The film Show Boat (James Whale, 1936) is one of many different renditions of Edna Ferber’s melodramatic novel Show Boat, which was also made into several different stage plays. This particular rendition is progressive on the issues of race and racial equality. However, Show Boat is not purely progressive; it represents progressive ideas in a repressed manner, which it probably had to be because of the production code. But the film still managed to point out inequalities that took place not only between the blacks and the whites, but also briefly on the political side between Confederates and Unionists.
The acting in Show Boat is very over the top and exaggerated, however it still manages to be realistic through its backstage approach. This type of dramatized over the top acting is one of the elements of melodrama and it helps to express the feelings of the characters. The backstage approach also allows a maximum amount of songs without any narrative explanation. The actual on stage moments are more exaggerated than the narrative action of the film The on stage acting works as a frame in order to make the backstage acting seem more realistic than the onstage acting and thus more believable as real life. It is important for the audience to see the film as realistic in order to be able to acknowledge the important social and political ideas that are being brought forth in the films narrative action.
One of the most striking and most progressive moments in the film is in the scene where the leading lady of the stage, Julie La Verne (Helen Morgan), and her husband who is the leading man on stage, Steve Baker (Donald Cook), get accused of miscegenation. Before the sheriff enters the scene, Steve takes a knife and drinks some of Julie’s blood, thus getting ‘black blood’ in himself. Then when the sheriff accuses him of violating the miscegenation law he simply tells the sheriff that he has black blood in him, and everyone in the scene has to agree. This scene is very progressive for the time because it was very rare to see a couple of mixed race on the silver screen and even more rare that they would outsmart the laws put in place by the U.S. government. However, regardless of their wit Julie and Steve are still banished from the Show Boat, and they are promptly replaced by a more socially acceptable leading couple, Magnolia Hawks (Irene Dunne), and Gaylord Ravenal (Allan Jones).
Many of the racially progressive moments in the film are quickly masked by regressive images. One example of this can be seen in the mixed race character, Julie, who is the lead in a show where all of the other characters are white. This was extremely uncommon in stage shows of the time and so in that respect it is progressive. Julie also tragically undergoes the pain and inequality of being a mulatta woman who doesn’t fit in with the blacks or with the whites. This is a progressive idea especially in the way that the songs that Julie sings, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man ah Mine,” allows the audience to sympathize with her. Many films of this time would not choose a black or mixed race character for the audience to sympathize with. Show Boat tricks the audience into sympathizing with a mixed race character because the audience is not yet aware that Julie’s character is of mixed race. However, the progressive images of a mixed race cast are quickly replaced by a more socially acceptable image of an all white cast. Julie is constantly being replaced by Magnolia a white woman, who loved Julie like a sister. Julie is first replaced by Magnolia when she and Steve are banished from the ship, and then later Julie flees from her diva night club job so that Magnolia can take her place in the show. In this particular scene Julie’s suffering body is represented through her song “Bill.” Julie’s husband has left her and she has taken up drinking and smoking and also seems as if Julie has accepted her fate as a woman of mixed race and allows the white Magnolia to replace her.
Another important racial issue that is brought up quite often in melodramas is the idea of passing, or pretending to be something that you’re not. Most films, like Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959), show one particular type of passing, a light skinned African American woman passes as white. This is the case with Julie in Show Boat and with Janie in Imitation of Life. Both Julie and Janie are punished for their passing; Julie by losing her job and Janie by losing her mother. Another popular type of passing that is often depicted on stage and in films is black face, a white person who wears black face paint and exaggerated pink lips and acts in an exaggerated and usually ridiculous fashion. This is the case with Magnolia as she performs her song “Gallivantin’ Around” on the Show Boat. However, Show Boat contains a third and very rare type of passing and that is a white person who passes as an African American person. This is the case with Steve’s character when the sheriff arrives onboard. The three cases of passing add to the melodramatic plot because Julie passed from a lower to a higher class in order to have a better life, Magnolia acted like she was in a lower class for entertainment and monetary purposes, but Steve passes from a higher class to a lower class and his only reasoning was his love for his wife Julie.
There is also a small portion of the film that is dedicated to portraying the politics of the time. This is the scene where the two Confederates from the hills come bumbling down to the ticket window to buy tickets to see their first show. It is implied that the crew of the Show Boat are Unionists because the ticket master seems startled to see Confederate money. The two Confederate characters are portrayed as being big dumb country bumpkins who would fight over anything. Their lack of education and willingness to fight is later reiterated when they are at the show and not only talk to the actors while they are in the middle of the show, but also threaten to shoot the villain if he does not leave the damsel in distress, Magnolia, alone. This film is definitely pro-Union as it portrays Confederates in a dim way. The anti-Confederate sentiments stand out as a real political message because it is framed by the extremely an over-exaggerated acting style of the characters that are actually on the stage of the Show Boat.
Show Boat, unlike other melodramas, is quite tricky when it comes to the villain. During the first segment it seems like Pete is the villain because he is the one who tipped off the sheriff that Julie was of mixed race and married to a white man. But later in the film Pete redeems himself by writing a letter to Magnolia’s mother, Parthy Hawks (Helen Westley), in order to warn her that Gaylord is a murderer. The film is however very clear that Magnolia is the innocent character. She never really does anything, she just follows along and things just fall in her lap. Gay puts himself in the position to meet her, he arranges their meetings on the roof, he convinces her and her father that they should be married and ultimately he leaves her when the money is all gone. Magnolia also said that she wanted to be an actress, but she did nothing to get herself there; her first job was out of her fathers desperation when Julie was kicked off the boat, Frank brought her to her second job, and she only got her second job because Julie quit so that Magnolia would get her job. The innocent character is always the one who is acted upon and that’s exactly what happens to Magnolia throughout the entire film.
James Whale’s 1936 Show Boat is a great example of a backstage melodrama with a progressive attitude about race. However, the progressive attitude is hidden mostly by regressive images that fit the ideals that the production code would have wanted to up hold in films that it approved. The excessively exaggerated acting, the clarity of the innocent character and the musical numbers are all melodramatic conventions that are used in Show Boat. James Whale did an excellent job of getting his realistic political and social messages across to the audience through his secondary characters, and he also was able to make a grand statement on miscegenation and passing.