‘Show Boat’ or — Inevitable Expansions?

I knew nothing about the musical ‘Show Boat’ (1936) until last night, although I knew a little about director James Whale so was curious as to how this director I knew best for horror flicks would bring a stage musical to the screen. The result is, technically, a musical (it has got songs in it after all) but it’s even more emphatically a James Whale movie on every level and what we’re seeing has nothing to do with the stage or theatre and everything to do with cinema.

Show boat The Cotton Blossom is run by the Hawks family who travel the Mississippi putting on shows for the locals. 18 year old Magnolia Hawks falls in love with the charming Gaylord Ravenal, a gambler passing himself off as wealthy nobility. Magnolia’s suspicious mother disapproves of this romance but when the leading man and lady of The Cotton Blossom are hounded out of the state by racist and discriminatory laws it allows Magnolia and Gaylord to step into their shoes and become the stars of the show boat. Playing lovers on stage soon means they’re lovers off stage, too.

And so slowly time, much like the Mississippi itself, moves on carrying the show boat and its crew to unknown futures.

So ‘Show Boat’ has all the ingredients for a straight forward musical with a whole “gang putting on the show” vibe going on. Yet starting off in the 1880’s I was wondering if ‘Show Boat’ might end up being a tad old fashioned. It sure starts off seeming that way as The Cotton Blossom steams into town and Magnolia and Gaylord start soft-focus dueting all over the place, but after fifteen or twenty minutes I found that the last word I was reaching for to describe ‘Show Boat’ would be ‘old fashioned’. Ever.

The first blast of cinematic dexterity is when Paul Robeson sings ‘Ol’ Man River’. It’s a moving song and a powerful performance, but look at the way the camera moves to pull us into the number1 It’s an almost 360 degree rotation that settles on an exquisite close up of Robeson’s face and tear-filled eyes before moving into an expressionistic montage sequence. It’s phenomenal, utterly arresting and totally cinematic.

From here on Whales simply throws one piece of delirious invention after another at the audience and before long ‘Show Boat’ has built up such a head of steam, such a force of energy, that couldn’t just push it up the Mississippi but blast it off into space.

A great example of this culmination of momentum is during the central performance onboard The Cotton Blossom which not only threatens to ascend into total chaos but wilfully leaps headfirst into mayhem. Remember, this is the same director who made ‘The Old, Dark House’ (1932), one of the most sublimely crazy movies ever made but any assumptions I might’ve had of Whales reigning any of that insanity in because he was making a musical were completely destroyed as ‘Show Boat’ is gloriously nuts.

How crazy? Well, at one point one of the main characters casually admits to having once killed a man and not only is he not immediately arrested but we all laugh and let it slide. And the movie is crammed with moments like that, usually provided by Helen Westley as Parthenia Hawks, Magnolia’s mother, who steals every single shot she’s in (I ADORE the way she always leans into her husband when telling him what to do).

For the first hour or so the entire film takes place solely in or around the show boat as though The Cotton blossom is the entire world for these actors and real life takes place elsewhere, in the background of off-stage. And that’s what I thought the entire film would be — set on the boat.

Then Whales pulls off another piece of genius as the film bursts open, suddenly exploding out of the confines of the boat and into the wider world and all without the movie losing a single ounce of momentum or energy. In fact, Whales is able to inject somehow even MORE energy into it all. This is because he’s got such a tight grasp, such control of the material that Whales can throw it about as hard as he likes and pulling off some staggering pieces of brilliance in the process, and all augmented by some ridiculously impressive cinematography and editing. For example — notice the sequence when Mr. Green enters his nightclub. It’s a flurry of fast cuts, quick action and odd camera angles that wouldn’t feel out of place in a contemporary Scorsese movie. It’s breathtaking.

The energy keeps building and the scope keep widening out until we’re watching large scale ballrooms packed with hundreds of people, a vast amount of visual information on screen and all captured by gliding lateral camera moves that people would be hailing Godard a genius for using thirty years later. ‘Show Boat’ never stops moving, never stops inevitably expanding, so it’s impossible to resist its pull.

There’s so much to say about ‘Show Boat’ ranging from everything from how it draws attention to and uses special effects, the highlighting of theatrical (and cinematic) artifice, the theme of identity and deception, the skilful utilisation of interruptions (there’s nearly always an interruption going on), the sophisticated use of time, all the delightful background characters, the touching duet between Robeson and Hattie McDaniel or the fantastic shit-eating grin Gaylord sports as the camera fades out on him singing “And so she goes back to her room and I go sadly back to mine”.

‘Show Boat’ is amazing. I was expecting a fun, hopefully moving, musical that might be a little stuffy round the edges and covered in a patina of dust. What I was not expecting was Whales providing me with a cinematic feast that might be one of the most furiously and constantly inventive films I’ve seen in… well, ever.

It’s a film that’s initially deceptive in scale. This is because it has the structure of a cone, or maybe a river would be more fitting, as it starts off small and contained but slowly opens out and expands until, before you know it, it is as wide as the sea and it has carried you to a place you’d never expect.

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.