When one considers the films of James Whale, the gothic horror classics inevitably come to mind. But, in my view, Whale’s ultimate triumph did not involve monsters or chills or Boris Karloff in elaborate make-up. Instead, Whale’s finest achievement came in the 1936 film version of the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II musical “Show Boat.” The film, which was screened at the James Whale retrospective hosted this past week by the Film Forum in New York, represents the apex of Hollywood musical productions.
Actually, “Show Boat” was an aberration at many levels. Besides being Whale’s only musical, it was also the rare big budget musical extravaganza for Universal Pictures, a studio that made its bread and butter with horror, Westerns and lowbrow comedy. The film also offered rarities on screen: Irene Dunne in a musical starring role, Allan Jones showing he was capable of acting, and elusive Hollywood performances by Paul Robeson and Helen Morgan.
“Show Boat” also dared to show the uglier side of the late 19th century Dixie environment surrounding the Mississippi River communities. Racial segregation, normally a taboo subject for Hollywood, was clearly presented by Whale in “Show Boat.” Scenes where white and black audience members enter and exit the floating theater on parallel gangplanks and move to separate parts of the theater not only spoke of the ugliness of a bygone era, but also reflected the Jim Crow protocol that was still firmly in place in 1936 – and even if white audiences preferred not to acknowledge it, the black audiences of that day could not ignore the circumstances of their second class citizenship. Likewise, the wedding of Irene Dunne’s Magnolia and Allan Jones’ Gaylord is marred (by contemporary standards) by having the show boat’s black crew stand outside of the church and look in at the ceremony, rather than be seated as part of the official wedding celebration.
Many people often refer to this production as the Paul Robeson version. Although billed fourth in the cast, Robeson’s role is very much a supporting part – his character is absent from the film’s final third, when it shifts from the show boat to Chicago and Broadway. Yet Robeson still dominates the film with a subtle mix of sly humor and aching sincerity that elevates his the role of Joe from broad caricature to genuine character. And, of course, his rendition of “Ol’ Man River” (shot by Whale mostly in close-up) is pure musical gold – his interpretation of Hammerstein’s lyrical contempt for the racist double standard and the promise of life away from “the white boss” planted the seeds for the black power movement that would blossom three decades later.
If Robeson’s presence resonates with today’s viewer, equal attention deserves to be given to Helen Morgan, a long-forgotten performer whose star was derailed by alcoholism. She is primarily recalled today for “Show Boat” and she gives a devastating performance as the actress whose life is ruined when it is revealed she is mixed race. Morgan performs two songs, the playful “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine” and melodramatic “Bill,” and her vocal grace was peerless. Her “Show Boat” work is a triumph of a single achievement and a tragedy since there would be no further film work to follow that brilliance.
From a directing style, Whale took extraordinary visual risks – shooting evening rendezvous songs with the stars’s faces in shadows, going for admittedly broad comedy via tight close-ups of exaggerated mugging (especially with Helen Westley as the overbearing matriarch Parthy), and keeping a blackface minstrel show number “Gallivantin’ Around” in the film (the obvious inappropriateness of the presentation is framed with a tracking shot from the rear of the theater, where the segregated black audience is watching the farce – we don’t see their reactions, but we can only imagine!).
And, of course, there is the Kern-Hammerstein score. Soaring effortlessly between hopeful love songs, ballads of great despair, richly comic interludes and the revolutionary rejection of the white-imposed status quo of the aforementioned “Ol’ Man River,” the “Show Boat” score encompassed the full spectrum of emotional power. Under Whale’s direction, “Show Boat” captures each laugh and heartache created by the score, and then expands it further with a mature yet inventive visual style that frames Hammerstein’s wise lyrics and Kern’s timeless music.
Sadly, the film could not accommodate the full score. However, missing tunes such as “Why Do I Love You?” and “Life Upon the Wicked Stage” lace their way through the film as incidental music.
Perhaps it was a major shame that Whale never made another musical. But, then again, how can one possibly improve upon perfection?