August 15, 2020  (Web Review)

Show Boat

Criterion, 113 min., not rated, DVD: $29.95, Blu-ray: $39.95

Reviewer rating: 3.5/4

Writing in VL Online-5/14, reviewer Sean Axmaker said that “this 1936 production of the classic musical by Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern (adapted from the novel by Edna Ferber) is still considered the best film version of the Broadway hit. Directed by James Whale—most famous for his horror films Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein—Show Boat stars Irene Dunne as the dreamy daughter of Cap’n Andy (Charles Winninger), captain and proprietor of the titular floating paddlewheel playhouse in the 19th-century South, and Allan Jones as the riverboat gambler who becomes her leading man onstage and lover offstage. Paul Robeson costars as Joe, who sings the show-stopping “Ol’ Man River,” while Helen Morgan (in her final film role) is the singer who is forced to leave the show when authorities discover that she has black blood in her (both actors are reprising their roles from the original Broadway production). Show Boat features a minstrel number with Dunne in blackface (which is offensive to our contemporary sensibilities, but true to the time) and all of the black characters are servants or otherwise subservient to whites. Yet the film also acknowledges the reality of segregation and bigotry in the Jim Crow era and shows a theatrical community in which white and black characters share scenes and songs and experiences as colleagues. Whale’s sympathy is unmistakable, especially in his powerful treatment of Morgan’s character and the direction of the “Ol’ Man River” scene, which ends with a montage of expressionist images reflecting the spirit of the lyrics and music.” Improving on Warner Archive’s manufactured-on-demand Blu-ray release, this Criterion edition—available on both DVD and Blu-ray—features a new restored 4K digital transfer, as well as extras including a 1989 audio commentary with American-musical historian Miles Kreuger, a new interview with Whale biographer James Curtis, a new interview with professor and author Shana L. Redmond, the Oscar-winning 1979 short documentary Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist, excerpts from the 1929 film version of Show Boat, two radio adaptations, and an essay by critic Gary Giddins. Highly recommended. (R. Pitman)