Show Boat (1951 film)

Show Boat is a 1951 American musical romantic comedy-drama film, based on the stage musical of the same name by Jerome Kern (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (script and lyrics), and the 1926 novel by Edna Ferber. It was made by MGM, adapted for the screen by John Lee Mahin, produced by Arthur Freed and directed by George Sidney.

Show Boat
French film poster
Directed byGeorge Sidney
Produced byArthur Freed
Screenplay byJohn Lee Mahin
Based onShow Boat
by Edna Ferber
Show Boat
by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II
StarringKathryn Grayson
Ava Gardner
Howard Keel
Joe E. Brown
Marge Champion
Gower Champion
Agnes Moorehead
William Warfield
Music byJerome Kern
CinematographyCharles Rosher
Edited byJohn D. Dunning
Distributed byMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date
September 24, 1951[1]
Running time
107 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$7,621,000[2]

Filmed previously in 1929 and in 1936, this third adaptation of Show Boat was shot in Technicolor in the typical MGM lavish style. The film stars Kathryn Grayson, Ava Gardner, and Howard Keel, with Joe E. Brown, Marge Champion, Gower Champion, William Warfield, Robert Sterling, Agnes Moorehead and Leif Erickson. Unlike the 1936 film, none of the members of the original Broadway cast of the show appeared in this version.

The 1951 Show Boat was the most financially successful of the film adaptations of the show: one of MGM's most popular musicals, it was the third-most profitable film of that year.


The basic plot remains the same as in the stage play and the 1936 film version. When the Cotton Blossom, Cap'n Andy Hawks's show boat, arrives in a Mississippi town to give a performance, a fistfight breaks out between leading man Steve Baker (Robert Sterling) and Pete (Leif Erickson), the boat's engineer who has been making passes at Steve's wife, leading lady Julie La Verne (Ava Gardner). Cap'n Andy (Joe E. Brown) pretends to the assembled crowd that the two were really previewing a scene from one of the boat's melodramas. But Pete knows a dark secret about Julie, and he runs off to tell the local sheriff.

Riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Howard Keel) has gambled away a boat ticket, so he drops by the Cotton Blossom pretending to be an actor so that he can get passage on the boat, but is rejected. However, he meets Magnolia (Kathryn Grayson), the captain's 18-year-old daughter, and the two are instantly smitten.

That night, during the performance of an olio on the show boat, Pete shows up with the town sheriff (Regis Toomey). But when Julie and Steve hear that the sheriff is coming to arrest them, Steve takes a sewing pin, pricks Julie's finger, and sucks blood from it. The Sheriff enters and announces that there is a case of miscegenation on board, a negro woman married to a white man, which is illegal. Julie is the woman, and Steve is the man. Julie admits that she is part negro, but Steve, having sucked some of Julie's blood, tells a misleading truth by stating that he also has negro blood in him. Pete is fired by Cap'n Andy. However, Julie and Steve must still leave the acting company—blacks were not allowed onstage alongside whites in the South of the 1880s.

After Magnolia, who is Julie's best friend, tearfully says goodbye to her, she and Steve leave the company. Ravenal shows up and offers help. This time, Cap'n Andy takes him on, makes him the acting company's new leading man, and makes Magnolia the new leading lady, over the strong objections of his wife Parthy (Agnes Moorehead), who is also Magnolia's mother. Within a matter of weeks, Magnolia and Ravenal are a hit on the river and have fallen in love. They become engaged, marry (in this version, the wedding celebration is not shown), and move to Chicago, where they live off Ravenal's gambling winnings. A year passes and Ravenal loses all his money gambling. After he goes broke, Magnolia (unlike in the stage original and the 1936 film) tells him off for being so obsessed with gambling. Feeling guilty after Magnolia's tirade, Ravenal walks out on her.

Ellie Shipley and Frank Schultz (Marge and Gower Champion), the dance team on the show boat, suddenly show up in Chicago, having also left the boat and been booked into a nightclub called the Trocadero. They take Magnolia to audition there, but before she arrives, we see that the club already has a singer. It is Julie, who has become a hopeless alcoholic now that Steve has left her. From her dressing room, she overhears Magnolia audition, learns from the nightclub manager that Ravenal deserted her, and silently quits so that he will have no choice but to hire Magnolia. On the night of her debut, Cap'n Andy arrives to visit and ends up at the nightclub, where he gives Magnolia confidence after she experiences stage fright. Here, the plot changes drastically from the stage original and the 1936 film: Magnolia not only tells Cap'n Andy what has happened, but reveals that she is pregnant with Ravenal's child. She did not have the heart to tell Ravenal because of their financial situation, and she returns to the show boat with Cap'n Andy, where she gives birth to a daughter, Kim.

About five years pass. Ravenal is gambling on board a packet boat, on which a drunken Julie is trying to sing. After punching her escort because he slapped Julie, Ravenal goes out on deck. Julie, who has been keeping track of Magnolia, finds out who Ravenal is, and not realizing that he knew nothing of Magnolia's pregnancy, tells him off. Ravenal is overcome with guilt and returns to the show boat the next day, where he meets his little daughter Kim (Sheila Clark) for the first time and returns to Magnolia, with whom he is reconciled.

As Ravenal and Magnolia walk back onto the boat, the stevedore Joe begins his reprise of "Ol' Man River" and Cap'n Andy and Parthy embrace. On the dock, Julie emerges out of the shadows, and blows a kiss towards Magnolia as the ship sails to its next destination.


For the 1951 Show Boat, Oscar Hammerstein II's dialogue was almost completely thrown out and new dialogue written by John Lee Mahin. The only two scenes to retain more than a tiny bit of Hammerstein's dialogue were the early scene in which Cap'n Andy introduces the show boat actors to the crowd, and the miscegenation scene, in which Julie (Ava Gardner) is revealed to be of mixed blood and therefore illegally married to a white man.

The story was given a major overhaul near the end of the film and the changes are considered to make this version of the story quite distinct from other versions. Changes included keeping the characters of Magnolia and Gaylord significantly younger at the end than in the play, and the expansion of the role of Julie to give her character greater depth. In all stage productions as well as the 1936 film version, Julie disappears completely from the story after overhearing Magnolia audition at the Trocadero nightclub in Chicago. In the 1951 version, Julie is the one who motivates Ravenal to return to Magnolia, and she is also the very last character we see: she is shown watching the show boat as it pulls away from the dock, with Magnolia and Ravenal onboard and back together; they are unaware of her presence on the dock, and she blows them a kiss. Kim (Magnolia and Ravenal's daughter) appears only as a baby and a little girl in this version.

Nearly all of the purely comic scenes, retained in the 1936 film version, were removed in the 1951 film, as much of the comedy in the show has no direct bearing on the plot. According to William Bayer's book The Great Movies, producer Arthur Freed maintained a strict policy of removing everything in the musicals that he produced if it did not advance the storyline. Two additional comic moments not in the show, both involving the African-American characters Joe and Queenie, had been added to the 1936 film and might be considered politically incorrect today. They were not used in the 1951 film. This pruning left Joe E. Brown (as Cap'n Andy) and Agnes Moorehead (as Parthy) with far less to do than they would otherwise have had, and turned the characters of Frank and Ellie (played by Gower and Marge Champion) into a relatively serious song-and-dance team rather than a comic team who happened to dance. Frank and Ellie, rather than being portrayed as unsophisticated, barely talented "hoofers" as in the show, were made into a rather debonair, sophisticated, and extremely talented couple in the style of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

The role of ship's pilot Windy McClain, already brief to begin with, was reduced to just three lines in the film. (In the 1951 Show Boat, it is Magnolia, not Windy, who defends Julie and her husband Steve when the sheriff arrives to arrest them.)

The character "Rubber Face" Smith, a comic stagehand, was eliminated from the 1951 film.

The role of Sheriff Ike Vallon, already a small one, is even further reduced. In the 1951 film, he appears only in the miscegenation sequence, while in the original stage production, and especially in the 1936 film, he appears several times: he is among the crowd at the beginning when Cap'n Andy introduces his troupe of actors to them, he returns to escort Ravenal to see the town judge, he is seen relaxing inside a saloon where he is informed of Julie's mixed blood, he appears during the miscegenation sequence when he tries to arrest Julie and Steve, and he appears again when Parthy tries to stop the wedding of her daughter Magnolia to Ravenal.

The version of "Ol' Man River" heard here, and sung by William Warfield, is considered by film historians to be by far the best moment, both musically and pictorially, in the film. Musical theatre historian Miles Kreuger, who had many harsh words for the 1951 Show Boat in his 1977 book Show Boat: The History of a Classic American Musical nevertheless had nothing but high praise for this sequence. It was staged and directed by an uncredited Roger Edens during an illness of George Sidney, who directed the rest of the film. However, the "Ol' Man River" sequence in the 1936 film version, with its tracking pan around the seated, singing figure of Paul Robeson, and its expressionistic montages of field and dock workers performing their tasks, is perhaps even more highly regarded.

According to Kreuger, one glaringly unrealistic aspect of the 1951 film was the designing of the show boat itself as a huge, luxurious paddlewheeler with giant twin smokestacks. Real showboats were simply rectangular-shaped structures that could not move under their own power, and were pushed along by the misleadingly named towboats which were fastened to the back of the crafts. Krueger stated in his book that a nineteenth-century show boat, if designed as a paddlewheeler, would need to have placed its furnace in the middle of its auditorium.

The aspects of the original stage version dealing with racial inequality, especially the story line concerning miscegenation, were highly "sanitized" and deemphasized in the 1951 film, although the interracial subplot was retained:

  • During the miscegenation scene (in which Julie's husband is supposed to suck blood from her hand so that he can truthfully claim that he has "Negro" blood in him), he is seen pricking her finger with what looks like a sewing pin, rather than using an ominous-looking switchblade, as in the play and the 1936 film, to cut her hand with.
  • The role of Queenie, the black cook (an uncredited Frances E. Williams), has been reduced to literally a bit part, and she practically disappears from the story after the first ten minutes, unlike the character in all stage versions and Hattie McDaniel in the 1936 film version. The role of Joe the stevedore (played by the then-unknown William Warfield) is also substantially reduced in the 1951 film, especially in comparison to Paul Robeson, whose screen time playing the same role in the 1936 film had been markedly increased because he was by that time a major star.
  • In the 1936 version of Show Boat, as well as the stage version, Queenie remarks that it is strange to hear Julie singing "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" because only black people know the song, thereby foreshadowing the revelation of Julie's mixed blood. This remark is completely left out of the MGM version, as is the term "colored folks", which Queenie uses.
  • Some of the more controversial lines of the song "Ol' Man River" (one of them being "Don't look up and don't look down; you don't dast make the white boss frown") are no longer heard, and Queenie and Joe do not sing their section of "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man", as they do in all stage versions and in the 1936 film.
  • There is no African-American chorus in the 1951 version, and the levee workers are not seen nearly as much in the 1951 film as in the 1936 one. An offscreen, "disembodied" chorus is heard during "Ol' Man River", instead of the usual group of dock workers who are supposed to accompany stevedore Joe in the song. The same type of chorus is heard later in a choral reprise of "Make Believe", accompanying a montage which shows the increasing success of Magnolia and Ravenal as actors on the boat, and again at the end of the movie, in Warfield's final reprise of "Ol' Man River".

The film also somewhat sanitized the character of Gaylord Ravenal, the riverboat gambler. In the Ferber novel, the original show, and the 1936 film, Ravenal can stay in town for only 24 hours because he once killed a man in self-defense—this is the reason that Vallon takes him to see the town judge, and the reason that Ravenal asks for passage on the show boat. This point was eliminated from the 1951 film, and the reason that Ravenal asks if the show boat will take him on is that he has lost his boat ticket through gambling. In the 1951 film, when Ravenal deserts Magnolia, he does not know she is pregnant, and returns when he finds out that she has had a child, while in the Ferber novel, the original show, the 1929 part-talkie film, and the 1936 film, he not only knows that she has had a baby, but deserts her several years after the baby has been born, knowing that she will probably have to raise the child alone.

The 1951 movie is also extremely glossy, smoothing over the poverty depicted more tellingly in the 1936 version, and despite some (brief) actual location shooting (primarily in the shots of townspeople reacting to the show boat's arrival), the film does not give a very strong feeling of authenticity. The arrival of the boat was achieved by blending backlot footage showing the boat pulling in with location shots of crowds running along the bank of the real Mississippi River. (For backlot shooting, the lake used in filming MGM's Tarzan films stood in for the Mississippi River, while the real Mississippi was seen during the film's opening credits and in the shots of the crowd running toward the river. The show boat itself was never on the real Mississippi, and "Ol' Man River" was shot entirely in the studio backlot.) Lena Horne was originally to have played Julie (after Dinah Shore and Judy Garland were passed over) as she had in the brief segment of the play featured in the 1946 Jerome Kern biopic Till the Clouds Roll By. But studio executives were nervous about casting a glamorous black actress in one of the lead roles, so Gardner was chosen instead. After some unfavorable sneak previews using her real voice in her songs, Gardner's singing voice was dubbed by vocalist Annette Warren; her original rendition of one of the musical numbers appeared in the compilation film That's Entertainment! III and is considered by some to be superior to the version used in the film. Gardner's vocals were included on the soundtrack album for the movie, and in an autobiography written not long before her death, Gardner reported she was still receiving royalties from the release.

Eleven numbers from the stage score were sung in this film. As in all productions of the musical, the song "After the Ball" was again interpolated into the story, but "Goodbye My Lady Love", another regular interpolation into the show, was omitted from this film version. Although the songs "Why Do I Love You?" and "Life Upon the Wicked Stage" were actually performed in the 1951 film after having been heard only instrumentally in the 1936 film, there were still several major musical differences from the original play in this Technicolor version:

  • The opening song, "Cotton Blossom", rather than being sung by the black chorus and by the townspeople who witness the show boat's arrival, was sung by a group of singers and dancers in flashy costumes dancing out of the boat. This required the omission of half the song, plus a small change in the song's remaining lyrics.
  • "Ol' Man River", instead of being sung just a few minutes after "Make Believe", was moved to a later scene taking place in the pre-dawn early morning, in which Joe sadly watches Julie and her husband leave the boat because of their interracial marriage. Thus, the song became Joe's reaction to this event. In the 1951 version, it is sung only twice, rather than being sung complete once and then partially reprised several times throughout the story, as in the play and the 1936 film.
  • Because of the reduction of both Joe and Queenie's roles, as well as the absence of an African-American chorus, "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" became a song for only Julie and Magnolia, while the deckhands relaxing on the boat provided their own instrumental accompaniment, but did not sing.
  • "Life Upon the Wicked Stage", rather than being sung by Ellie to a group of worshipful fans curious about stage life, was moved to the New Year's Eve scene at the Trocadero nightclub, to be sung and danced by Ellie and Frank in the spot in which the two are originally supposed to sing "Goodbye My Lady Love".
  • The little-known song "I Might Fall Back On You", another duet for Ellie and Frank, was sung as a number on the stage of the show boat, instead of as a "character song" for the two to sing outside the box office, as originally written.
  • Another little-known song, "C'mon Folks", originally sung by Queenie in the stage version in order to get the dock workers and their girlfriends to buy tickets to the play being presented on the boat, was turned into instrumental music for acrobats, seen in the background while Cap'n Andy chats with the three "cuties" that have accompanied him to the Trocadero New Year's Eve celebration.
  • "Make Believe" is reprised by Ravenal when he returns at the end, rather than when he is saying farewell to his daughter just before he deserts her and Magnolia.
  • The "Cakewalk", usually performed at the end of Act I by the black workers and the townspeople as part of the wedding ceremony, was instead performed twice in this film—once by Frank and Ellie on the show boat's stage while the "miscegenation sequence" is taking place backstage, and near the end of the film as a dance on that same stage for Cap'n Andy and his four-year-old granddaughter, Kim Ravenal.

The three additional songs that Kern and Hammerstein wrote especially for the 1936 film version were not used in the 1951 film.


(credited cast only)

Sheila Clark, who played Kim,[3] Frances E. Williams, who played Queenie,[3] Regis Toomey, who played Sheriff Ike Vallon,[3] Emory Parnell, who played Jake Green, the Trocadero nightclub manager,[3] and Owen McGiveney, who played Windy,[3] were not billed either in the film or in poster advertising for it.[4]


According to George Sidney, MGM executives wanted Dinah Shore to play Julie. Sidney tested Shore but she "wasn't right" according to the director. So he tested Ava Gardner miming to a Lena Horne track and Gardner was cast.[5]


Contemporary reviews were positive. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote a rave review, calling the film "so magnificent in so many ways" that it put the 1936 version "in the shade," for no previous screen version of the stage musical had ever been presented "in anything like the visual splendor and richness of musical score as are tastefully brought together in this brilliant re-creation of the show."[6] Variety wrote that the film "takes to Technicolor with an accord that makes it seem no other treatment would be possible. Freed has dealt out his physical production values with a lavish and elegant hand, dressing the presentation with a sight appeal in keeping with the tune worth, and they have been brilliantly captured on film by Charles Rosher's cameras."[7] Harrison's Reports called it "excellent ... It has been filmed twice before, but the color photography makes this version far superior."[8] Richard L. Coe of The Washington Post wrote, "Old 'Show Boat' fans will admire this immensely and new ones will be won for what has been one of the most satisfying of our musical plays."[9] John McCarten of The New Yorker wrote that "it will do for a summer's evening," but thought that only William Warfield measured up to any cast members of previous versions and that the other players on hand were "unobjectionable but hardly praiseworthy."[10] The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote, "Although the musical numbers retain their original appeal, they are, in most cases, executed without much imagination or charm. Kathryn Grayson makes an indifferent Magnolia, Ava Gardner a bewildered and, at times, ludicrously over-empathic Julie. Only Howard Keel among the principal players suggests the dashing carefree charm needed for the part."[11]

The film was a commercial success. During its initial theatrical run it earned $5,293,000 in the US and Canada and $2,328,000 in the rest of the world, resulting in a profit of $2,337,000.[2]


The film was first telecast on January 3, 1972, on The NBC Monday Movie. This marked the first time any production of Show Boat was telecast, with the exception of an experimental telecast in 1931 of a scene from the 1929 film version. NBC repeated the film on Saturday June 17, 1972. Several years later, the film went to CBS, where it appeared twice as a holiday offering on The CBS Late Movie. From there the film went to local stations and then to cable.

Radio adaptation

Show Boat was presented on Lux Radio Theatre on February 11, 1952. The one-hour adaptation starred Ava Gardner, Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel, William Warfield, Marge Champion and Gower Champion.[12]


(songs and incidental music)

  • Main Title — MGM Studio Orchestra and Chorus ("Cotton Blossom" and an instrumental version of "Make Believe")
  • "Cotton Blossom" — Cotton Blossom Singers and Dancers
  • "Capt' Andy's Ballyhoo" — danced by Marge and Gower Champion (MGM Studio Orchestra)
  • "Where's the Mate for Me" — Howard Keel
  • "Make Believe" — Kathryn Grayson / Howard Keel
  • "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" — Ava Gardner
  • "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" (Reprise #1) — Kathryn Grayson / Ava Gardner
  • "I Might Fall Back On You" — Marge and Gower Champion
  • Julie Leaves the Boat ("Mis'ry's Comin' Round" — partial) - MGM Studio Orchestra and Chorus
  • "Ol' Man River" — William Warfield and MGM chorus
  • Montage sequence ("Make Believe") — MGM Studio Orchestra and Chorus
  • "You Are Love" — Kathryn Grayson / Howard Keel
  • "Why Do I Love You" — Kathryn Grayson / Howard Keel
  • "Bill" — Ava Gardner
  • "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" (Reprise #2) — Kathryn Grayson
  • "Life Upon the Wicked Stage" — Marge and Gower Champion
  • "After the Ball" — Kathryn Grayson
  • "Cakewalk" — danced by Joe E. Brown and Sheila Clark (MGM Studio Orchestra)
  • "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" — (partial reprise by Ava Gardner, using her real singing voice)
  • "Make Believe" (Reprise) — Howard Keel
  • Finale: "Ol' Man River" (Reprise) — William Warfield / MGM Chorus

Rhino Music soundtrack album listing

Awards and honors

Award Date of ceremony Category Recipients and nominees Result
Academy Awards March 20, 1952 Best Cinematography, Color Charles Rosher Nominated
Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture Conrad Salinger and Adolph Deutsch Nominated

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:

Home media

As of 2014, this and the 1936 version are the only film versions of Show Boat to have been officially released on DVD. Warner Home Video, which owns the rights to all three film versions of Show Boat, said it would release in 2007 a three-disc DVD release of all three film versions, but this still has not come to pass as of June 2016.[15] A three-film laserdisc version was released by MGM/UA, while the 1936 film was released on Laserdisc through The Criterion Collection.[16]

See also


  1. "Show Boat - Details". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. Retrieved June 20, 2018.
  2. The Eddie Mannix Ledger, Los Angeles: Margaret Herrick Library, Center for Motion Picture Study.
  3. Video on YouTube
  4. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-09-05. Retrieved 2012-08-01.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  5. Davis, Ronald L. (2005). Just Making Movies. University Press of Mississippi. p. 74.
  6. Crowther, Bosley (July 20, 1951). "The Screen: A Musical Favorite At Radio City". The New York Times: 14.
  7. "Show Boat". Variety: 6. June 6, 1951.
  8. "'Showboat' with Kathryn Grayson, Ava Gardner, Howard Keel and Joe E. Brown". Harrison's Reports: 91. June 9, 1951.
  9. Coe, Richard L. (July 13, 1951). "Show Boat Keeps Rollin' Beautifully". The Washington Post: C5.
  10. McCarten, John (July 28, 1951). "The Current Cinema": 73–74. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  11. "Show Boat". The Monthly Film Bulletin. 18 (210): 294. July 1951.
  12. Kirby, Walter (February 10, 1952). "Better Radio Programs for the Week". The Decatur Daily Review. p. 38. Archived from the original on June 6, 2015. Retrieved June 2, 2015 via
  13. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs Nominees" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 2015-04-17. Retrieved 2016-08-13.
  14. "AFI's Greatest Movie Musicals Nominees" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 2016-06-24. Retrieved 2016-08-13.
  15. Hutchinson, Ron, ed. (Summer–Fall 2005). "1929 Showboat [sic] Discs Found". The Vitatphone Project / Vitaphone News. Archived from the original on April 1, 2012. Retrieved August 14, 2012.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  16. "Show Boat". Archived from the original on 6 July 2017. Retrieved 27 April 2018.

Further reading

Kreuger, Miles: Show Boat: The Story of a Classic American Musical (Oxford, 1977)

  • Monder, Eric (1994). George Sidney:a Bio-Bibliography. Greenwood Press. ISBN 9780313284571.
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