Blu-Ray Review: Show Boat (1936)

Whilst he was only actively making films for just over a decade, James Whale played a pivotal role in the development of genre cinema in America. Influenced by early European expressionist cinema, the West Countryman made some of the most iconic early horror films, including The Old Dark House, Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man. He also went on to make several more mainstream films, most notably Show Boat in 1936.

Opening in the late 19th century, Captain Andy Hawks (Charles Winninger) runs a show boat which travels the length of the Mississippi River. His daughter Magnolia (Irene Dunne) dreams of becoming a star but is restricted to minor roles. When she’s swept off her feet by a charming gambler (Allan Jones), Magnolia quickly falls in love. They leave the business to continue their lives in Chicago, but it’s not going to be the fairy tale she hopes for.

Show Boat is a strange and unusual musical for the time. Apart from Old Man River, sung by the wonderful Paul Robeson, the songs are not memorable. He is undoubtedly the highlight of the film, especially the scenes he shares with Hattie McDaniel. Whilst there are many unpalatable aspects of the time represented, it’s surprisingly progressive in its racial politics. Indeed, Whale’s film fares much better in its drama than it does its musical numbers; in that sense it’s very well made. Show Boat stands as a testament of its time.

Special features:

  • New, restored 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • Audio commentary from 1989 featuring American-musical historian Miles Kreuger
  • New interview with James Whale biographer James Curtis
  • Recognizing Race in “Show Boat,” a new interview program featuring professor and author Shana L. Redmond
  • Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (1979), an Academy Award–winning short documentary by Saul J. Turell, newly restored
  • Four performances from the sound prologue of the 1929 film version of Show Boat, including songs from original Broadway cast members Helen Morgan, Jules Bledsoe, and Tess Gardella, plus twenty minutes of silent excerpts from the film, with audio commentary by Kreuger
  • Two radio adaptations of Show Boat, featuring stage and screen cast members Morgan, Allan Jones, and Charles Winninger; producer Orson Welles; and novelist Edna Ferber 
  • English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Gary Giddins

Show Boat is released on Blu-ray by Sony Pictures as part of the Criterion Collection on 14 September.

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