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.
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.
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.
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.
- Ferber, Edna. A Peculiar Treasure. 1939.
- Gehring, Wes D. Irene Dunne: First Lady of Hollywood. 2003.
Revisit The Films of Edna Ferber:
- Dinner at Eight (1933): Focus on Ferber
- Giant (1956): Edna Ferber Takes on Texas
- Cimarron (1931): Taming No-Man’s Land
- Stage Door (1937): #MeToo In the 1930’s
- So Big (1932): “Epic of American Womanhood”
- Saratoga Trunk (1945): “Two Impecunious Rascals”
- Come and Get It (1936): Bad Adaptation, Great Film