Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Show Boat - The Story Behind One of America's Greatest Musicals

A Ziegfeld show typically summons to mind images of glorified girls in fantastic headdresses descending twirling staircases to the strains of haunting melodies. Florenz Ziegfeld was the great glorifier of the American girl, it’s true. It is also true that he produced lavish revues brimming with glamour, comedy, and trend-setting music. However, he also happened to be the man behind arguably the twentieth century’s most groundbreaking production: Show Boat. The beloved story has been thrice adapted for the screen and revived countless times in theatres across the country. The first show to feature black and white actors sharing the same stage, it also broke precedents by addressing issues such as miscegenation. What makes Show Boat such a masterpiece, however, is its perfect balance between pathos and comedy and its seamless blend of music and dialogue.

Show Boat, the musical, was a far cry from Edna Ferber’s novel on which it is based. Ironically, the book is more frivolous in tone while the play is more sober. Ziegfeld told Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern, the writer and composer for the show, however, that “We can’t have a musical with all this sadness in it.” Ziegfeld, though he was alleged to have no sense of humor himself, recommended using the character of Captain Andy as comic relief, and Hammerstein heeded his request. Ziegfeld had been observing audiences for over thirty years and knew humor always won them over.

The story of Show Boat tells the story of Magnolia Hawks, the idealistic and naive, daughter of Cap’n Andy Hawks, the boisterous owner of the Cotton Blossom show boat, and his irascible wife, Parthy. Magnolia is best friends with Julie LaVerne, the Cotton Blossom’s main attraction. Julie and her husband Steve are forced to leave when the local sheriff reveals that Julie has “Negro” blood in her, thus breaking the state law by being married to Steve, who is white. Magnolia replaces Julie as the show boat’s female star, and handsome gambler Gaylord Ravenal ecomes the leasing man. Magnolia and Gaylord fall in love and marry. They and their daughter, Kim, grow rich while Gaylord is on a lucky streak, but live in poverty when he’s unlucky. During one dark period, Gaylord leaves his family and Magnolia starts over by returning to the stage. Unbeknownst to her, a now alcoholic Julie gives up her place at a nightclub so that Magnolia may fill it. The last act of the show seeds forward twenty years, revealing Magnolia as a huge Broadway star. Ultimately she and Kim return to the Cotton Blossom, however, and reunite with a repentant Gaylord. Like “Old Man River,” as the show’s immortal theme song goes, they “just keep rollin' along.”

Ziegfeld assembled a stellar cast for his show. Torch singer, and famous breaker of Prohibition laws, Helen Morgan, signed to play Julie. Helen’s hedonism continued and proved to be a boon to the show’s ticket sales. Jules Bledsoe portrayed Joe, the deck hand who sings ‘ol’ man river” (in Ziegfeld’s 1932 revival, the legendary Paul Robeson took over the part). Ziegfeld gave his black performers the full star treatment. After his death, a reporter from an African American newspaper stated that the black race had lost “a friend” and that Ziegfeld had been responsible for making African American chorines “glorified beauties.”

Actors who later became familiar faces on the silver screen filled the roles of Cap’n Andy and Parthy. Ziegfeld chose Edna May Oliver as Parthy while Charles Winninger filled the role of Andy. For the role of Magnolia, Ziegfeld cast Norma Terris.

After a year of casting and preparations for Show Boat, it finally went into production. Norma Terris stated that Ziegfeld was present at every rehearsal, many of which could last up to twenty hours. Ziegfeld moaned: “I’m suffering the tortures of the damned!” as he haggled with temperamental actors, costumers, and scenic designers.

Ziegfeld wanted to go with his customary method of using bright lights and decadent costumes for the show. But, urged by Jeorme Kern and set designer Joseph Urban, he sacrificed his own taste and agreed to use authentic costumes and realistic sets. Hammerstein, Kern, and Edna Ferber had all traveled to the South to gain a feel of the atmosphere.

By December 1927, the show was finally ready for out-of-town tryouts. Ziegfeld, as usual on opening nights, was sure his show would fail. At first, it seemed that Ziegfeld was correct in his dark predictions about the show. He keenly noted that there was little applause even after the show’s big numbers.

After the final curtain fell, the audience still did not applaud.

“Well, now I’ve really done it’,” Ziegfeld muttered to his secretary. Suddenly there was the sound of one person applauding, and then another and then another until the entire audience rose to their feet and would not stop cheering for five minutes.

Ziegfeld puffed on his cigar with the trace of a smile on his lips.

Ziegfeld arrived at his theater the morning after opening night to find a line wrapped around the block. When Brooks Atkinson of the Times finally reviewed the show, he heralded it as “one of those epochal works about which garrulous old men gabble for twenty-five hours after the scenery has rattled off to the storehouse.”

Ziegfeld had always been a risk-taker with his shows. His biggest hits contained elements that could alienate audiences if not done tastefully (i.e., sexuality, political satire, and themes of racial/class discrimination). But the Ziegfeld Touch, as Ziegfeld himself was to define it following the success of Show Boat, was “splendor and intelligence.” Show Boat so pleased theatergoers because it respected their intelligence. However, the production was not pretentious, for it still included plenty of glamour, spectacle, and comedy. Thomas Hischak, author of The Oxford Companion to the American Musical, called Show Boat “the first masterpiece and arguably still the finest musical play [in history].” Show Boat cemented Ziegfeld’s reputation as Broadway’s greatest producer.

Hollywood musicals, like Broadway ones, took decades to completely mature. The first all-talking adaptation of Show Boat was released in 1936, four years after Ziegfeld’s death. Universal Studios made Show Boat into a full-length musical film with Helen Morgan, Paul Robeson and Irene Dunne heading the cast (Dunne had played Magnolia in the 1929 touring company of the show). Charles Winninger reprised is role as Cap’n Andy. The film was faithful to the play, but because it was black and white, one could not fully experience Ziegfeld’s colorful show.

The most widely known version of Show Boat is the 1951 MGM musical adaptation. Its producer, Arthur Freed, was aptly dubbed the “Ziegfeld of Hollywood.” Like Ziegfeld, he took the stagey musicals of the 1930s and guided them into the golden age of Hollywood musicals where story, music, and dance blend into a cohesive whole. Also like Ziegfeld, he was a risk taker and produced the first all-black musical in 1943, Cabin in the Sky.

Freed preferred to do original films not based on Broadway shows, but when adapting any show to the screen, he insisted that one need not consider a show’s original book a Bible. “What happens in the old Show Boat is that the thread of the story is lost in the second act, and you become concerned with a second generation. The second act…becomes a series of specialties,” Freed stated.

Screenwriter John Lee Mahin’s adaptation placed less emphasis on some of the more comedic aspects of the original play, namely the characters of Cap’n Andy and Parthy. (portrayed by Joe E. Brown and the versatile Agnes Moorehead). The lack of comedy in the film does weaken it, robbing it of the “joy and whimsy” Freed usually added even to his more serious pictures. Freed insisted that Mahin build up the part of Julie LaVerne because “she is the character that lives in the mind, partly because she is a tragic figure.” Lena Horne had played the part in the whirlwind rendition of Show Boat in Till the Clouds Roll By (1946) and wished to play Julie again. However, the Hollywood Production Code banned literal interracial relationships onscreen; consequently, a white actress would have to play the part.

Freed had thought of Judy Garland as Julie, but by 1951 she no longer worked at Metro. Freed next thought of Ava Gardner for the part. As Mickey Rooney’s ex-wife, present fiancĂ©e of Frank Sinatra, and one of Howard Hughes’ major objects of affection, her name along with the title of Show Boat would surely be enough to, in Ava’s words, “put bums on the seats.”

When Ava had first come to MGM, voice coaches had tried to rid her of her Deep South accent and now, for the part of Julie, they were trying to get it back. Her speaking voice proved to be ideal, though Freed had doubts about her singing voice, which Ava called a “whiskey tenor.” Ava’s biographer, Lee Server, stated “…her throaty, modest vocals stood in too great a contrast” to her operatically trained costars, Kathryn Grayson (as Magnolia in the same part she had played in Till the Clouds Roll By) and Howard Keel (as Gaylord). Annette Warren, a specialty performer, dubbed Ava. Ava was insulted and embarrassed at being dubbed by “a conventional soprano” with none of the “bluesy sound of [her] voice.”

After Freed finished assembling both the behind the scenes crew and the cast, the production was ready to begin shooting. Freed spared no money in creating the Cotton Blossom, which “set new standards for on-screen opulence.”

Like Ziegfeld, Freed had much backstage drama to deal with. As production commenced, the romantic elements in the film paled in comparison to those between the principals in the cast. “The moment we sang, the chemistry between me and Kathryn was more than I could control. She was so beautiful she took my breath away,” Howard Keel confessed in his memoir. Kathryn and Howard’s mutual attraction became impossible to hide. But, because Kathryn was in the middle of a divorce and Howard was married with a child, the actors did not welcome the press surrounding their affair.

One person not included in the cast was romantically linked with not only Kathryn, but also Ava Gardner: Howard Hughes. During filming of Show Boat, he sent her twelve dozen roses, which took hours to transfer to vases. Kathryn slowly began to warm to his affections and what followed was a “long, tender” relationship. He became a regular at the Grayson home, using it as a “place of comfort when the world was closing in on him.”

Ava Gardner was aware of Hughes’ doings on the set of Show Boat, and Kathryn noticed that her costar glared at her throughout the remainder of the filming. Ava had been a “Hughes girl” since 1943. Ava, however, was not easy to win. She had her limits—and a temper—that she was not afraid to show him. He hired private detectives and bugged her room to ensure she was not still seeing Mickey Rooney and, one night, burst into her bedroom using spare key he had surreptitiously made. Ava hit him over the head with an 18th century bronze bell and sliced open his forehead. “You don’t own me, bastard,” she shouted. “And don’t forget it.” Amazingly, Hughes and Ava kept seeing each other after the incident. “We fought all the time, but I fought with all the men in my life…it was my way of loving, I suppose.”

Filming wrapped in January 1951. Upon its release, the picture won nothing but praise from the formidable, hard-to-please critic for the New York Times, Bosley Crowther. The jaded reviewer was moved to write that the story “has never reached the screen…in anything like the visual splendor and richness of musical score as are tastefully brought together in this brilliant re-creation of the show…it is doubtful if even its first performance on the stage surpassed, except in novelty and freshness, this faithful translation...” Crowther’s primary criticisms had to do with the film’s pacing and with Ava Gardner, who proved to be more an audience than a critic’s favorite. Overall, Crowther called the musical “As sumptuous as sumptuous could be in the best Metro tradition.” The picture ranked as the third biggest money maker of 1951.

Though Freed’s Show Boat remains the most enduring version of the story, it is Florenz Ziegfeld’s production that fully caught the sweeping saga’s essence. Perhaps the greatest loss to modern audiences is the fact that none of Ziegfeld’s shows or the great productions of his contemporaries were caught on film. They are lost to history, becoming mere memories or myths in the history of the theater. What Show Boat did was establish a truly American style of musical, released from the influences of European operettas that dominated early Broadway shows. What Arthur Freed did for the film musical was to release it from the confines of the stage, using choreography and camerawork specifically designed for the cinema. While the work of Ziegfeld may be but a legend now, Freed’s films have kept the Ziegfeld tradition alive—the creation of musicals that combine splendor and intelligence in a uniquely American way.

Our special thanks to authors Sara and Cynthia Brideson for contributing this marvelous article on the history of Show Boat. To read more about Florenz Ziegfeld and Show Boat check out Cynthia and Sara Brideson’s latest book, Ziegfeld and His Follies: A Biography of Broadway’s Greatest Producer, available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.


  1. Kathryn Grayson has a gorgeous voice but I didn't think she was so fetching to have two suitors on the set of just one film. I LOVED reading this. Show Boat is my favorite musical!

    1. We're glad you enjoyed this article, Patti! We have an especially fondness for Show Boat too, probably because it captures in splendor such a wonderful period in America's past.

  2. Ooooh, that was fascinating! Thanks for sharing -- I learn so much on your blog :-)

    1. Thank you, Hamlette! The Bridesons write so well and their latest book on Ziegfeld is an excellent - and very entertaining - read. We were so happy they contributed this article.