The 1936 production of Show Boat is the second version of the story based on Edna Ferber’s novel (the 1929 version was in fact shot as a silent adaptation of the original novel and hastily reworked to include some of the show’s songs as a part-talkie release) and still the best. Irene Dunne, who had been discovered by Hollywood talent agents while performing in a road show version of the stage musical, returns to the role of Magnolia, the dreamy daughter of Cap’n Andy (Charles Winninger), the captain and proprietor of the floating paddlewheel playhouse. She plays out her romantic fantasies in real life when she falls for riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Allan Jones) and, after a flirtation by duet, she takes the stage with him as her leading man, against the wishes of a mother who wants to keep her far away from the “wicked stage” of show business. Co-star Helen Morgan (in her final film role) reprises her role in the original Broadway production and Paul Robeson reprises the part he created in the London version, which gives the film documentary gravity as well as dramatic power. Dunne, with her trilling laugh and easy charm, is wonderful as the earnest Magnolia and Jones, most famous as the bland romantic lead of a couple of Marx Brothers comedies, shows more sand and strength in the role of the romantic gambler than in any other of his film performances, but Robeson and Morgan are transcendent.
Magnolia’s story is one of romantic dreams soured by the reality of a flawed man: Gaylord, who coaxes her off the stage and drags her along his itinerate life as a travelling gambler, starting out in high living splendor and then sinking into poverty and neglect. You could say that the song “Can Help Loving that Man” captures the theme of the whole show: love doesn’t necessarily conquer all but that doesn’t stop women from falling in love with unreliable men (or, in the case of the welcoming and warm Cap’n Andy, a sour, unforgiving wife). It’s played out as triumphant drama, comic lament, and tragedy, the latter in the supporting story of the show’s original star player Julie (Morgan), who is forced off the stage and out of the company by the local authorities after they are informed that she is part negro. The legal measure is “more than a drop” of Negro blood and Julie’s husband philandering husband uses the letter of the law to save her from the mob in a moving act of devotion. It is the last we see of him. Unreliable at the best of times, he finally abandons Julie, who ultimately drifts back into Magnolia’s story for a moving sacrifice.