Racial ambivalence and the Old/New South of “Show Boat”

Poster for the 1936 “Show Boat,” depicting both white and black actors.

The other night I had occasion to re-view James Whale’s 1936 film version of the classic American musical “Show Boat.”  Unlike the much more inferior 1951 MGM film, this version is considered highly faithful to the original Broadway show, first produced in 1927 at the Ziegfield Theater. Based on Edna Ferber’s 1926 bestselling novel of the same name, Show Boat chronicles the fates of a collection of performers on the Cotton Blossom, Cap’n Andy’s show boat, which travels up and down the Mississippi in the 1890s offering cheap entertainment to the small towns along the river.

James Whale is perhaps best known a the director of “Frankenstein,” and perhaps it is fitting that a horror director would produce a film depicting the post-Reconstruction South.  Show Boat is filled with stereotypical representations of African Americans (a tragic mulatto, mammy, shiftless buck and more) and blackface performances by whites. Yet, Show Boat, which was largely anti-racist in the context of the nadir of race relations, is also notable for its frank portrayal of race, both the racial relations it seeks to critique, and those it inevitably reproduces.

The Show Boat is originally in trouble because one of the performers, Julie, is a mixed race woman passing as white, who is married to a white man and performing on the stage with him. Cornered by the local sheriff, her husband Stephen, surreptitiously cuts her finger and drinks her blood, allowing him to claim he has more than a drop of black blood in him, a declaration that reveals the constructedness of race in the social and legal code. Julie and Steve evade the law, but are forced to leave the showboat since “local folks won’t tolerate the races mixing on the stage.”

Yet the races seem to continue mixing. Filling in for Julie, Magnolia (played by Irene Dunne) performs a minstrel number in blackface, “Gallivantin’ Around,” which underscores the film’s proximity to this era of popular entertainment. Apparently this was a conscious choice of Whale to include the number, which by 1937 was already controversial.  It functions as a kind of window into another time.  Irene Dunne, who was born in Kentucky in 1898 (and whose father, coincidentally, was a steamboat inspector), was clearly no stranger to these traditions. Whale interestingly breaks the camera away from Magnolia’s performance for a shot of the audience, including a stoic collection of African Americans at the back of the theater, contrasting Magnolia’s artificial blackness with the presence of actual black folks.

Irene Dunne, shucking in the showboat kitchen while Paul Robeson, Hattie McDaniel,and Helen Morgan look on.

Magnolia is the racial boundary crosser in the show boat family, she is like a little sister to biracial Julie, and portrayed hanging out in the kitchen, performing traditional African American songs and minstrel dances. “Look at that girl shuck!” exclaims one of the black onlookers, as delighted as Magnolia’s mother is horrified.  The black actors suspect appreciation aside, again we have a moment in which the films breaks into a strange kind of authenticity vis a vis period cultural representation.

Paul Robeson performing “Ol’ Man River”

The performances of the African American actors are likewise ambivalent. The film retains and insists on the prominence of black people in the show boat world. The formidable talents of Hattie McDaniel as Queenie and Paul Robeson, as Joe, transcend the material, particularly Robeson’s rendition of “Ol Man River,” which Whale elevates to dramatic grandeur.  Robeson is dignified, epic, in his vocal performance, only lapsing into a broad smile at the conclusion of the song like a reflexive concession to the white gaze. This mask characterizes all the black performances in the film, which inevitably collapse into eye rolling, broad smiles, and exagerrated gestures of the minstrel mask. “Show Boat” interrogates race as a cultural construct, but contains its black characters within this racial essentialism.

Another interesting ambivalence lies in the depiction of the the white characters.

As a symbol of the Southern gentleman of honor, Gaylord Ravenal is an embodiment of the falsity of the Old South code of honor. A two-bit gambler, he passes himself off as Southern aristocracy in florid speech and manners, yet his shoes are cracked and he is down on his luck, fleeing his debts.  His is a facade of gentility whose specialty is “Make Believe,”  a game he indulges in with the ingenue Magnolia. Gaylord proves a faithless and cowardly husband, abandoning Magnolia and their daughter when he is down on his luck. Magnolia survives by marketing her talents as a “coon shouter,” performing the song she learned from Julie, and becomes a major stage star.

Gaylord and Magnolia are reunited at the premier of a new show starring their daughter, Kim. Kim’s big musical number is a grand plantation fantasy, set to the tune of “Gallivantin’,” transformed through new orchestration and into a lilting, genteel waltz. African Americans are relegated to the background, literally a cluster of onlookers cast aside by the swirling white skirts of the dancing southern belles.  Here the Old South can only be resurrected or reclaimed through deracinated nostalgia that effaces the presence of blackness that lay at its historic foundation.

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