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Show Boat on Ol' Man River

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Dusty is an avid classic movie fan who wants to share movie stories and evoke conversation about them.

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Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel, Ava Garder, Joe E. Brown, Agnes Moorhead, Robert Sterling

Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel, Ava Garder, Joe E. Brown, Agnes Moorhead, Robert Sterling


Show Boat

1 hr. 48 mins. Drama, Family, Musical 1951 6.9 stars

Director: George Sidney

Cast: Kathryn Grayson - Magnolia Hawks

Howard Keel - Gaylord Ravenal

Ava Gardner - Julie LaVerne

Joe E. Brown - Captain Andy Hawks

Agnes Moorehead - Parthy Hawks

Marge Champion - Ellie May Shipley

Gower Champion - Frank Schultz

Robert Sterling - Steven Baker

Leif Erickson - Pete

William Warfield - Joe

Note: Spoiler alert. This review reveals the outcome of the movie

The Cotton Blossom Comes to Town

Synopis I

The story opens with the arrival of the show boat “Cotton Blossom” into a riverside town ready to do a show for the townsfolk. The show boat is as it sounds a traveling theatre which stops at towns along the Mississippi to perform and earn a profit.

The excitement of the people at the show boat’s arrival demonstrates that it is a popular floating attraction. It’s the late 19th century and the river towns harbor riverboat gamblers, river rats and other people of shady character. Gaylord Ravenal (of the Tennessee Ravenals) comes aboard to apply for an acting position. He and Magnolia are instantly enamored with each other, but Magnolia is the only daughter of Captain Andy. Unfortunately there is no opening for Gaylord, though Captain Andy does like him.

Afterwards the skipper, Captain Andy Hawks, shows the people examples of their repertoire including a wonderful dance number by Frank and Elli May. But a scuffle breaks out. The lead actress on the show boat, Julie LaVerne, is married to Steve, but is admired by Pete. Pete tries to take Julie by force, but Steve gallantly defends her with a takedown punch. Pete knows something about Julie, a secret that will upset the cast and crew. Bitter and vengeful, Pete goes to the sheriff with his knowledge. When the sheriff arrives, Steve takes Julie back stage and in the presence of the other cast members cuts her hand and sucks her blood. We soon learn the reason for this seemingly strange behavior. Julie is part black. By doing this Steve is becoming part black as well since only one drop of blood is needed for that distinction. It’s illegal for blacks and whites to be married in that town. Though others saw this act and could testify Julie and Steve depart from the show boat not wanting to drag the others into a trial. Captain Andy fires Pete and he leaves bitter.

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At this time one of the ship’s crew, Joe, sings the song, “Ol’ Man River” the most famous song of the musical.

Upon hearing of Julie and Steve’s departure Gaylord returns and this time Captain Andy gives him the job as lead actor. He will act opposite Magnolia who was reluctantly given the female lead. After acting together for some time, Gaylord and Magnolia decide to marry. Captain Andy gave his blessing, but he worried about Gaylord’s character a bit said to him, “I hope it’s not just Saturday night with a cold Monday to follow”. Gaylord and Magnolia leave the “Cotton Blossom” and move to Chicago; Gaylord is a wealthy gambler and the couple lives in luxury. That circumstance lasts until his luck turns. He is met with an uncanny slump of bad luck. It lasts long enough for them to lose everything. Gaylord and Magnolia move into a small apartment. Though the times are tough they maintain their love. Gaylord tells Magnolia, “Just don’t stop loving me” and Magnolia responds, “Everything could be temporary except us.” But as time goes on their poverty wears on them. Magnolia realizes that Gaylord is hooked on gambling. She tells him, “I know there’s no other woman, no flesh and blood woman. I almost wish there were. I’d know how to fight them”. Magnolia tells Gaylord he’s weak and to take his hands off her.

Julia and Magnolia; Good Friends

Kathryn Grayson and Ava Gardner

Kathryn Grayson and Ava Gardner

Synopsis II

One day Frank and Ellie May come looking for an apartment and they are shown the same apartment that Gaylord and Magnolia are in. Magnolia is very excited to see them. They’re arrival was a colossal coincidence – a small world experience. Magnolia rushed into the bedroom to tell Gaylord that Frank and Ellie May were there. But Gaylord was nowhere to be found. Magnolia’s elation was countered by tremendous sorrow as she finds a note from Gaylord telling her that he has left. He explains that he loves her, but can’t stand not being able to provide for her. She’s devastated. Frank and Ellie May don’t know what to do for her; it’s an awkward situation.

Frank and Ellie May bring Magnolia to the theatre where they will start performing, The Trocadero. Before they all arrive we see that Julie is there. We learn that Julie and Steve have split up. Julie as a result has taken to drinking. She is backstage when the others arrive so they don’t see her. But when Magnolia auditions she sings, “Loving Dat Man of Mine” – Julie’s song that she taught Magnolia back on the show boat. Not wanting to offer any sort of competition for Magnolia Julie walks away from that theatre to sing elsewhere. When Julie’s absence is discovered Magnolia is hired on the spot.

The occasion of Magnolia’s first performance is New Year’s Eve and by coincidence Captain Andy happens to be visiting in town and happens to be at The Trocadero. When Magnolia sings she falters due to stage fright or opening night jitters. Captain Andy goes up to the stage to help her. He reminds her of something he’s always told her, to smile! With her father helping her Magnolia sings beautifully and is a hit.

After the performance Magnolia tells her father that Gaylord has left and that she’s pregnant. She also mentioned, very importantly, that she never got the chance to tell Gaylord that she was pregnant. Magnolia goes back to the show boat with her father.

In the meantime Gaylord’s luck has turned for the better and he is once again accumulating a lot of wealth. One night while gambling on a river boat, he sees Julie who is employed as a singer on that boat. They do not recognize each other, but when Julie sings, “Loving Dat Man of Mine” he stops what he’s doing and pays attention. Julie’s newfound boyfriend harasses her and Gaylord defends her by decking him. Afterwards out on the deck she thanks him for standing up for her. She then realizes who he is and shows him a newspaper clipping of Captain Andy and Magnolia with a child – Kim. She was named because she was born on the show boat right where Kentucky, Illinois and Missouri all come together forming her name with their first letters of each of those states, thus ‘Kim’.

Gaylord did not know about the existence of Kim. As luck would have it the boat he was on was docked in the same town as the Cotton Blossom. Gaylord went onto the docks and soon found Kim playing there. He talked to her and when Magnolia came by Gaylord stepped back into her life. The family welcomed his return and they all sailed on down the river reunited as one big happy family.

Magnolia and Gaylord in their Apartment

Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel

Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel

Analysis I

Show Boat takes us back to the 1890s and it takes us to a river town in Mississippi. These boats would ply the river and provide entertainment to the townsfolk for an admittance fee of course. It was popular entertainment for all.

This show boat featured some very talented performers, the great voices of Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel, and the wonderful dancing of Marge and Gower Champion (husband and wife off screen).

In addition to it’s being a musical it is also a love story. Magnolia and Gaylord begin with a love at first sight situation. Their love grows through their performances. They marry and their life is grand until the bottom falls out and they separate. The movie shows their love for better and then for worse. Fans of happy endings will delight to see that even in the bad times their love’s resiliency shows forth. Their relationship takes place largely away from the show boat, but the show boat is central to their story. It is on the show boat that they meet and it is on the docks beside the show boat where they reunite again. Gaylord’s love for his family, Magnolia and little Kim, cause him to make an economic change, to grow up. The reunion scene even melts the heart of Parthy who has been shrewish throughout the whole movie. Parthy has been a non-supportive mother to Magnolia – and very much opposed to Gaylord’s presence in Magnolia’s life. But Captain Andy, in contrast is very supportive. Even when drunk celebrating New Year’s Eve he supports Magnolia who is suffering from stage fright while debuting at The Trocadero in Chicago. It is touching the way he redirects her attention from the intimidating crowd and towards himself. He sings along with her, thus rescuing her from her opening night jitters and insuring that her appearance is a success.

There is a lot of wisdom in Captain Andy’s almost prophetic words of warning when Gaylord and Magnolia announce their engagement. “I hope it’s not just Saturday night with a cold Monday morning to follow”. His cold Monday lasted about four years – that is the age of Kim when Gaylord re-enters their lives. Parthy vaguely references Captain Andy’s words when Gaylord returns by saying, “It’s Saturday night forever” indicating a happy ending – and that uttered by the sourest member of the family. Captain Andy’s peaceful and laissez-faire ways have finally won over his wife.

Captain Andy Gets Magnolia to Smile

Joe E. Brown

Joe E. Brown

Analysis II

Julie’s role in the story is a sad and sacrificial one. After she leaves the show boat toward the beginning of the movie she only appears at two other times in scenes where she is wrecked by alcohol. She never lets her friend, Magnolia, see her again, but comes close. She sacrifices a singing job for Magnolia and watches from afar when Gaylord reunites with her, an event which she facilitated. Julie is always sacrificing herself and is career for Magnolia’s wellbeing and always doing it anonymously.

The movie has many songs, 21, including reprisals. The repeated song which Gaylord and Magnolia would have considered to be “their song” was “Make Believe”. It describes their fairy tale romance how it must have seemed to them.

“Can’t help Lovin’ Dat Man” is sung wholly or in part four times by Julie. Ava Gardiner’s voice is dubbed over by Annette Warren for the first three times. The fourth time the song is sung, it’s Ava Gardner’s own voice singing. Ava Gardner had a good singing voice, but the director was looking for a different sound in the first three renditions of the song.

By far, the most famous song in the movie is “Ol’ Man River” a song that while not central to the plot is nevertheless emblematic of this story. The song makes a powerful statement about unwavering consistency. No matter what human drama transpires on or beside the Mississippi the river still flows same as it always has. This is akin to saying “the world isn’t going to stop” or even “there’s always tomorrow”. The song ends in a powerful crescendo sung by the powerful bass-baritone voice of William Warfield who himself was born in a river town along the Mississippi. To listen to this song alone is a stirring activity. Unfortunately the song was filmed as a night scene and it’s hard to see what’s going on.

In sum the movie provides a happy ending to the difficulties of life of a riverboat captain’s family. It’s a happy ending that doesn’t come about without seemingly hopeless difficulties and it doesn’t come without loving support and a little luck. Ol’ Man River is the perfect song as the show boat sails “off into the sunset” at the end of the movie.

Notes on Coincidences:

The story relies on several coincidences. Here are four of them:

1. Frank and Ellie May showing up at Magnolia’s apartment.

2. Magnolia showing up at The Trocadero, where Julie is a singer – and singing her song.

3. Captain Andy showing up at The Trocadero at Magnolia’s debut.

4. Gaylord running into Julia on a river boat, not knowing her except by her song.

Gaylord and Kim Meet

Sheila Clark and Howard Keel

Sheila Clark and Howard Keel


Opening Sample Acts

Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson Sing "Make Believe"

Lovin' Dat Man of Mine

Marge and Gower Champion Perform "I Might Fall Back on You"

Ol' Man River - Sung by William Warfield

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