Show Boat (1951 film)

Show Boat

French film poster
Directed by George Sidney
Produced by Arthur Freed
Screenplay by John Lee Mahin
Based on Show Boat
by Edna Ferber
Show Boat
by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II
Starring Kathryn Grayson
Ava Gardner
Howard Keel
Joe E. Brown
Marge Champion
Gower Champion
Agnes Moorehead
William Warfield
Music by Jerome Kern
Cinematography Charles Rosher
Edited by John D. Dunning
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release dates
  • September 24, 1951 (1951-09-24)
Running time
107 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $2,389,000[1]
Box office $7,621,000[1]

Show Boat is a 1951 American musical romantic drama film based on the stage musical of the same name by Jerome Kern (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (script and lyrics), and the 1926 novel by Edna Ferber. This 1951 film version, by MGM, was adapted for the screen by John Lee Mahin, and was produced by Arthur Freed and directed by George Sidney.

Filmed previously in 1929 and in 1936, this third adaptation of Show Boat was shot in Technicolor in the typical MGM lavish style. The film stars Kathryn Grayson, Ava Gardner, and Howard Keel, with Joe E. Brown, Marge Champion, Gower Champion, William Warfield, Robert Sterling, Agnes Moorehead and Leif Erickson. Unlike the 1936 film, none of the members of the original Broadway cast of the show appeared in this version.

The 1951 Show Boat was the most financially successful of the film adaptations of the show: one of MGM's most popular musicals, it was the third most profitable film of that year.


The basic plot remains the same as in the stage play and the 1936 film version. When the Cotton Blossom, Cap'n Andy Hawks's show boat, arrives in a Mississippi town to give a performance, a fistfight breaks out between leading man Steve Baker (Robert Sterling), and Pete (Leif Erickson), the boat's engineer who has been making passes at Steve's wife, leading lady Julie La Verne (Ava Gardner). But Cap'n Andy (Joe E. Brown) pretends to the assembled crowd that the two were really previewing a scene from one of the boat's melodramas. But Pete knows a dark secret about Julie, and he runs off to tell the local sheriff.

Riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Howard Keel) has gambled away a boat ticket, so he drops by the Cotton Blossom pretending to be an actor so that he can get passage on the boat, but is rejected. However, he meets Magnolia (Kathryn Grayson), the captain's 18-year-old daughter, and the two are instantly smitten.

That night, during the performance of an olio on the show boat, Pete shows up with the town sheriff (Regis Toomey). But when Julie and Steve hear that the sheriff is coming to arrest them, Steve takes a sewing pin, pricks Julie's finger, and sucks blood from it. The Sheriff enters and announces that there is a case of miscegenation on board, a black woman married to a white man, which is illegal. Julie is the woman, and Steve is the man. Julie admits that she is half-black, but Steve, having sucked some of Julie's blood, successfully pretends that he is also half-black. Pete is fired by Cap'n Andy. However, Julie and Steve must still leave the acting company - blacks were not allowed onstage alongside whites in the 1880's.

After Magnolia, who is Julie's best friend, tearfully says goodbye to her, she and Steve leave the company. Ravenal shows up and offers help. This time, Cap'n Andy takes him on, makes him the acting company's new leading man, and makes Magnolia the new leading lady, over the strong objections of his wife Parthy (Agnes Moorehead), who is also Magnolia's mother. Within a matter of weeks, Magnolia and Ravenal are a hit on the river and have fallen in love. They become engaged, marry (in this version, the wedding celebration is not shown), and move to Chicago, where they live off Ravenal's gambling winnings. A year passes and Ravenal loses all his money gambling. After he goes broke, Magnolia, unlike the stage original and the 1936 film, tells him off for being so obsessed with gambling. Feeling guilty after Magnolia's tirade, Ravenal walks out on her.

Ellie Chipley and Frank Schultz (Marge and Gower Champion), the dance team on the show boat, suddenly show up in Chicago, having also left the boat and been booked into a nightclub called the Trocadero. They take Magnolia to audition there, but before she arrives, we see that the club already has a singer. It is Julie, who has become a hopeless alcoholic now that Steve has left her. From her dressing room, she overhears Magnolia audition, learns from the nightclub manager that Ravenal deserted her, and silently quits so that he will have no choice but to hire Magnolia. On the night of her debut, Cap'n Andy arrives to visit and ends up at the nightclub, where he gives Magnolia confidence after she experiences stage fright. It is here that the plot changes drastically from the stage original and the 1936 film: Magnolia not only tells Cap'n Andy what has happened, but reveals that she is pregnant with Ravenal's child. She did not have the heart to tell Ravenal because of their financial situation, and she returns to the show boat with Cap'n Andy, where she gives birth to a daughter, Kim.

About five years pass. Ravenal is gambling on board a packet boat, on which a drunken Julie is trying to sing. After punching her escort because he slapped Julie, Ravenal goes out on deck. Julie, who has been keeping track of Magnolia, finds out who Ravenal is, and not realizing that he knew nothing of Magnolia's pregnancy, tells him off. Ravenal is overcome with guilt and returns to the show boat the next day, where he meets his little daughter Kim (Sheila Clark) for the first time and returns to Magnolia, with whom he is reconciled.

As Ravenal and Magnolia walk back on the boat, the stevedore Joe begins his reprise of "Ol' Man River" and Cap'n Andy and Parthy embrace. Out of the shadows on the dock Julie emerges, and blows a kiss towards Magnolia as the ship sails to its next destination.


For the 1951 Show Boat, Oscar Hammerstein II's dialogue was almost completely thrown out and new dialogue written by John Lee Mahin. The only two scenes to retain more than a tiny bit of Hammerstein's dialogue were the early scene in which Cap'n Andy introduces the show boat actors to the crowd, and the miscegenation scene, in which Julie (Ava Gardner) is revealed to be of mixed blood and therefore illegally married to a white man.

The story was given a major overhaul near the end of the film and the changes are considered to make this version of the story quite distinct from other versions. Changes included keeping the characters of Magnolia and Gaylord significantly younger at the end than in the play, and the expansion of the role of Julie to give her character greater depth. In all stage productions as well as the 1936 film version, Julie disappears completely from the story after overhearing Magnolia audition at the Trocadero nightclub in Chicago. In the 1951 version, Julie is the one who motivates Ravenal to return to Magnolia, and she is also the very last character we see: she is shown watching the show boat as it pulls away from the dock, with Magnolia and Ravenal onboard and back together; they are unaware of her presence on the dock, and she blows them a kiss. Kim (Magnolia and Ravenal's daughter) appears only as a baby and a little girl in this version.

Nearly all of the purely comic scenes, retained in the 1936 film version, were removed in the 1951 film, as much of the comedy in the show has no direct bearing on the plot, and according to the book The Great Movies by William Bayer, producer Arthur Freed maintained a strict policy of removing everything in the musicals that he produced if it did not advance the storyline. Two additional comic moments not in the show, both involving the African-American characters Joe and Queenie, had been added to the 1936 film and might be considered politically incorrect today. They were not used in the 1951 film. This pruning left Joe E. Brown (as Cap'n Andy) and Agnes Moorehead (as Parthy) with far less to do than they would otherwise have had, and turned the characters of Frank and Ellie (played by Gower and Marge Champion) into a relatively serious song-and-dance team rather than a comic team who happened to dance. Frank and Ellie, rather than being portrayed as unsophisticated, barely talented "hoofers" as in the show, were made into a rather debonair, sophisticated, and extremely talented couple in the style of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

The role of ship's pilot Windy McClain, already brief to begin with, was reduced to just three lines in the film. (In the 1951 Show Boat, it is Magnolia, not Windy, who defends Julie and her husband Steve when the sheriff arrives to arrest them.)

The character "Rubber Face" Smith, a comic stagehand, was eliminated from the 1951 film.

The role of Sheriff Ike Vallon, already a small one, is even further reduced. In the 1951 film, he appears only in the miscegenation sequence, while in the original stage production, and especially in the 1936 film, he appears several times: he is among the crowd at the beginning when Cap'n Andy introduces his troupe of actors to them, he returns to escort Ravenal to see the town judge, he is seen relaxing inside a saloon where he is informed of Julie's mixed blood, he appears during the miscegenation sequence when he tries to arrest Julie and Steve, and he appears again when Parthy tries to stop the wedding of her daughter Magnolia to Ravenal.

The version of "Ol' Man River" heard here, and sung by William Warfield, is considered by film historians to be by far the best moment, both musically and pictorially, in the film. Musical theatre historian Miles Kreuger, who had many harsh words for the 1951 Show Boat in his 1977 book Show Boat: The History of a Classic American Musical nevertheless had nothing but high praise for this sequence. It was staged and directed by an uncredited Roger Edens during an illness of George Sidney, who directed the rest of the film. However, the "Ol' Man River" sequence in the 1936 film version of the show, with its tracking pan around the seated, singing figure of Paul Robeson, and its expressionistic montages of field and dock workers performing their tasks, is perhaps even more highly regarded.

According to Kreuger, one glaring anachronism of the 1951 film was the redesigning of the show boat itself as a huge, luxurious paddlewheeler with giant twin smokestacks, while real showboats were simply rectangular-shaped structures that could not move under their own power, and were pushed along by the misleadingly named towboats which were fastened to the back of the crafts. Krueger has stated in his book that a nineteenth-century show boat, if designed as a paddlewheeler, would have to have placed its furnace in the middle of its auditorium.

The aspects of the original stage version dealing with racial inequality, especially the story line concerning miscegenation, were highly "sanitized" and deemphasized in the 1951 film, although the interracial subplot was retained:

The film also somewhat sanitized the character of Gaylord Ravenal, the riverboat gambler. In the Ferber novel, the original show, and the 1936 film, Ravenal can stay in town for only 24 hours because he once killed a man in self-defense — this is the reason that Vallon takes him to see the town judge, and it is the reason that Ravenal asks for passage on the show boat. This point was eliminated from the 1951 film, and the reason that Ravenal asks if the show boat will take him on is that he has lost his boat ticket through gambling. In the 1951 film, when Ravenal deserts Magnolia, he does not know she is pregnant, and returns when he finds out that she has had a child, while in the Ferber novel, the original show, the 1929 part-talkie film, and the 1936 film, he not only knows that she has had a baby, but deserts her several years after the baby has been born, knowing that she will probably have to raise the child alone.

The 1951 movie is also extremely glossy, smoothing over the poverty depicted more tellingly in the 1936 version, and despite some (brief) actual location shooting (primarily in the shots of townspeople reacting to the show boat's arrival), the film does not give a very strong feeling of authenticity. The arrival of the boat was achieved by blending backlot footage showing the boat pulling in with location shots of crowds running along the bank of the real Mississippi River. (For backlot shooting, the lake used in filming MGM's Tarzan films stood in for the Mississippi River, while the real Mississippi was seen during the film's opening credits and in the shots of the crowd running toward the river. The show boat itself was never on the real Mississippi, and Ol' Man River was shot entirely in the studio backlot.) Lena Horne was originally to have played Julie (after Dinah Shore and Judy Garland were passed over) as she had in the brief segment of the play featured in the 1946 Jerome Kern biopic Till the Clouds Roll By. But studio executives were nervous about casting a glamorous black actress in one of the lead roles, so Gardner was chosen instead. After some unfavorable sneak previews using her real voice in her songs, Gardner's singing voice was dubbed by vocalist Annette Warren; her original rendition of one of the musical numbers appeared in the compilation film That's Entertainment! III and is considered by some to be superior to the version used in the film. Gardner's vocals were included on the soundtrack album for the movie, and in an autobiography written not long before her death, Gardner reported she was still receiving royalties from the release.

Eleven numbers from the stage score were sung in this film. As in all productions of the musical, the song "After the Ball" was again interpolated into the story, but "Goodbye My Lady Love", another regular interpolation into the show, was omitted from this film version. Although the songs "Why Do I Love You?" and "Life Upon the Wicked Stage" were actually performed in the 1951 film after having been heard only instrumentally in the 1936 film, there were still several major musical differences from the original play in this Technicolor version:

The three additional songs that Kern and Hammerstein wrote especially for the 1936 film version were not used in the 1951 movie.


(credited cast only)

Sheila Clark, who played Kim,[2] Frances E. Williams, who played Queenie,[2] Regis Toomey, who played the Sheriff,[2] Emory Parnell, who played the Trocadero nightclub manager,[2] and Owen McGiveney, who played Windy,[2] were not billed either in the film or in poster advertising for it.[3]


The film was a commercial success. During its initial theatrical run it earned $5,293,000 in the US and Canada and $2,328,000 in the rest of the world, resulting in a profit of $2,337,000.[1]


The film was first telecast on January 3, 1972, on The NBC Monday Movie. This marked the first time any production of Show Boat was telecast, with the exception of an experimental telecast of a scene from the 1929 film version in 1931. NBC repeated the film on Saturday June 17, 1972. Several years later, the film went to CBS, where it appeared twice as a holiday offering on The CBS Late Movie. From there the film went to local stations and then to cable.

Radio adaptation

Show Boat was presented on Lux Radio Theatre February 11, 1952. The one-hour adaptation starred Ava Gardner, Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel, William Warfield, Marge Champion, and Gower Champion.[4]


(songs and incidental music)

Rhino Music soundtrack album listing

Awards and honors

Award Date of ceremony Category Recipients and nominees Result
Academy Awards March 20, 1952 Best Cinematography, Color Charles Rosher Nominated
Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture Conrad Salinger and Adolph Deutsch Nominated

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:

Home media

As of 2014, this and the 1936 version are the only film versions of Show Boat to have been officially released on DVD. Warner Home Video, which owns the rights to all three film versions of Show Boat, said it would release in 2007 a three-disc DVD release of all three film versions, but this still has not come to pass as of June 2016.[7] A three-film laserdisc version was released by MGM/UA while the 1936 Film was released on Laserdisc through The Criterion Collection.[8]

See also


  1. 1 2 3 The Eddie Mannix Ledger, Los Angeles: Margaret Herrick Library, Center for Motion Picture Study.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 Video on YouTube
  4. Kirby, Walter (February 10, 1952). "Better Radio Programs for the Week". The Decatur Daily Review. p. 38. Retrieved June 2, 2015 via
  5. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-13.
  6. "AFI's Greatest Movie Musicals Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-13.
  7. Hutchinson, Ron, ed. (Summer–Fall 2005). "1929 Showboat [sic] Discs Found". The Vitatphone Project / Vitaphone News. Retrieved August 14, 2012.

Further reading

Kreuger, Miles: Show Boat: The Story of a Classic American Musical (Oxford, 1977)

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