Show Boat (1936):  Ferber’s Glamour Girl

Paul Robeson, Irene Dunne, Hattie McDaniel, Helen Morgan in Show Boast 1936
Paul Robeson, Irene Dunne, Hattie McDaniel, Helen Morgan
Show Boat 1936 Opening Banner

In 1924, Edna Ferber collaborated with George Kaufmann on one of their rare failures, a play called Minick that closed after only four months.  As Ferber recounts in her memoir A Peculiar Treasure, after a disappointing opening night, Ferber and her producer Winthrop Ames were doing a post mortem on what had gone wrong.  Winthrop joked that they should forget Broadway plays and instead perform on show boats.

“What’s a show boat?” Ferber asked, in no mood for jokes.

The question—and its answer—sent Ferber down a path that would electrify her, her readers, Broadway, and finally Hollywood.

Ferber learned that show boats were floating theaters that traveled through the American south from the 1860s to about the 1880s.  The cast and crew lived on the boat, and they docked at rural towns where hard-working and often poor people would come aboard to watch a show. 

Ferber fell in love with show boats and was stunned to discover there was very little written about life on show boats—no fiction, no memoirs, no recollections.

She threw herself into the task of researching a novel about life on a show boat.  As she writes in Treasure, “I was hot on the trail of show boats.  Here, I thought, was one of the most melodramatic and gorgeous bits of Americana that had ever come my way.  It was not only the theater—it was the theater plus the glamour of the wandering drifting life, the drama of the river towns, the mystery and terror of the Mississippi itself.”

She called the resulting novel Show Boat, and it told the story of Magnolia Hawks, a naïve young girl who grows up on The Cotton Blossom, her father’s show boat, and gets her chance to perform—against her mother’s strong objections—when the show’s leading lady has to abruptly leave the tour.

It was the eighth best-selling book of 1926.

The next year Florenz Ziegfeld produced a musical based on the novel, with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein.  Though she had no active role in the musical, Ferber loved it—as did the rest of America.  Kern and Hammerstein added more whimsy and fun to Ferber’s tale, while keeping the serious undertone of race relations.

As Ferber wrote approvingly, “Show Boat had been adopted by foster parents and was being educated to be a glamour girl.”

It ran for two years straight in New York and the original cast included Helen Morgan as Julie LaVerne and Charles Winninger as Cap’n Andy Hawks.  It played in London for ten months with Paul Robeson in the role of Joe.

In 1929, Irene Dunne was a thirty-one theater actress who was considering retiring (having never made a film) when she and her husband saw Show Boat.  As Dunne’s father (who died when she was very young) worked on steamships and Dunne had a childhood memory of floating down the Mississippi with him, she fell in love with the show and was determined to play Magnolia.  She eventually won the part for a road show version that ran for a record forty weeks all along the eastern coast.  The show put Dunne on the map and led to her first Hollywood film at the age of thirty-two.

At an age when many actresses had to start thinking about their post-film career, Irene Dunne was just getting started.

So in 1936 when Universal Pictures decided to pull out all the stops to make Show Boat—the most expensive film the studio had ever produced at the time—the film cast itself.  Dunne, now a bona fide movie star with an Oscar nomination under her belt for her role in Ferber’s 1931 film Cimarron, would play eighteen-year-old Magnolia.  Helen Morgan, Charles Winninger, and Paul Robeson would reprise their stage roles on screen.  Add in Allan Jones as Magnolia’s suitor Ravenal and Hattie McDaniel as Queenie, and the stage was set for greatness.

James Whale, who’s known then and now for horror films such as Frankenstein, was an unusual choice to direct. But the mix of his outsider view and the experienced actors made for a wonderful film.

Magnolia Hawks (Dunne) is the daughter of Cap’n Andy and Parthy Ann Hawks, owners of the Cotton Blossom Show Boat.  She falls in love with gambler Gaylord Ravenal.  Leading lady Julie LaVerne is discovered to be a half black woman passing as white.  As she’s married to a white man, they are committing a crime at the time, and are forced to leave the show, paving the way for Magnolia to take over the show.

There are moments of true magic—when Dunne performs a shuffle dance inspired by the black levee workers as Helen Morgan sings, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.”  Or a Romeo-and-Juliet inspired scene when Magnolia and Ravenal sing a duet from their windows, hers on top of his. 

And of course, Paul Robeson’s rendition of “Ol’ Man River” will make the hair on your arms stand up.

It’s no revelation to say that black actors in the 1930s were never given the chance to play fully fleshed out roles, and were instead relegated to roles as slaves, maids, and laborers.  But it’s a testament to the immense talent of both Robeson and Hattie McDaniel that they were able to do so much with so little, and Show Boat is no exception.

Ferber’s novel and the film deserve credit for the way they handle the illegal interracial marriage—the villain is the man who exposes Julie’s history out of spite, and not Julie and her husband.  Everyone on the Cotton Blossom is sick to see her go, Magnolia most of all.  Robeson’s Joe and McDaniel’s Queenie use nothing but their eyes to convey a weariness at the injustice of the world as they watch Julie marched out of polite society for having a “drop of negro blood.”

So much with so little.

Paul Robeson - 1936 - Show Boat
Paul Robeson

The film has romance, drama, whimsy, and melancholy.  There’s moments of great humor as well—Queenie and Joe’s bickering, and Dunne brings that slightly mocking laugher to Magnolia that she would later hone in screwball comedies like My Favorite Wife.  And the scene in which Cap’n Andy acts out the final scene onstage alone after an audience member shoots the villain is worth the price of admission.

The film has a happier ending than the novel, as any good glamour girl musical should.

The American Film Institute ranks it as the 24th best musical ever made, and “Ol’ Man River” as the 24th best movie song ever.

And don’t even think about watching the 1951 MGM remake.  Despite the addition of technicolor and Ava Gardner, this film just doesn’t hold a candle to the 1936 version.  In it’s conversion to a big-time MGM musical, it becomes bloated, overblown, and loses all its humor and charm.

Ava Gardner in Show Boat- 1951.
Not even Ava Gardner could save the 1951 MGM film version….

I can think of no better place to end our discussion of Edna Ferber than Show Boat, the property that both made her the most money (through book sales, musical and film royalties) and the book she had the most fun writing.

I’ll quote one last time from Treasure before we turn the page on the great Edna Ferber:

“It doesn’t seem possible that anyone ever had so much sheer fun, gaiety, novelty, satisfaction and money out of the writing of any one piece of work as I have had out of Show Boat.”

And few movie review bloggers have ever had as much fun researching, watching, and writing about films than I have had with the work of Edna Ferber.

Show Boat 1936 Verdict - Timeless - Watch It Tonight

 Sources

  • Ferber, Edna.  A Peculiar Treasure.  1939.
  • Gehring, Wes D.  Irene Dunne:  First Lady of Hollywood.  2003.

Revisit The Films of Edna Ferber:

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Scarlett and Melanie: Film’s First Frenemies

Olivia de Havilland and Vivien Leigh as Melanie and Scarlett in Gone With the Wind (1939)
Gone With the Wind (1939) opening banner

In 1935, young producer David O. Selznick left MGM to start his own production company.  Despite his successes at MGM, Paramount, and RKO, Selznick longed for creative freedom.  In those days the studios were movie factories–producing one after another, with a bigger eye on the budget than the quality.

Selznick didn’t want to crank out films.  He wanted to make one-of-a-kind original works of art that would stand the test of time.

And he believed Margaret Mitchell’s romanticized novel of the fall of the south could be his crown jewel.

He spent two years casting his masterpiece, interviewing 1,400 women before deciding on a leading lady.  He second guessed every move by his scriptwriters.  He was a complete control freak–burning through three directors who couldn’t take his constant meddling and his blistering memos that went on for many single-spaced typed pages.

He nearly worked himself to death and bankrupted his new company, but in the end he accomplished his impossible goal.

Gone With the Wind is the greatest movie that ever was and ever will be.

No movie will ever again capture a nation’s attention again like Gone With the Wind because movies no longer hold an outsized place in our culture.

In 1939, you watched sports by going to the games.  You read the news in the morning paper.  You read stories in novels or listened to them on the serialized radio shows.

The only screen you ever saw was the giant silver one at the movie theater.

And there was Gone With the Wind, an epic tale that blew away anything anyone had ever seen before.  It was the first movie many people saw in color, over twice as long as the average film of the day.

It was promoted as an event–unlike other movies of the time, it had reserved seating, premium priced tickets, and an intermission.  It was initially booked only in huge theaters with at least 850 seats.

People knew they were seeing something special.

More people saw Gone With the Wind in the movie theater than any other movie that has ever existed, and it is inconceivable that another movie will ever surpass it.  It sold more than two times as many tickets as Avengers:  Endgame, the top film of last year.

It holds a place of cultural relevance nearly as high as The Wizard of Oz, without the benefit of thirty years of annual event showings on television.  (While The Wizard of Oz made its television debut in 1956, viewers could not watch Scarlett and Rhett on the small screen until 1976.)

It’s been the subject of recent controversy over its romanticized depiction of slavery, but the fact that people want it banned in 2020 only further illustrates its hold on the American public.

Even if you haven’t seen it, you likely know the plot.  Vain, selfish southern belle Scarlett O’Hara convinces herself she loves Ashley Wilkes, the one man she cannot have, and one who is temperamentally unsuited to make her happy.  While pinning for happily married Ashley, Scarlett misses out on happiness with Rhett Butler, a man who does love her and would make her happy.

All this plays out during the Civil War and its aftermath, a war that devastates the south and decimates Scarlett’s family and beloved plantation home, Tara.

Gone With the Wind (1939) movie poster - Rhett holds Scarlett while Atlanta burns in the background

Gone With the Wind is classified as a historical epic romance, but it’s really a war movie.  

And while Scarlett and Rhett’s romance gets all the press, in many ways the central relationship of the film is that between Scarlett and Ashley’s wife, Melanie Hamilton Wilkes.

Scarlett is often written off as a vicious conniver, and Melanie the saintly doormat who’s oblivious to Scarlett’s faults.

Yet it’s not that simple.

In the film’s opening scene, Scarlett makes clear her disdain for Melanie Hamilton, as a no-fun “goody goody” whom Scarlett would dislike even if she weren’t engaged to Ashley Wilkes.

Melanie, for her part, hopes she and Scarlett will become great friends.

Olivia de Havilland as Melanie in Gone With the Wind (1939)

Scarlett spends the first half of the film as a spoiled rich girl who schemes to steal Ashley away, even after he marries Melanie.  She is shameless and plays on Ashley’s lust–if not love–for her.  Even when the war begins, she is more consumed by petty jealousy and concerns.  With Ashely off to war, Scarlett visits Melanie in Atlanta so that she will be there to see Ashley home from the war.

Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939)

Scarlett despises the war and can’t stomach nursing the injured men.  She is as selfish as ever.  But everything changes when the Yankees are on the cusp of invading Atlanta and a pregnant Melanie is too weak to evacuate.  Though she wants nothing more than to return to Tara and her mother, Scarlett stays behind with Melanie.  She has the chance to leave with Rhett, and again with Melanie’s Aunt Pitty, but she stays.  

When Melanie goes into labor, Scarlett looks for help and finds none–most of the Confederate Army has pulled out of Atlanta, the doctor cannot leave the thousands of injured men, and Scarlett’s slave Prissy admits she lied about knowing how to deliver babies.

A field of dead confederate soldiers; scene from Gone With the Wind (1939)

As Melanie cries out for help, Scarlett realizes she is on her own.

And for the first time in her life, she rises to the occasion.  She walks up the stairs with a look of grim determination on her face, and for the first time we see the steel-willed survivor inside her.

Scarlett delivers the baby and saves Melanie’s life.  She takes them on a harrowing journey back to Tara, where Scarlett hopes her mother will take over.

But when they reach Tara, they find the place looted and burned and without a scrap of food or money.  Scarlett’s mother is dead and her father has gone insane.  Melanie is still dangerously ill.  Scarlett’s two sisters are useless.  All but three of the slaves have run off.

There was never a more ill-prepared head of the family than Scarlett O’Hara.

Standing with a raised fist and a dirty radish pulled from the ground, she vows:

“As god as my witness, they’re not going to lick me.  I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over I’ll never be hungry again.  No, nor will any of my folk.  If I have to lie, steal, cheat, or kill.  As god as witness, I’ll never be hungry again.”

That quote sets up the second half of the film–Scarlett will lie, cheat, steal and kill to protect Tara.  And despite continuing to despise her and desire her husband, Scarlett considers Melanie and the baby part of the folk under her protection.

Scarlett gets them through the war and its brutal aftermath.  Even when Ashley returns home, he is of no help to Scarlett.  He is a southern gentleman, without the grit required to drag them back to prosperity.

Like all of us, Scarlett’s greatest strength is also her greatest weakness.

If not for Scarlett, Melanie, her baby, and Ashely would’ve starved to death in the aftermath of the war.

And yet when the war is over, Scarlett cannot shed her skin of ruthlessness.

Rhett sweeps her off her feet and marries her, wanting nothing more than to spoil and soothe her.  Though she has every outer appearance of returning to the petty rich girl she once was, her nightmares betray that the horror of war has not left her.  

She is haunted by her former hunger, driven to acquire more money via fair means or foul to keep the beast of poverty at baby.

Because of this, I’ve always had a soft spot for Scarlett O’Hara.  So does Melanie Wilkes.

Even as Scarlett continues to try to steal her husband, and her well-bred social set wants Melanie to drop Scarlett as a friend, Melanie stands by Scarlett.

Years later on her deathbed, Melanie wants to talk to Scarlett.  There are no tearful confessions on either side, but Melanie says just enough to know that she has not been oblivious to Scarlett’s machinations for her husband, and asks Scarlett to care for him.

It’s not because she’s a doormat–it’s because she knows that she and her baby wouldn’t be alive without Scarlett.  And it’s clear to Melanie, as it is to Rhett–that Scarlett has PTSD from the war, though they wouldn’t know to call it that.

In the end, Melanie knows Scarlett better than Scarlett knows herself.  

And Scarlett, despite her lifelong protests that she despises Melanie, never left the weaker woman behind.

Gone With the Wind (1939) Verdict - Timeless - See It Tonight

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

Olivia de Havilland and Vivien Leigh as Melanie and Scarlett in Gone With the Wind (1939)