Show Boat is many things. First, it was a nostalgic novel by Edna Ferber. Then it became a defining moment in American musical theater by two theater greats, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. Show Boat is a lithograph of American theater before Vaudeville. It’s a melodrama about a girl in love with a gambler, an epic that spans 40 years. It’s an elegy to the post-Civil War South. It’s also for better or for worse (often worse) about race.
Show Boat‘s relationship to race is difficult and complex, not unlike the post-bellum South. Though the primary romance of the story is between the naive Nolie and the roguish gambler Gaylord, the show’s more important subplot is that of Julie, a black actress on the show boat “passing” for white and married to a white man, Steve. Julie is only in a handful of scenes, but hers are the scenes for which the show is best known: Julie and Steve are forced off the show boat by racist Mississippi laws, and later Steve leaves Julie without explanation and she succumbs to despair and alcoholism. Julie’s song (identified early on as a “Negro song”) is the theme of the show: “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man Of Mine.” Julie has also proved the trickiest hurdle for the two studios that attempted to cash in on the Broadway show’s success, first Universal in 1936 and then MGM in 1951.
The ’36 film hews pretty closely to the original play, which was a controversial decision at the time. The subject of race uneasily permeates the first two thirds of the film. Julie’s story plays out tragically (although it almost didn’t; the Hays Code usually prohibited miscegenation). However, Julie, played by the tragic Helen Morgan, is not the only black character. Hattie McDaniel and Paul Robeson play two important but uncomfortable stereotypes: the Mamie-like Queenie, and the carefree Joe. They are backed by a chorus of African American actors eye-rolling, tongue-wagging, soft-shoeing, and generally fulfilling each of those stereotypes that rightfully offend modern viewers. However, the two show-stopping moments of the film both belong to black characters.
The first is Paul Robeson’s haunting version of “Ol’ Man River.” Robeson had a beautiful, booming bass, and he put pain and poetry into the song. Joe is supposed to be lazy and dull, and the way he eases into “Ol’ Man River” belies the powerful message that’s about to tear through the screen. Director James Whale (yes, that James Whale) uses the full force of his skill to paint a nightmarish image of Joe’s life: work and suffering, punctuated by brief and hollow happiness. Joe’s story becomes the story of the entire Black Chorus, as they join him in the song and the montage.
In this scene, Joe transforms from buffoon to tragic hero. He will eventually fade into the background again, after two silly songs with Queenie. But the power of this performance hollows out the stereotype Joe is supposed to inhabit.
The second show stopping moment is Julie’s scene, handled with surprising gentleness considering its time When Julie’s secret is ratted out to the sheriff, her husband Steve cuts her hand and sucks the wound so that he can announce that their marriage is legal because he has more than one drop of black blood in him. At no point are Steve and Julie accused of any wrongdoing by the film; they are victims of unjust laws. It’s all the more heartbreaking when Steve disappears in the second act. Julie only gets a brief scene before she disappears as well. Queenie and Joe also depart without a word, so the third act of the film turns back to the easier, blander romance between Nolie and Gaylord. However, Julie and Joe leave indelible impressions on what would otherwise be a nostalgic love story.
In the early 1950s, the MGM dream factory specialized in nostalgia. Producer Arthur Freed was the man behind most MGM musicals made between 1939 and 1958. These musicals were Technicolor marvels, nostalgic, beautiful and grand. They were never controversial. In this case, the controversy would play out behind the scenes, because Ava Gardner was not supposed to be Julie. Famed jazz singer and featured actress Lena Horne was originally cast as Julie, and actually appeared in the Jerome Kern biopic Till The Clouds Roll By. Horne was perfect as Julie, but she was too perfect. She was too black.
Many stories and rumors circulate about the decision to replace Horne with Gardner. One says that Gardner was trained to sing to records of Horne, although Gardner was dubbed. Horne herself says that Gardner wore a makeup developed originally for Horne, named an “Egyptian” shade and designed to make her more authentic. MGM wanted all of the trappings of blackness for the story, but not the black actress herself. It was blackface at its worst.
The 1951 movie suffered the same fate as Horne did. Julie’s plot arc made it through intact, but no other black characters did. Joe, Queenie, and the black chorus all disappear. In their place is a happy, nostalgic, white Southern story. Julie is the one spot of black, and MGM made sure she wasn’t that black. In some ways, this whitewashing makes the film easier to watch, since the uncomfortable stereotypes are silenced. On the other hand, a major voice in the story has been silenced, figuratively and literally. “Ol’ Man River” becomes a footnote to Julie’s story sung by the otherwise voiceless Joe. All of the “difficult” moments – i.e. those that deal with race – are lumped together and gotten out of the way quickly. Since Gardner was a star, Julie gets more scenes, but they chronicle her fall after Steve leaves her. Her story changes from one of tragic love to a moralizing tale about alcoholism. Everything about Julie as a symbol for racial oppression in post-bellum South is sanitized and replaced.
Let’s be frank: Show Boat was racist. Both movie versions, as well as the original show itself, dealt in cartoonish and offensive stereotypes. (The show has since been rewritten in multiple revivals.) The ’36 movie deals more frankly with these stereotypes, but also gives its black characters a voice, while the ’51 movie removes uncomfortable moments completely. So, which is better: for race to be discussed even insensitively, or for race to be ignored because the subject is too painful? This is a tough question that frequently recurs when watching classic Hollywood movies. I think the answer is complex. But in this case, one movie gave Ava Gardner a tan, and the other produced this: