screen gems

A legendary voice. A gay director. An overlooked classic.

Show Boat

Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.

The Showcase: Show Boat

Seriously, when will we get a biopic of the great Paul Robeson? Few performers have had careers as intriguing as that of Robeson, one of the first major African-American stars of the stage and screen. Robeson’s silky bass voice and bear-like presence made him a thrill to watch. His activism for racial equality as an unapologetic Communist also made him a man surrounded by controversy. Subsequent to his death in 1976, it was revealed that the CIA had targeted Robeson with Project MK-ULTRA, a mind-control experiment that set off two decades of ill health.

Sound like the stuff of movies yet?

Until we get a proper biopic of Mr. Robeson, we have to rely on the handful of movies he left behind. For the legend at his best, we offer up director James Whale’s 1936 adaptation of the Kern-Hammerstein musical Show Boat. Whale, the openly gay director of such classics as Frankenstein and The Invisible Man considered Show Boat his best work, due in large part to performances by a cast that included Irene Dunne, Hattie McDaniel, legendary singer Helen Morgan, and of course, Robeson.

The plot revolves around the Cotton Palace, a traveling riverboat specializing in theatrical entertainment (think of it as a precursor to riverboat casinos). 18-year-old Magnolia (Dunne), the daughter of the boat’s captain, falls hard for a charming gambler named Gaylord (Allan Jones). Of course, the two marry, have a daughter, and a whole lot of domestic woes thanks to Gaylord’s gambling. Magnolia also has a close friendship with Julie (Morgan), the ship’s resident singer who is secretly an African-American woman posing as white. Julie has married Steve (Donald Cook) in violation of miscegenation laws. Needless to say, that causes some problems as the Cotton Palace ventures into southern states. Also on hand are ship’s cook Queenie (McDaniel) and her husband Joe (Robeson), who help raise Magnolia.

Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II had written the role of Joe specifically for Paul Robeson, who also advised the pair on their lyrics and depiction of African-American characters. It shows: the Julie-Steve relationship (still a very hot subject in 1936) holds our interest far more than the standard soapy romance of Magnolia and Gaylord. For that matter, Joe and Queenie’s relationship also comes off far more compelling, thanks in large part to the pedigree of the actors playing the roles. We have to wonder what a more modern take on this material focusing more on the African-American characters would look like…

But we digress. Every great musical movie needs a showstopper, and here, we get “Ol’ Man River” as performed by Robeson. Filming the sequence left director Whale stunned, and we can see why: we can’t watch it without getting goosebumps. “Ol’ Man River” deals with time’s indifference to human suffering. And yet, in a way, that gives Joe hope. Life always goes on.

Show Boat is a film of its time, and feels dated in a few key areas (Morgan’s casting as a woman of mixed race is particularly cringey). Still, the film deserves to be seen for its redeeming virtues, including terrific music, Whale’s innovative direction, and Robeson’s performance. One day we might get a movie devoted to Mr. Robeson’s life. Until then, we suggest starting here, and being very grateful he gets to sing.

Streams on Daily Motion. Also available on Blu-Ray.