The Eighth Day of Christmas: “Show Boat” from 1951

Twelve Days of Christmas

Happy New Year! Today is the first day of 2018. At 6:36 PM here in California, we are told that the brightest full moon of the year will reach its most glorious point. The year ahead promises to be a bright and blessed one. I’m sure we all have our own goals, hopes, and desires for the New Year. As you ponder these, you may want to watch a film to commemorate the holiday. Today I am on the eighth day of “The Twelve Days of Christmas with the Code.” My film choice for today is one with a small but vital Christmas and New Year’s Eve sequence, Show Boat from 1951. This Southern drama is based on a very popular story which was made into three classic films. Read along as I describe the story line of the famous version with Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel, and Ava Gardner.

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The story begins as a show boat, the Cotton Blossom, comes into a Southern town in the late 1880s. Everyone in the town rushes to the river to see the boat full of colorfully-dressed entertainers. The captain of the ship is Andy Hawks (Joe E. Brown), a comical, fun-loving man who is far less practical and businesslike than his stern wife, Parthy (Agnes Moorehead). The crowd watches in pleasure as various members of the cast perform. First, the sweetheart dance team, Ellie May Shipley and Frank Schultz (Marge and Gower Champion), do a sample routine. Then, the star actors, Julie LaVerne (Ava Gardner) and Steven Baker (Robert Sterling), do part of a scene from their play, Tempest and Sunshine. These dramatic players are really a married couple who are very much in love. Unfortunately, a rough worker on the boat, Pete (Leif Erickson), is making unwanted advances toward Julie. When he is being aggressive toward her, Steve rushes over and punches him. They fight briefly, and Pete lands in the reeds by the river. Captain Andy covers up for the disturbance by saying that the boys were enacting another scene from the show. Pete slinks into the town, vowing to get revenge on Steve and Julie. Meanwhile, a handsome, debonair gambler named Gaylord Ravenal (Howard Keel) wants to get a job as an actor on the show boat, since he lost all his money and his ticket to New Orleans in a game. When he goes aboard the ship, he discovers beautiful young Magnolia Hawks (Kathryn Grayson) rehearsing a scene from the play. She’s not really part of the company, though. She’s the captain’s daughter. She wants to be an actress, but her mother won’t let her. As Nolie hangs the costumes out to air, she and Gaylord discuss the magic of acting and the fun of playing make believe. They sing a song about it, but it is obvious that their attraction is more than just make believe. When the song has ended, Mr. and Mrs. Hawks come back onto the boat, and Nolie hurries away. Captain Andy wants to hire Mr. Ravenal, but the company is all full up. Later, Nolie goes to Julie’s room to tell her about her “handsome stranger.” They discuss what it means to love just one man with all your heart. Julie tells Nolie how she feels about Steve with a song, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” After she has tenderly sung it, the two young women begin doing a dance to the song. Mrs. Hawks catches her daughter dancing, and she warns her never to have anything to do with Julie again, but Nolie won’t listen to anything against her friend. During the show that night, the sheriff comes aboard the Cotton Blossom because of a reported miscegenation case. He reports that Julie had a white father and a black mother, but she is married to a white man. It is illegal in that state for a person with one drop of black blood to be married to a white person. As the sheriff is talking, Steve pricks Julie’s finger with a pin and mingles her blood with his. He protests that he has black blood in him because of this, but the sheriff has to stop the show anyway and take them away for investigation in the morning. At dawn the next morning, Nolie tenderly says goodbye to Julie and gives her a doll pincushion that she had meant to give her at Christmas. As the sad couple of actors leaves the ship, Julie tells a black worker, Joe (William Warfield), to “keep ridin’ the river.” As their carriage rides away, Joe sings “Ol’ Man River.” He continues his meaningful, moving rendition of the song as the workers prepare the boat to sail. Just as the Cotton Blossom is moving away from the dock, Gaylord Ravenal appears and calls to the captain, asking whether he could be of service. Captain Andy is greatly pleased by his appearance, and he asks him to quickly come aboard. Since the stars of the show are no longer with the company, Gaylord and Nolie become the new principle actors, much to Mrs. Hawks’s chagrin. Her husband assures her that it will just be until New Orleans, but she coaches Mr. Ravenal to hold her daughter at arm’s length and fake the kiss, since it is only make believe. However, on the first night that Parthy isn’t in the audience, Gay and Nolie enjoy a very real kiss. Soon after, Gay asks Nolie to marry him so that he can take her out into the real world, where he says she belongs. Her mother is horrified at the relationship, and she prophesies a reckless, unhappy life for Nolie with the footloose gambler. Her father supports her in anything she wants to do, but he says that he hopes that this isn’t just Saturday night with a cold Monday to follow. The young couple sings a romantic duet. They are soon married, and they move to Chicago. In the months that follow, Gay is very lucky, so everything is wonderful. They live in an expensive hotel, have their own horse and buggy, and wear opulent clothes. At Christmas, they have a huge tree which is surrounded by a mountain of gifts, including lots of jewels for her. Unfortunately, the good luck doesn’t last forever. Soon, Gay begins losing. The losing streak continues so that they have to sell the team and carriage. In addition, they are six weeks behind in their payments at the hotel. The manager warns them that they have to pay by the next night. Gay tries to win the money in a poker game; when he loses $8700, they have to pawn her jewelry and sneak out of the hotel without paying their bill. By the next Christmas, they are living in a furnished room. Nolie is sitting in the drab living room, wearing a plain brown dress. Gay comes in, looking tired and unshaven, and he tells her how he almost won that night. He describes how he felt that third queen coming up, and Nolie bitterly asks what she looks like. Her husband insists that there isn’t any other woman in his life, but she says that she knows there is no flesh and blood woman. She is fighting his lady luck, his gambling obsession which is personified by a queen in a green felt dress. Nolie grows very angry and says that that queen has whipped her for days and months, but she won’t be whipped any more. She says that it is Monday, just like her father said, and that Gay is a weak man. She becomes almost hysterical in her anger, and Gay grabs her upper arms. She looks at him harshly and says, “Take your hands off me.” He walks out. Nolie feels sorry for being so rough with him, so she takes her last fur to the pawn shop and buys a few presents plus his hawked lucky cane with the money. When she gets home, the landlady is showing the apartment to some people, whom she recognizes as the now married Ellie and Frank. They open in a show on New Year’s Eve, and they are looking for a place to live. They are shocked by the poverty of the Ravenals’ situation, since they thought they were still living at the lavish Sherman House. The landlady says that Mr. Ravenal said that they were moving out, but Nolie says they aren’t leaving. She looks for Gay in the bedroom to confirm her statement, but he isn’t there. There is nothing but some money and a note, in which Gay says that he is leaving her for her own good, since he wants her to go back to the Cotton Blossom where she belongs. He tells her to remember their good times and forget the rest, since he will always love her and doesn’t want her to hate him. Nolie is devastated, and the Schultzes are heartbroken for her. Meanwhile, Julie is rehearsing at the Trocadero. She is working there as a singer, but she is obviously intoxicated. We learn that her husband left her, and she has been tearing herself apart ever since. She still sings well, but the manager is concerned that he won’t be able to keep her sober enough to work. After she has retreated to her dressing room for a costume fitting, the Schultzes, who are also performing at the Trocadero, bring Nolie in. They tell the manager that she needs a job, and he agrees to hear her sing. She plaintively sings “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” Julie hears her singing and walks out of the dressing room to see her. A stage assistant tells her that Nolie’s husband left her, and Julie is devastated. She picks up the worn pincushion which Nolie gave her on her departure, and she miserably downs a glass of champagne. After Nolie has finished her song, the manager says that he doesn’t have any place for her but will remember her in the future. Just as she is leaving, the manager learns that Julie ran out and quit, saying that he should hire Nolie. He tells her to take off her hat. Suddenly, it is New Year’s Eve at the Trocadero. A tipsy Captain Andy and several girls enter the club and take a seat. Mr. Hawks came to Chicago to spend New Years with the Ravenals, but he didn’t find them at the Sherman House. In the mean time, he has come to see Frank and Ellie perform. They do a very entertaining number, and Captain Andy loudly brags that he taught them all they know. As he is about to go backstage to see them, Nolie steps onto the stage. She is nervous, embarrassed, and frightened. She sings “After the Ball is Over,” but her voice is so timid that everyone is heckling her because she can’t be heard. Captain Andy is extremely surprised to see his daughter performing, but he calls to her from the audience and encourages her to smile and sing out. He rambunctiously quiets down the crowd, and her song is a big hit. Soon, everyone is waltzing and singing along. After she finishes singing, her father joins her onstage, and they begin to waltz. As the clock strikes midnight, balloons and streamers fall from the ceiling, and everyone sings “Auld Lang Syne” as Nolie sobs on her father’s shoulder. Backstage, she tells him what happened with her and Gay. He says that her husband was a scoundrel whom she must forget, but she says that he was thinking of her when he left her. Her father says that now she can just think about herself, go to New York, and become a famous singer. She tells him that she can’t because she is going to have a baby. She never told Gay because she was waiting to tell him when things were better. She says that she wants to go back to the Cotton Blossom, and her father welcomes her joyfully. During the next few years, her daughter, Kim, is born and raised on the Cotton Blossom. She has a happy, orderly life on the show boat with her mother and grandparents. Meanwhile, Gay is very lucky, and he becomes a wealthy man. However, his life is empty. Will he ever go back to Nolie and meet his daughter? Will Kim ever get to know her father? On a side note, what ever happened to Julie? You have to watch this magnificent Southern musical for yourself to find out!

Show Boat was made into three movies. First, it was a part-talkie Universal film in 1929 with Laura La Plante and Joseph Schildkraut. Unlike the two subsequent versions, this movie was not based on the Kern and Hammerstein musical but on the novel by Edna Ferber on which it was based. Some songs from the play were used in the movie, but most of the popular ones were only heard in the prologue and exit music, so the film wasn’t much of a success. The next version was a Universal Code film from 1936, which featured Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, and Helen Morgan, the speakeasy owner and vocalist who reprised her role from Broadway. This version is the most similar to the play of the three. It was no longer circulated by the late 1940s, since MGM bought all the rights from Universal. They wanted to make the story with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. Eventually, that fell through. However, by 1951, they made what would be the last screen adaptation of the story. This beautiful Technicolor picture was the highest earning Show Boat and the third highest-earning film of 1951. It also was changed significantly from the other versions. Julie’s role was expanded, and she became the reason that Gaylord returned to Nolie. Also, the time lapse is much shorter. Forty years pass in the original, but only a few pass in this version. In addition, Gay leaves before he knows that Nolie is pregnant; in the original, he left when Kim was already a few years old, not to return until she is grown.

In some future article, perhaps I will compare and contrast the two Code versions of this film to show how each relates to the musical and the Code. I can’t do so at this point, since I haven’t watched the 1936 version. I can, however, discuss how this movie relates to the Code. One change which was made in the 1951 version was the elimination of a few lines in “Ol’ Man River” and “The Cotton Blossom,” in which the black people refer to themselves by the offensive alternative to negro which was banned under the Code. In the 1936 version, it was changed to darkies and colored folks. In the 1951 version, the lines were just deleted. One might say that the changes made in the story of this version are changes which were suggested by Joseph Breen, but the 1936 version disproves that. This version was more shiny and glamorized, but that was the decision of 1950s Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, not the PCA, which self-regulated the harsher, more realistic 1936 version, too.

I must take this opportunity to discuss the interesting case of miscegenation which this movie presents. During its tenure, the PCA enforced a miscegenation clause of Section II of the Code, which banned romance between white and black races. As I have previously stated, we don’t consider this to be part of the real Motion Picture Production Code of 1930, since it was not in the original version of this document. It was added by someone in the MPPDA to avoid censorship in the South. In fact, that is the only reason the PCA ever forbade miscegenation. Like Father Lord and Martin Quigley, the authors of the Code, I’m sure that Mr. Breen felt that there was nothing immoral about miscegenation. However, like the employees of the MPPDA, he knew that Southerners were quick to censor anything which related to miscegenation. This was a hot topic, and it was his job to help the studios avoid controversy and censorship. However, three years into his tenure and four years before his retirement, Joe Breen self-regulated, approved, and sealed movies based on a story which dealt with miscegenation. Why was Show Boat such a frequent exception to the miscegenation rule? I have read that, since the book, musical, and part-talkie film were widely popular, the story was well-known and loved throughout America. Nothing new and controversial would be depicted in either Code version of the film. People wouldn’t be shocked and offended by the situation, since the scenario was familiar to them. Thus, he overruled the added clause to Section II and approved both films. This clearly shows that the miscegenation clause did not reflect any personal bigotry on the part of Mr. Breen or the rest of the PCA. It is just an outdated, obsolete piece of public relations.

This film’s score, which is extremely popular and just as beautiful, is not one which I have to praise. “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” “Ol’ Man River,” “Bill,” “Make Believe,” and many others are not songs which I have to argue as good songs. Their fame and popularity speak for their quality. I mustn’t neglect to mention an uncredited member of the cast who lends a lot of her talent to the musical part of the film, Lena Horne. She overdubbed Ava Gardner’s singing voice. I must say that the match is very believable. One of the most famous and moving scenes in the film is when Joe sings “Ol’ Man River” in his deep, beautiful voice. It is early in the morning, and there is a thin vapor of mist. Joe sings as they prepare the show boat to head downriver. The scene is classic.

The acting in this film is truly magnificent. Kathryn Grayson is an excellent singer, but she also is a dramatic actress in the film. Howard Keel displays versatile acting in his role of Gaylord Ravenal, and his singing is great, as well. This was the first of three pairings of Miss Grayson and Mr. Keel, and their pairing is fantastic. While Kathryn Grayson had been acting for ten years years, 1951 was only Howard Keel’s second year in Hollywood. Ava Gardner is extremely dramatic in the role of Julie. She displays phenomenal depth of emotion. The way she changes throughout the movie is very convincing and pathetic. She is truly an excellent addition to the cast. Although she really is not the second most important character, she got second billing because she was so much more famous than Howard Keel. The rest of the cast is versatile and exceptional, as well.

I consider this movie to be a holiday film. I would call the New Year’s Eve sequence the climax and finale of the second act. It is very tender, dramatic, and poignant. Like all good New Years movies, Show Boat features “Auld Lang Syne” in this scene. That must have been Hollywood’s favorite song. They used it on almost every New Years scene and at many other times when something was ending. They thought it added sentimental intensity, I suppose. When I watched this last night, as the balloons and streamers fell around Nolie’s broken life, the scene almost brought tears to my eyes.

Thank you for joining me on January 1 for my first article of 2018. PEPS has high goals this year. There are some important anniversaries in it, including Mr. Breen’s 130th birthday in October and the 50th anniversary of the rating system in November. I hope that, at this time next year, we will have made significant progress toward our goal. With the help of Providence, we may have made substantial steps toward bringing the Code back to Hollywood. With every view, like, and follower, that dream gets closer to becoming a reality. We appreciate your support. Be sure to come back tomorrow for the ninth day of Christmas. May your new year be filled with many wonderful things!

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One thought on “The Eighth Day of Christmas: “Show Boat” from 1951

  1. Pingback: The Twelve Days of Christmas with the Code! | pure entertainment preservation society

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