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Show Boat (MGM 1951, Ava Gardner, Howard Keel)



John Lee Mahin made an excellent adaptation of the popular Kern and Hammerstein musical for MGM’s expert producer of musicals Arthur Freed and the resulting film, reported Variety, merges ‘a wealth of song, dance, drama and heart tugs in a colourful enfoldment’.

The early sequences found the screenplay remaining fairly faithful to the original. When the showboat Cotton Blossom docks on the lower Mississippi, the company find themselves in trouble. Julie Laverne (Ava Gardner), the showboat’s leading attraction, is forced to leave after spurned deckhand Pete (Leif Erickson) reveals to the sheriff that she is a ‘mulatto’ married to a white man and therefore guilty of miscegenation.

Captain Andy Hawks (Joe E Brown) gives his daughter Magnolia (Kathryn Grayson) the leading role and finds her a partner in local gambler Gaylord Revenal (Howard Keel). They fall in love, marry and move to Chicago. Mahin then considerably tightened the plot by having Revenal leave his pregnant wife and by having Magnolia return to the showboat after singing at the Trocadero on New Year’s Eve. And he also brings back Julie, who serves to effect a reunion between Revenal and his wife and child…

Keel and Grayson were in splendid voice and, said Monthly Film Bulletin, Keel has ‘the dashing carefree charm needed for the part.’ Brown, who had served as Edna Ferber’s inspiration for Cap’n Andy, ‘ably tackles the role,’ wrote Variety, adding ‘Agnes Moorehead was a happy choice to play his wife.’

There were contributions, too, from Gardner (whose songs were dubbed by Annette Warren), William Warfield, who sang the classic Ol’ Man River, Robert Sterling and, memorably, dancers Marge and Gower Champion, who scored notable successes with their dance numbers I Might Fall Back on You and Life Upon the Wicked Stage, inventively choreographed by Robert Alton. Conrad Salinger and Adolph Deutsch’s musical direction added to the impact of the tuneful score and they were deservedly rewarded with an Academy Award nomination while another went to Charles Rosher for his beautiful colour cinematography.

production details
USA | MGM | 107 minutes | 1951
Director: George Sidney
Script: John Lee Mahin and (uncredited) George Wells, Jack McGowan, from the musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II,

Howard Keel as Gaylord Ravenal
Kathryn Grayson as Magnolia Hawks
Ava Gardner as Julie LaVerne
Joe E. Brown as Cap’n Andy Hawks
Marge Champion as Ellie May Shipley
Gower Champion as Frank Schultz
Robert Sterling as Steven Baker
Agnes Moorehead as Parthy Hawks
Bess Flowers as Racetrack spectator
Leif Erickson as Pete
William Warfield as Joe
Linda Christian as Chorus Girl (uncredited)
Adele Jergens as Cameo McQueen (uncredited)
Anna Q. Nilsson as Seamstress (uncredited)
Bert Roach as Drunk (uncredited)
Regis Toomey as Sheriff Ike Vallon (uncredited)