George Sidney | 103 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | U
You’d be forgiven for thinking MGM want people to forget this movie even exists: it was dumped on US DVD back in 2000, it’s never had a UK disc release, and a long-rumoured special edition has never emerged. That’s a shame, because there’s a good-quality musical tucked away here.
The titular boat floats into a small community, where things immediately begin to go awry: someone reports the star couple (Robert Sterling and, more importantly, Ava Gardner) to the authorities for their interracial relationship, leading to them being carted off; fortunately, Gaylord Ravenal (Howard Keel) is around to hop on board in their place, owing in part to his instantly falling in love with the ship’s captain’s daughter (Kathryn Grayson). To be honest, I found much of this opening a little hoary, including an insipid and instantly forgettable love song between Keel and Grayson.
With that out of the way, however, things begin to warm up: the boat sets sail (not that any sails are involved) into the early-morning mist, to the strains of Ol’ Man River, a downright fantastic song. “I get weary and sick of trying / I’m tired of living and scared of dying”* — a bit fatalistic for a bright little musical about two people falling in love on a show boat? No, it’s just an indication of where things are going — into darkness, as modern parlance would have it, because from here on out everything goes to pot. To detail the ins and outs would be to spoil the narrative, but much of the film is more tragedy than cheesy Hollywood musical.
I think people forget just how many musicals actually are pretty glum. They’ve acquired the image of being happy-clappy-smiley-singy nonsenses, but many of them — and most of the best ones — come with a thick undercurrent of reality, or classical tragedy. I mean, West Side Story is based on Romeo and Juliet, for crying out loud — and doesn’t really sanitise the ending, as musical-haters might expect. Show Boat may build to a largely happy finale, but it’s not so for everyone, and the journey there is not all toe-tapping tunes and jazz hands.
This is the third film of Show Boat, based on a stage play that’s based on a novel. Apparently this version cuts back on both comedy elements and racial elements, so is presumably both less funny and less serious than some of the other versions. It seems many critics, scholars and fans consider one or more of the other versions to be superior. They may be right — I’ve not seen or read any of those — but, on its own merits, I think this is a very fine version of the apparent story, songs and themes.
Perhaps it isn’t a film to ease back with on a Sunday afternoon, but not every old film or musical needs to be. If you can get past the opening, Show Boat offers a tough, emotional, perhaps even challenging, view of the world that marks it out as a film deserving of some rediscovery. Can we have that special edition now, please?
* In case anyone thinks I’m trying to deny black people their voice or something, the original lyric, as written, goes: “Ah gits weary / An’ sick of tryin’ / Ah’m tired of livin’ / An’ skeered of dyin'”. I changed it for clarity when read, though it being sung like that is in many respects vital to its intent. ^