This film version from Universal Pictures, which had in 1929 filmed a part-talkie version of Ferber's original novel, is, for the most part, a faithful adaptation of the famed Broadway musical version of the book, and retains the interracial subplot so important to both the novel and the show.This film version of Show Boat stars Irene Dunne and Allan Jones, with Charles Winninger, Paul Robeson, Helen Morgan, Helen Westley, Queenie Smith, Sammy White, Donald Cook, Arthur Hohl, and Hattie McDaniel. It was directed by Frankenstein / Bride of Frankenstein director James Whale, who tried to bring as many people from the stage production as he could to work on the film.
Robeson, for whom the role of Joe was actually written, had appeared in the show onstage in London in 1928 and in the Broadway revival of 1932. Dunne had been brought in to replace Norma Terris, the original Magnolia, in the touring version of the show, and had toured the U.S. in the role beginning in 1929.
According to film historian Miles Kreuger in his book Show Boat: The History of a Classic American Musical, great care was taken by director James Whale to insure a feeling of complete authenticity in the set and costume design for the 1936 film.
The 1936 version of Show Boat is considered by nearly all film critics to be one of the classic film musicals of all time, and one of the best stage-to-film adaptations ever made.
Except for the final sequence and the three additional songs written especially for the film by Kern and Hammerstein, it follows the stage musical extremely closely, unlike the 1929 film and the 1951 version released by MGM. It also retains much of the comedy in the show.
The 1936 Show Boat was successful at the box office, but was withdrawn from circulation in the 1940's, after MGM bought the rights so that they could film a Technicolor remake; however, MGM's version did not begin filming until 1950, and was released in the summer of 1951. The controversy surrounding Paul Robeson's supposed Communist leanings further assured that the 1936 film would not be seen for a long time, and it was not widely seen again until after Robeson's death in 1976.
The Kern-Hammerstein musical was remade in 1951 by MGM in Technicolor, starring Kathryn Grayson, Ava Gardner, and Howard Keel, with Joe E. Brown, Marge Champion, Gower Champion, William Warfield, Robert Sterling, Agnes Moorehead and Leif Erickson. The film was the first screen version of Show Boat not to include any of the actors who had appeared in the original 1927 stage production (if one does not count Till the Clouds Roll By as a film version of Show Boat).
It was adapted by John Lee Mahin and was directed by George Sidney. Filmed in the typical MGM lavish style, this version is the most financially successful of the film adaptations of the play, and is one of MGM's most popular musicals, though arguably one of the studio's less inventive ones. It was the first film version of "Show Boat" not to feature Robert Russell Bennett's stage orchestrations in one form or another.
Oscar Hammerstein II's dialogue was almost completely rewritten (by Mahin), the story was given a major overhaul near the end of the film and the changes are considered to make this version of the story quite distinct from other versions. Changes included keeping the characters of Magnolia and Gaylord significantly younger at the end than in the play, and the expansion of the role of Julie to give her character greater depth. Kim (Magnolia and Ravenal's daughter) appears only as a baby and a little girl in this version. Nearly all of the purely comic scenes were removed, as much of the comedy in the show has no direct bearing on the plot.
The version of "Ol' Man River" heard here is considered by film historians to be by far the best moment, both musically and pictorially, in the film. Musical theatre historian Miles Kreuger, who had many harsh words for the 1951 Show Boat in his 1977 book Show Boat: The History of a Classic American Musical nevertheless had nothing but high praise for this sequence. It was staged and directed by an uncredited Roger Edens during an illness of George Sidney, who directed the rest of the film. However, the "Ol' Man River" sequence in the 1936 film version of the show, with its tracking pan around the seated, singing figure of Paul Robeson, and its expressionistic montages of field and dock workers performing their tasks, is perhaps even more highly regarded.
The aspects of the original stage version dealing with racial inequality, especially the story line concerning miscegenation, were highly "sanitized" and deemphasized in the 1951 film MORE »
Show Boat the musical is widely considered one of the most influential works of the American musical theatre. As the first true American "musical play."