations of the story, the majority of the film shifts focus to the less provocative storyline of Magnolia and her suitor, the gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Keel).
Considering how much I was dreading the film’s attempts to deal with race, I was surprised to find that I really missed Steve and Julie when they disappeared. The film was much more sensitive to Julie’s plight than I was expecting, even though, in 1951, interracial marriage was still officially banned by the Hays Code and illegal in more than half the states in the USA. Of course, had the whole story focused on them, I’m guessing I probably would have been given reason to dislike more of the hypothetical plot elements, especially since Julie’s character does ultimately suffer a lot of abuse in the short amount of screen time she receives here. In 1927, the play was innovative for featuring the first interracial marriage on Broadway, and the first integrated cast on stage together, but a lot had changed in the 25 years following that.
Though Julie is presented as a mostly sympathetic character, there are plenty of painful moments in the movie elsewhere. In particular, the southern black sharecroppers and black showboat crew are depicted as perhaps a bit too happy about their work, which is condescending and harmful to their agency as characters. And although I do normally like her as an actress, casting Ava Gardner as the mixed-race Julie is unfortunate, especially when someone as talented as Lena Horne was available. Horne actually lobbied for the part, but they were unwilling to cast her due to those aforementioned Hays Code regulations against interracial marriage. It could be implied, of course, using two white actors (West Side Story also utilized this loophole), but not actually depicted. Anyway, if nothing else, it’s an interesting look at how often race goes down to semiotics—if Julie is white-passing enough to the point that nobody reads her as black until otherwise informed, can a white person really be racist against her? Show Boat answers that with an unfortunate, resounding “yes,” and it just goes to highlight some of the ridiculous counter-logic racists have to use to maintain their skewed beliefs.
The ultra-precise stylings of Marge and Gower Champion were a highlight for me, as well as the vocal work of William Warfield, who does a great rendition of the familiar tune “Ol’ Man River.” The costumes and sets are all filmed in evocative and vibrant Technicolor, with the gawdy pinks, oranges, yellows, and greens popping off the screen. Initially, I was also amused by a pet monkey carried around by Julie, though looking back, I cringe to think that his presence was probably intended to highlight her exoticism.
Overall, the racial politics weren’t quite as bad as I’d imagined, though that was largely because they were kept off screen for much of the film, and there was still enough questionable stuff in there to make it a not entirely pleasant watch. There are enough good songs and good dance numbers to carry Show Boat into “classic” territory, but the fact that it came out just a few years before the Civil Rights movement really began—using essentially the same plot and depictions from the 1927 play—makes the datedness feel all the more prominent.