Show Boat (1936) – James Whale

The recommendations from the Great Movies – 100 Years of Film book for my screening of Oklahoma! gets underway with the 1936 adaptation of the Hammerstein stage musical, Show Boat.

Directed by James Whale, who, one year previous, directed the iconic Bride of Frankenstein, the tale follows a young woman, Magnolia aka Nola (Irene Dunne) who becomes the new leading lady on her father’s, Cap’n Andy Hawks (Charles Winninger), show boat, despite her mother’s (Helen Westley) misgivings.

When a young gambler, Gaylord (Allan Jones) comes along and catches Nola’s heart, things seem to be going her way, not only for her, but her entire family. When Gaylord does well, so does everyone, but when things sour, it affects everything.

Things unfurl badly for Nola and the rest from there, but like the Mississippi that ride on, things move on, changing and unchanging at the same time.

I’m sorry to say there isn’t much in the way of catchy tunes, at least to me. I recognise that it is a much loved film, and musical, and of all the cinematic adaptations this is the preferred version, but it just left me cold.


I think in an age of Hamilton, and growing up with likes of Joseph, Godspell, Les Mis and Mamma Mia, I wanted more from my storytelling, and my musical numbers, and they were severely lacking in this film .

Irene Dunne is delightful, and Winninger is a lot of fun as he works to maintain the public image of the show.

There are some nice moments throughout the film, though the stereotypes in the film are troubling.

It is amazing that Whale, as a director created so many films in so short a time that have endured as they have. I just don’t think musicals as a film genre hit their stride until the 50s when technicolor and cinema-scope could bring the stage to the big screen in a way that hadn’t been seen before.

I’m a little upset that I wasn’t taken in by the story or the music as much as I would have liked, I think I wanted more. Even knowing the film was made in the 30s I think I expected, wanted and desired more from a screen musical, but then, that can be drawn directly back to the spectacle that musicals have become.

Still, there are more musicals coming and I’m sure there will be ones I’ll enjoy. It’s just a bit of a bummer that the two I’ve watched recently were such a let down to me.





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