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Theatre / Show Boat

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Ol' Man River
That Ol' Man River
He don't say nothin'
But he must know somethin'
He just keeps rollin'
He keeps on rollin' along
"Ol' Man River"

Show Boat is a 1927 musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, based on a 1926 book. It has been filmed in 1929, 1936, and 1951. The 1936 version was directed by James Whale, who is best known for directing Universal Horror films such as Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and Bride of Frankenstein.

The story starts with the Cotton Blossom, a showboat with well-known actors arriving in a town in the late 1800s. Magnolia Hawks, the daughter of the showboat's owners, falls for a wandering gambler named Gaylord Ravenal. When the lead actors of the boat are forced to leave due to racial issues at the time (Julie being biracial), Magnolia and Gaylord take over as the leads and become an instant hit.

The musical is possibly most known for Paul Robeson's rendition of "Ol' Man River" in the 1936 version. It is also (arguably) the Ur-Example of the "book" musical as we know it; previously musicals were more like revues and vaudeville.

Show Boat provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Dye-Job: Magnolia is said to have black hair in the book, but almost every stage and film portrayal has her as a blonde. Only Kathryn Grayson in the 1951 film has black hair.
  • All Part of the Show: How Cap'n Andy plays off the fistfight between Steve and Pete over Julia.
  • Blackface: A whole number centers around Magnolia giving a performance in blackface. Possibly justifiable in that this is The Musical Musical and blackface was indeed quite popular in that era.
  • Black Gal on White Guy Drama
  • Costume Porn: The film versions are loaded with Gorgeous Period Dress.
  • Culturally Sensitive Adaptation: The first sung lines of the 1927 musical contain prominent N-words, though they're being sung by a chorus of black singers working "while de white folks play." Subsequent productions and adaptations have replaced the word with "darkies" (the 1936 Universal film), "colored folks" (the 1946 Broadway revival) or just "here we all," eschewing the outdated language altogether in the latter case. The 1951 MGM film and 1966 Lincoln Center production just cut the first lines altogether.
  • Dastardly Whiplash: Used as a Show Within a Show villain. Very hammy.
  • Entitled to Have You: This is what leads to Julie being kicked off the ship—an entitled guy is mad that Julie doesn't want his gifts, so he goes to the sheriff to expose her mixed-race status.
  • Exact Words: Steve avoids a criminal charge of miscegenation with Julie by claiming to have "more than a drop of Negro blood in me". By cutting Julie's hand and swallowing a couple of drops of blood.
  • Happily Married:
    • Steve and Julie were this while they were together. Unfortunately, he abandons her after they leave the show.
    • Joe's laziness may annoy Queenie, but the song "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" makes it clear that they're still very much in love with each other.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Certainly couldn't call a character "Gaylord" in the 21st century, much less have another character deliver lines like "Where's Gay? Where's my Gay?"
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Hearing that Magnolia needs a singing job to raise her daughter after Gaylord abandons them in shame at his inability to support them, Julie quits to open up a spot for her, without ever telling her.
  • Hidden Depths: Joe. A lazy, teasing character, bordering on an old stereotype. But he does get the song that is often most remembered, and is the one to fetch a doctor for Magnolia when she's in labor.
  • Large Ham: Everyone on the stage, but especially the villain character.
  • Lazy Bum: Joe, quite cheerfully, much to the annoyance of his hard-working wife.
    • The song Old Man River defies this trope in regards to black people, instead showing that a lot of times, they’re the ones who have to do the toughest jobs just to survive.
  • Meaningful Name: The name Gaylord, with the old meaning of "gay".
  • Minor Character, Major Song: "Old Man River," is, undoubtedly, the most known song from the production and generally the most remembered part.
  • Nice Guy: Frank. Of the three performing couples, he's the only one to stay with his partner, in spite of not being romantically linked. He also goes out of his way to help Magnolia get a job.
  • Not So Above It All: Parthy at times
  • Orbital Shot: How Paul Robeson's performance of "Ol' Man River" starts in the 1936 film.
  • Parents as People: Gaylord abandons his wife and child, yes, but not out of malice, but out of guilt and shame. As his letter explains to Magnolia, the massive amount of debt that he has accumulated is his burden and not theirs, and therefore they should return to the "Cotton Blossom" and Nola's parents, while he deals with the repercussions of his careless ways. Before leaving, he visits Kim at the convent and assures her that no matter what, she should never once doubt that he will always love his daughter more than anything. Kim holds onto this belief as the final scene, she shows no ressentent towards Gay, and like her mother, happily welcomes him back into their family.
  • Pass Fail: Julie is biracial.
  • Pretty in Mink: Some furs show up in the film versions, such as Magnolia wearing a white ermine cape at the end of the 1936 version.
  • Role-Ending Misdemeanor: An In-Universe example. Pete gets thrown off the boat for costing Captain Andy his two leading performers.
  • Sassy Black Woman: One of the few films of Hattie McDaniel's career in which she didn't play a Mammy. Instead she's Queenie, Joe's sassy wife.
  • Scenery Porn: It's a very nice boat.
  • Show Within a Show: Anything that shows up on the stage.
  • Stylistic Suck: In the 1936 film, a Show Within a Show play is filled with missed cues, forgotten lines and awkward sound effects. Then it goes horribly wrong when a guy in the audience threatens the on-stage villain with a gun. The actor panics and runs off, soon followed by the other actors. Then Andy jumps on stage and saves the show by excitedly telling the audience what was supposed to happen, acting out four parts simultaneously and beating himself up in an imaginary fight scene. It's utterly ridiculous, but at the same time he's got so much dedication to the show that audience ends up applauding him.
  • Sympathetic Murder Backstory: Turns out Gaylord killed a guy. The sheriff says that the jury figured the guy had it coming.
  • Tempting Fate: Magnolia probably shouldn't have said "Gay just can't lose!"
  • Title Drop: The first line of dialogue in the 1936 film. "There's the show boat!"
  • Token Minority Couple: Joe and Queenie, the two main black characters.
  • What, Exactly, Is His Job?: An irritated Queenie notes that Joe doesn't do much of anything on the showboat. He works as an usher but that's about it.
  • White Male Lead: Subverted, although the lead is white and female. Of the white male characters, only two can be seen as being really good people {Frank and Cap'n Andy), while the rest do not come off as very nice people.
  • The Wicked Stage: It discusses this in the number "Life on the Wicked Stage." Ellie disillusions her female admirers that she's only had scandalous affairs on stage.

I gets weary
And sick of trying
I'm tired of living
And scared of dying
But ol' man river
He just keeps rolling along