The story takes place at the end of the nineteenth century when river boats were still popular. The name of this show boat is the “Cotton Blossom.” It is not a passenger boat, but simply a boat that performs musical entertainment to towns along the Mississippi River. The “Cotton Blossom” is owned by Andy Hawks (Joe E. Brown) and his wife, Parthy (Agnes Moorehead). They have a grown daughter named Magnolia (I love that name), whom they call Nolie (played by Kathryn Grayson). Magnolia is good friends with the Julie LaVerne (Ava Gardner), who is the leading performer in the musical show along with her husband, Steve Baker (Robert Sterling). Magnolia looks up to Julie as a big sister. Along comes Gaylord Ravenal (Howard Keel), a riverboat gambler looking for a job as an actor on the show boat. He is instantly attracted to Magnolia. They sing “Make Believe” which becomes their love song. Julie sees quickly that Ravenal is smitten with Magnolia, who comes to Julie and asks her about being in love. Julie sings the song “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” (Ava Gardner’s voice is dubbed by a singer named Annette Warren. However in the MGM soundtrack album, Ava Gardner actually sings the song.)
Trouble begins when a man named Pete (Leif Erickson), who works on the show boat, finds out that Julie has given a necklace he gave her to a black woman. Julie tries to get away from him and her husband, Steve, hits him. Joe is mad at Julie and knows a secret about her that will cause her to be fired from the show. He goes to the local sheriff and tells him that Julie’s father was white and her mother was black. He adds that Julie is married to a white man. The sheriff goes to the “Cotton Blossom” and confronts Julie, Steve, and Mr. Hawks since interracial marriages are against the law. Mr. Hawks does not want to, but has to let Julie go. Steve leaves with her. Before Julie leaves, Magnolia gives her an early Christmas gift that she made herself. As Julie and Steve depart the show boat,” Joe (William Warfield), who works on the boat, sings the famous “Ol’ Man River” song as the fog rolls in off the river.
Mr. Hawk comes up with the idea of his daughter, Magnolia, and Gaylord Ravenal taking over as the lead performers in his musical show. The two soon fall deeply in love. Parthy Hawks is not happy with her daughter getting involved with a river gambler. She tells Ravenal he is not to kiss her daughter during any play performances and watches the two “like a hawk”. Every chance they get Magnolia and Ravenal sneak in a kiss. When they tell Magnolia’s parents they want to marry, Mr. Hawks is delighted—but not Parthy. So, Magnolia and Ravenal leave the “Cotton Blossom.”
They move into an expensive hotel in Chicago. At first, they are happy singing “You Are in Love” and “Why Do I Love You.” Ravenal gambles and makes a lot of money. He buys Magnolia jewels and spends his money lavishly. However, his luck begins to run out and he owes debts. Magnolia offers him her jewels to sell, saying she loves him and not the money. Her husband sells them and loses all the money. He leaves Magnolia without telling her, not realizing that his wife is pregnant. Magnolia is forced to find a job to support herself and her baby. Julie finds out about Magnolia hardships. Julie’s story is heart retching and the saddest part of the story. She does two courageous and compassionate things that change Magnolia’s life. I cannot tell you the rest of the story without spoiling it.
The plot of Show Boat is not the usual happy, simple plot of most musicals. It is more like a drama with musical performances. The film’s background is quite interesting. Judy Garland was chosen to play Julie, but her contract with MGM has ended by the time the part was available. The next choices were Dinah Shore and Lena Horne, but they were dropped. Ava Gardner won the role and did an outstanding job. George Sidney was sick for several days and associate producer Roger Edens had to take over for him. He directed the scene with the fog when Julie and her husband left the show boat and William Warfield sang “Ol Man River.” Many critics say this was the best and most original scene in the movie. Roger Edens’ name is not listed in the credits. Edens searched for the singer to play Joe who sang “Ol Man River,” and he discovered the unknown William Warfield.
The most famous line in the movie is Joe E. Brown’s Andy Hawks. who is drunk on New Year’s Eve. saying “Hap---py New Year!” Notice how Agnes Moorehead as Parthy uses it in the ending. Leif Erickson’s name is misspelled in the credits as “Lief.” Ava Gardner’s Julie plays a big sister role to Kathryn Grayson’s Magnolia, but both actresses were born year in 1922. Both grew up in North Carolina towns too. Ava was born near Smithfield, NC and Kathryn Grayson in Winston-Salem, NC. When Kathryn Grayson died last March, the Ava Gardner Museum in Smithfield did a tribute to her. Howard Keel was known as a fine singer, but also played dramatic roles, such as Clayton Farlow on the Dallas television show from 1981-1991.
The water used as the Mississippi River was the lake built for the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies made at MGM Studios. It was on a back lot and was called The Lagoon. An amusement park bought the boat in 1973 for one of its attractions and it was taken apart in 1995.
Show Boat boasts an engrossing story, a terrific cast, and marvelous music and songs. Try to see the new DVD, which features clear, beautiful color.