Last week, we discussed Kiss Me Kate and the ways in which it failed to be progressive. This week, we take a look at a slightly earlier piece which also stars Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel, but is actually far more progressive in its views.
Like the last three films, Show Boat is about performing in its own way. Set in the late 1800s, however, this film takes a look at much earlier forms of performance. Vaudeville and show boats are the stage for this film which tackles racism and slut-shaming along with many other controversial topics.
The show boat arrives at the shore of a town to much fanfare and excitement. On board, Cap’n Andy introduces the leading man, Steve Baker, and the leading lady, Julie La Verne. Pete, an engineer who has been trying to make passes at Julie notices a necklace he gave her on one of the African-American members of the crew. He accuses the woman of stealing and rips it off of her neck before confronting Julie about it. She tells Pete that she never asked for the necklace and that her husband Steve will not be pleased about the necklace or the fact that Pete is bothering her now. Sure enough, as the engineer begins to put his hands on Julie, Steve notices and rushes over, punching Pete and starting a brawl. The fight is ended but Pete walks away insisting that he knows a thing or two and cryptically stating, “We’ll see how many performances they play in this town.”
Meanwhile, riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal is gambling away his boat ticket. He decides to try travelling on the show boat, but is denied passage. He meets the young Magnolia, the daughter of the ship’s captain, who is practicing a scene despite not being a part of the show. She explains that she wants to be an actress but isn’t allowed. The two hit it off almost instantly.
Julie begs Steve to forget about the incident with Pete, but he’s moody and brooding and wants to teach Pete a lesson. Finally, Julie convinces him to “be a good boy” and he gives her a kiss that reminds her how much she loves him.
Julie and Magnolia, who are best friends, discuss men, including Gaylord. Magnolia asks Julie why it is she loves Steve so much and she responds that she isn’t sure, but that he’s the one man for her.
Julie teaches Magnolia a couple of steps of dance, but Magnolia’s mother Parthy catches them and insists that Magnolia not continue to associate with “that hussey.” Parthy believes that Julie is a hussey because she lets Pete buy her things and come on to her. Little does she know that Julie has a pretty good reason for trying to stay on Pete’s good side.
Shortly after “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” a tale of irreversible and singular love, another married duo, Ellie Mae and Frank perform “I Might Fall Back On You” onstage.
During the dance number, the Sheriff shows up onboard. Julie is a mixed-race woman who has been “passing” as white, and only Pete knew the secret, which was why she tried to stay on his good side. He had been blackmailing her, but after Steve punched him, he decided to go to the police. See, in the 1800s, segregation was in place and blacks and whites were not allowed to marry as Julie had married Steve. Steve sucked some blood from Julie’s finger, so he insists that he has “black blood” in him. Nonetheless, the duo are legally forced to leave the ship because black people were not allowed to perform onstage with whites either.
Magnolia tearfully says goodbye to her friend, and Julie and Steve leave the boat. This leaves the ship with an opening for a leading man and leading lady. Gaylord and Magnolia fill these spots, although Parthy is insistent that they not actually kiss for the love scenes. Every night, Parthy watches, until one night, Ellie Mae keeps her tied up with some costumes, and Gaylord and Magnolia kiss.
Gaylord and Magnolia are caught kissing on the deck of the boat and Parthy is prepared to throw him off until he tells her that he wishes to marry Magnolia. Parthy hopes Magnolia is just considering the proposition on a whim, and is very upset to learn Magnolia is serious. Cap’n Andy says he’ll support Magnolia in whatever she decides and tells Gaylord that he hopes, “It’s not just Saturday night with a cold Monday morning to follow.”
The family are worried about their daughter marrying a gambling man, but Gaylord and Magnolia move into the ritzy Sherman House in Chicago, and for the first year or so, things go great. Gaylord has a lot of wins and the couple’s Christmas is filled with a fully-decked tree and many expensive gifts. But things slowly begin to turn bad for the couple. They stop being able to pay for their lodgings, they lose their horse team. Magnolia offers back the expensive jewelry Gaylord bought her, but he won’t take it. They remain happy in times of financial troubles.
But eventually, Gaylord doesn’t refuse the jewelry, and in fact, loses it. They have to sneak out of the Sherman House, into much shadier lodgings. That year, they can’t even afford a Christmas tree, much less presents for Magnolia.
One night, Gaylord comes back from gambling, and it’s once again obvious that he has lost. When Magnolia asks him what happened, his eyes light up as he describes the scene, and she realizes for the first time that he has a very real gambling addiction. She tells him off, saying he’s “weak.” Ashamed, Gaylord leaves Magnolia, figuring she’ll be better off without him.
She doesn’t know this though. Magnolia buys Gaylord some Christmas gifts by selling a fur. When she returns, Ellie Mae and Frank show up to look at the apartment, which seems to be being shown, meaning evidently they aren’t making payments on this apartment either. She finds a note and money from Gaylord in the bedroom, telling her he has left and wishing her the best.
Magnolia is upset, but realizes she must soldier on. She goes to the club Ellie Mae and Frank are working at to get a job. Julie is also working there. Steve has left her and she has begun to drink. The manager mocks her as a “one man woman” who tears herself apart now that her man is gone. She performs a piece about finding a perfect lover in someone who doesn’t match up to the original ideal man one pictures.
Julie quits her job so that they will hire Magnolia, once she finds out that Gaylord left her, much as Steve left Julie. Cap’n Andy comes to a show and Magnolia is reunited with her father. She tells him that she is also pregnant, but hadn’t wanted to stress Gaylord with the news.
Magnolia gives birth to a daughter, Kim, and she is raised on the show boat, becoming a lady of song and dance like her family. The crew spoils her and she manages to have a good childhood despite growing up without a father.
On a gambling boat one night, Gaylord defends a drunken Julie who is singing “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” The man she’s with slaps her across the face and Gaylord can’t stand seeing a woman who sings the song Magnolia sang being mistreated. Julie appears to have hit rock bottom, but once she finds out her defender is Gaylord, she decides to confront him about leaving Magnolia.
Not only does Julie discover Gaylord knew nothing of Kim, but she’s able to inform him about her. Julie has been keeping tabs on the family since Kim was born. Julie begs Gaylord not to tell Magnolia that he saw her in the state she was in.
Gaylord visits the place where the show boat is docked and finds Kim playing with dolls. He is touched to meet his own flesh and blood and sings a reprise of “Make Believe.” Gaylord and Magnolia are reunited and look forward to a future as a family.
Show Boat takes a look at a lot of touchy subjects for 1951. Segregation was still in place, yet here was a musical that played as early as 1927 that was unafraid to point out how silly it was, not only that a good performer and good person could be out of a job because of heritage she couldn’t control, but that the phrasing was silly enough for drinking a couple of drops of blood to make you have “black blood.” This 1951 film got flak for showing less poverty and fewer persons of color than its predecessors. Nonetheless, none of the non-white actors are shown in a poor light and are treated as a part of the family on the show boat.
Unfortunately, times were not such that a real-life “passing” person of color was allowed to play the role of Julie. Lena Horne was considered for the part, but studio executives feared that the casting choice would be too risky. To her credit, Ava Gardner does a fantastic acting job in this film.
What’s interesting though is the point inadvertently made, which is that no matter how good Julie is at what she does and no matter how true to her man she remains, no matter how kind she is to the boat staff and to Magnolia, she is forced out because of something she had no control over. The term “privilege” is thrown around a lot these days, and some people don’t understand it, but Julie’s situation is a great example of lacking privilege. And yes, segregation may no longer be a legal issue, but it was as recently as the ’60s. When this film was made, Lena Horne was considered too black to play a mixed woman on the screen. This film pokes at the idiocy of the world even now, but particularly when it was made. Unfortunately, had they cast a woman who really knew the struggle Julie experienced, fewer people may have gone to see the film.
There is also an element of casual slut-shaming that Julie experiences. Julie considers herself a “one-man woman” and this point is underlined by “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and the manager at the club even directly saying it about her. She will only ever love Steve, yet Parthy treats her like a hussey because Pete has dirt on her and so she can’t stop his advances. She remains true to Steve and gives away the presents but still she’s perceived as a bad woman, yet Pete, going after a married woman, is never commented on.
To another point, however, the song “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” has some very troubling lyrics, suggesting that she will stand for whatever the man may do because she’s hopelessly devoted to him (you’re welcome, Grease fans). We are immediately presented with the opposite song (as I stated earlier), sung by Frank and Ellie. Ellie sings how she will look around for the perfect man before deciding if she wants to stay with Frank. Now they aren’t really singing it to one another, but… Frank and Ellie are pretty much the only happy couple in the film, and they are suggesting that you not just settle in a relationship. Look around and see what’s out there, don’t settle for just anyone, even if it does seem that you love them. Perhaps Frank and Ellie have looked around, and rather than falling back on one another, they’ve found out that they are the best match. Magnolia and Gaylord get a reunion through her hopeless devotion to him, but Julie ends up a wreck. It’s possible for the blind love to work out, but it doesn’t work out for everyone. In other versions of the film, Gaylord doesn’t return.
What’s great though is, no matter what relationship advice these songs seem to give us, and whichever interpretation of the musical you look at, Magnolia is a strong woman. She makes the decision to side with Julie against her mother, accepting Julie’s mixed heritage and her in general. She even tells Julie as she is preparing to leave that “nothing’s changed.” Magnolia supports herself when necessary, she raises her daughter. She is always incredibly mature, despite being in her early twenties throughout the film. And unlike Julie, even though she sees Gaylord as her only love, she doesn’t allow herself to wither after he leaves her.
The film also takes on poverty. Earlier film versions of Show Boat took a deeper look, but they were also released during the great depression. The American dream eludes Gaylord as he attempts to win his way into fortune, and we see the way a couple can go from riches to rags in a pretty short space of time.
Another scene, which discusses the gritty harshness of life is the iconic “Old Man River” sequence, which personifies the river as something of a resilient and slightly cruel person that can still be looked to for strength when things get tough.
In the first iteration of the song, it darkly discusses troubles. But in the reprise at the end, the moral seems to be driven home that, although life is tough, much like the river, it carries on.
Show Boat is a very dense and versatile piece. It looks at the world in an interesting manner for the time in which it was written and performed.
“Not How It Seems” takes a look at the underlying messages in classic movie musicals.