SHOW BOAT (Musical & Film)


Show Boat (1951 musical & film)

Show Boat is a 1951 American musical romantic drama film based on the stage musical of the same name by Jerome Kern (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (script and lyrics), and the 1926 novel by Edna Ferber. This 1951 film version, by MGM, was adapted for the screen by John Lee Mahin, and was produced by Arthur Freed and directed by George Sidney.

Filmed previously in 1929 and in 1936, this third adaptation of Show Boat was shot in Technicolor in the typical MGM lavish style. The film stars Kathryn Grayson, Ava Gardner, and Howard Keel, with Joe E. Brown, Marge Champion, Gower Champion, William Warfield, Robert Sterling, Agnes Moorehead and Leif Erickson. Unlike the 1936 film, none of the members of the original Broadway cast of the show appeared in this version.

The 1951 Show Boat was the most financially successful of the film adaptations of the show: one of MGM’s most popular musicals, it was the third most profitable film of that year.

The basic plot remains the same as in the stage play and the 1936 film version. When the Cotton Blossom, Cap’n Andy Hawks’s show boat, arrives in a Mississippi town to give a performance, a fistfight breaks out between leading man Steve Baker (Robert Sterling), and Pete (Leif Erickson), the boat’s engineer who has been making passes at Steve’s wife, leading lady Julie La Verne (Ava Gardner). But Cap’n Andy (Joe E. Brown) pretends to the assembled crowd that the two were really previewing a scene from one of the boat’s melodramas. But Pete knows a dark secret about Julie, and he runs off to tell the local sheriff.

Riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Howard Keel) has gambled away a boat ticket, so he drops by the Cotton Blossom pretending to be an actor so that he can get passage on the boat, but is rejected. However, he meets Magnolia (Kathryn Grayson), the captain’s 18-year-old daughter, and the two are instantly smitten.

That night, during the performance of an olio on the show boat, Pete shows up with the town sheriff (Regis Toomey). But when Julie and Steve hear that the sheriff is coming to arrest them, Steve takes a sewing pin, pricks Julie’s finger, and sucks blood from it. The Sheriff enters and announces that there is a case of miscegenation on board, a black woman married to a white man, which is illegal. Julie is the woman, and Steve is the man.

Julie admits that she is half-black, but Steve, having sucked some of Julie’s blood, successfully pretends that he is also half-black. Pete is fired by Cap’n Andy. However, Julie and Steve must still leave the acting company – blacks were not allowed onstage alongside whites in the 1880’s.

After Magnolia, who is Julie’s best friend, tearfully says goodbye to her, she and Steve leave the company. Ravenal shows up and offers help. This time, Cap’n Andy takes him on, makes him the acting company’s new leading man, and makes Magnolia the new leading lady, over the strong objections of his wife Parthy (Agnes Moorehead), who is also Magnolia’s mother. Within a matter of weeks, Magnolia and Ravenal are a hit on the river and have fallen in love. They become engaged, marry (in this version, the wedding celebration is not shown), and move to Chicago, where they live off Ravenal’s gambling winnings. A year passes and Ravenal loses all his money gambling. After he goes broke, Magnolia, unlike the stage original and the 1936 film, tells him off for being so obsessed with gambling. Feeling guilty after Magnolia’s tirade, Ravenal walks out on her.

Ellie Chipley and Frank Schultz (Marge and Gower Champion), the dance team on the show boat, suddenly show up in Chicago, having also left the boat and been booked into a nightclub called the Trocadero. They take Magnolia to audition there, but before she arrives, we see that the club already has a singer.

It is Julie, who has become a hopeless alcoholic now that Steve has left her. From her dressing room, she overhears Magnolia audition, learns from the nightclub manager that Ravenal deserted her, and silently quits so that he will have no choice but to hire Magnolia. On the night of her debut, Cap’n Andy arrives to visit and ends up at the nightclub, where he gives Magnolia confidence after she experiences stage fright. It is here that the plot changes drastically from the stage original and the 1936 film: Magnolia not only tells Cap’n Andy what has happened, but reveals that she is pregnant with Ravenal’s child. She did not have the heart to tell Ravenal because of their financial situation, and she returns to the show boat with Cap’n Andy, where she gives birth to a daughter, Kim.

About five years pass. Ravenal is gambling on board a packet boat, on which a drunken Julie is trying to sing. After punching her escort because he slapped Julie, Ravenal goes out on deck. Julie, who has been keeping track of Magnolia, finds out who Ravenal is, and not realizing that he knew nothing of Magnolia’s pregnancy, tells him off. Ravenal is overcome with guilt and returns to the show boat the next day, where he meets his little daughter Kim (Sheila Clark) for the first time and returns to Magnolia, with whom he is reconciled.

As Ravenal and Magnolia walk back on the boat, the stevedore Joe begins his reprise of “Ol’ Man River” and Cap’n Andy and Parthy embrace. Out of the shadows on the dock Julie emerges, and blows a kiss towards Magnolia as the ship sails to its next destination.


(songs and incidental music)

Main Title — MGM Studio Orchestra and Chorus (“Cotton Blossom” and an instrumental version of “Make Believe”)
“Cotton Blossom” – Cotton Blossom Singers and Dancers
“Capt’ Andy’s Ballyhoo” – Danced by Marge and Gower Champion (MGM Studio Orchestra)
“Where’s the Mate for Me” – Howard Keel
“Make Believe” – Kathryn Grayson / Howard Keel
“Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” – Ava Gardner
“Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” (Reprise #1) – Kathryn Grayson / Ava Gardner
“I Might Fall Back On You” – Marge and Gower Champion
Julie Leaves the Boat (“Mis’ry’s Comin’ Round” – partial) – MGM Studio Orchestra and Chorus
“Ol’ Man River” – William Warfield and MGM chorus
Montage Sequence (“Make Believe”) – MGM Studio Orchestra and Chorus
“You Are Love” – Kathryn Grayson / Howard Keel
“Why Do I Love You” – Kathryn Grayson / Howard Keel
“Bill” – Ava Gardner
“Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” (Reprise #2) – Kathryn Grayson
“Life Upon the Wicked Stage” – Marge and Gower Champion
“After the Ball” – Kathryn Grayson
“Cakewalk” – danced by Joe E. Brown and Sheila Clark (MGM Studio Orchestra)
“Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” – (partial reprise by Ava Gardner, using her real singing voice)
Make Believe” (Reprise) – Howard Keel
Finale: “Ol’ Man River” (Reprise) – William Warfield / MGM Chorus

(credited cast only)

Kathryn Grayson as Magnolia Hawks
Ava Gardner as Julie LaVerne (singing voice dubbed by Annette Warren)
Howard Keel as Gaylord Ravenal
Joe E. Brown as Cap’n Andy Hawks
Marge Champion as Ellie Mae Shipley
Gower Champion as Frank Shultz
Robert Sterling as Steve Baker
Agnes Moorehead as Parthy Hawks
Leif Erickson as Pete
William Warfield as Joe
Sheila Clark, who played Kim, Frances E. Williams, who played Queenie, Regis Toomey, who played the Sheriff, Emory Parnell, who played the Trocadero nightclub manager, and Owen McGiveney, who played Windy, were not billed either in the film or in poster advertising for it.