Saturday, September 29, 2012

Sauced Silverscreen: Show Boat (1951) & Guinness Draught

Okay, this is becoming a thing, so I'm just going to make it an official feature. Welcome to Sauced Silverscreen. This is where I watch a movie, usually made prior to 1990 (not always), while drinking and provide you a synopsis, usually snarky. Tonight's feature is the 1951 musical, Show Boat.

Funny story. I recorded the 1936 version of this movie (which is based on a stage production) and then erased it when it was not the 1951 version I was expecting. As it turns out, these two versions are incredibly different. The 1936 film is closer to the stage, darker, but certain roles are expanded in the 1951 production. So, now that I've erased it, I have to go back and find it to compare the two. So, this will be the first installment of Showboat.

I knew almost entirely nothing about this film going in. I knew it included an Antebellum Mississippi river boat, named the Cotton Blossom, the song Ol' Man River, and an opening scene with the chorus all decked out on the front of the boat as it pulls into port. Beyond that, such as characters or plot, not a clue. I figured there'd probably be racism. It is the South before...well, now.

The film opens with a little boy, fishing on the Missassippi, spotting the Cotton Blossom in the distance. He runs to tell the workers in the field, who then tell the people in the river town, who then tell the women of ill-repute in the whore house, who then tell the fancy folk at the plantation and everyone comes running to the docks to meet the show boat. There's calliope music, so we're off to a good start. As the Cotton Blossom pulls into port, we're treated to the iconic scene mentioned earier, the whole chorus ranged across the front of the boat in bright colors, singing and playing tambourines. Check that ya'll, I am immediatly ready to run away and join this floating carnival. Pretty colorful dresses AND tambourines? I'm in!

Captain Trumpet (AKA Osgood from Some Like it Hot) (the actual name is Captain Andy Hawks, but we're sticking with Captain Trumpet) is the owner/operator of the Cotton Blossom and introduces us to our main characters:
Miss Ellie and her beau Frank, who are obviously only here to provide the dancing.

And lead dramatic actress, Julie (Ava Gardner) and her lead dramatic actor husband, Steve, who isn't actually important.

Agnes Moorehead plays Captain Trumpet's spinstery and exacting wife, as she is so good at doing.
That sneer is the happiest Agnes Moorehead will be in this film.
  As the show boat is giving a taste of their wares, a dirty Deck Hand makes a pass at Julie. Deck Hand and Steve get into a skirmish, which is passed off as part of the show, and the Deck Hand heads off to town grumbling and malcontent.

And now, Ladies and Gentlemen, our real hero, Howard Keel, in the role of Gaylord Ravenal, a traveling gambler currently down on his luck.

Gaylord is stuck in podunkville and is trying to make his way to New Orleans. He inquires at the Cotton Blossom if he can hitch a ride but the cast are all in town passing out handbills. While he waits, Gaylord comes upon his leading lady and love interest, Magnolia (Kathryn Grayson).

The daughter of Captain Trumpet and Agnes Moorehead, Magnolia wants to be an actress and is in the midst of a soliloquy when Gaylord meets her. They immediately fall in love and sing a song about pretending to be in love, Make Believe. I do love me some Howard Keel singing, his voice is rich and resonant but Kathryn Grayson wince. She's so...trilly. Ah geez, this is a classic example of what Spamalot means by The Song That Goes Like This.

They are singing at each other so hard.

Anyway, when Captain Trumpet gets back, Gaylord asks to join the company but is told they have no parts available and he goes on his way. Meanwhile, we learn that the trouble between Steve and Deck Hand is not new but Juie insists Steve let it rest, especially in this town. Something is afoot. We also learn that Magnolia totally worships Julie, looking up to her as an older sister.

I've never really seen Ava Gardner in action. I know her best as long time mistress of Frank Sinatra and the reason Peter Lawford was kicked out of the Rat Pack. So, I was eager to see her in an actual film. She is stunning. Not only is she obviously gorgeous and downright sexy, but she just has a beautiful, velvety voice. This white girl has soul. We'll find out later that she can act too, not just carry off a part but really elicit emotion. I loved one of her warnings for Magnolia: "River dandies are thick as locusts, Angel."

Throughout this day, yes, it's still that same day, we're given little hints that not everything is Kosher with Julie. Everyone starts that infamous sentence, "She's just a..." but never finishes. Hussy? Whore? No one's saying.

Opening night, Ellie and Frank are on stage, dancing. The rest of the troupe is waiting in the wings, clearly visible to the audience and talking in normal voices. Wow, for people in show business you all have terrible stage presence. Look, if you can see the audience, they can see you. And they can, sure as hell, hear you talking. Back stage, Julie has been warned that Deck Hand (remember him from this morning?) has brought the Sheriff to arrest her. In the brief moments before his arrival, Steve takes Julie's brooch, pricks her finger, and drinks her blood. It's weird and I was horrified but it'll make sense in a minute. It turns out Julie is half black, her father was white and her mother was black. Seeing as she is married to Steve, a white man, the crime of miscegenation has been propogated. (Me: Well, no wonder Julie can sing such soul.) Steve asks the Sheriff is he would call a man 'white' who had mixed blood and the Sheriff responds no, in this county, one drop of black blood constitues being all black. Steve, having drank Julie's blood, says with perfect honesty that he has black blood in him, more than a drop, and everyone in the room can testify. Deck Hand and the Sheriff, not privy to the vampiric moment, are left without a leg to stand on. Well done, Steve. Clever.

Captain Trumpet fires Deck Hand and the Sheriff, though he cannot fault Steve and Julie for being married, orders the show closed down and to move on. Miscegenation may not have been committed, as far as the Sheriff knows, but it will be a scandal for two white-looking, black actors to be the leads of the production. Captain Trumpet decides they'll sail but, before they do, Steve & Julie decide to disembark. I actually am not sure why they leave. Captain Trumpet does not fire them. Maybe this isn't the first town where this has been a problem. Anyhow, in the misty midnight hours, Steve & Julie bid sad farewells to their show boat family and depart. In lament, Joe, one of the black deck hands (who has a much bigger role in the other adaptations I understand), sings Ol' Man River. As the boat is pulling away, Gaylord arrives on the shore, having heard that there may be an opening for a male lead. He is welcomed aboard.

But who will play Gaylord's leading lady? They're miles from New Orleans and it would be such a shame to miss all those opportunities to make money in the river towns. Well, what about Magnolia? Sure, she's green and her mother is opposed but it's just until they get to New Olreans and can hire a new songstress. Gaylord and Magnolia are a smash together but their acting requires them to kiss. Agnes Moorehead, prickly and pedantic, sees to it that it is a mere peck, no need for funny business. Until one night, Oh noes! Ellie's costume has ripped and she goes on just after Magnolia and Gaylord's scene! It has to be fixed, right away! Gaylord thanks Ellie for her invervention and takes the opportunity.

They kiss on stage and then they kiss off stage and then, one night, Mom and Dad catch them kissing and Gaylord proposes. Agnes Moorehead is entirely opposed, and she's all "He's a low and common gambler." And Gaylord's like 'Yes, Ma'am, I am but I love her." And Agnes Moorehead is all, "And what about you? Do you want to be with him?" And then Magnolia's like, "Hells to the yes." And then Agnes Moorehead is like "Well fine! But I never want to see you again!" And then Captain Trumpet is like, "Son, I hope it's not just Saturday night and a cold Monday morning to follow." Which is like, the best line of the movie.

Aw crap, Grayson is singing again. I'm going for popcorn. Let me know when she's done.

Magnolia hits a high note.

And I'm back. Oh, and now we're in Chicago. The newlyweds are puttin' on the ritz.
You can tell they're rich because they're wearing white.
They gamble, live at a fancy hotel, and buy pricey jewels. Then Gaylord starts losing. At first, it seems okay. They're losing but they're still happy and in love. Magnolia is a total sport, she keeps his spirits up when he loses and protects his image when they have to start selling things, like their hansom cab. But there's only so much one can do to sweeten a sour brew. They need money and badly. They're about to be evicted from their fancy hotel and are six weeks behind in rent. Magnolia tells Gaylord to pawn her jewels but he refuses. He'll be lucky again. Because that's totally how luck works, it comes exactly when you need it. So, Gaylord trots off to win money to pay their debts and ends up losing more. Shocker. In the end, he has to sell her jewels anyway to pay the debt that was supposed to pay the debt. They sneak out of the hotel in the early morning hours and take up residence in small, sparse rooms of greatly diminished means.
You can tell they're poor because they're wearing brown.
One night when Gaylord comes home from gambling, he finds Magnolia is distant and angry. She can't compete with Lady Luck. She'd know how to fight if it were another woman but she can't fight a phantom. Their fight is just a few days before Christmas and, when it's over, Magnolia goes out to pawn her fur coat. With the money from that she buys back Gaylord's lucky walking stick (he has one, just go with it) and a few other Christmas things. She goes home to find that the landlady is showing their rooms to a young couple just arrived in Chicago, Ellie and Frank, who have come to join a new show. But, while Magnolia was out, Gaylord has packed up and left, leaving a note and money to get her back to the Cotton Blossom. I felt for Magnolia so much in this moment. First her embarrassment at having Frank & Ellie see her in such a low state, when they were expecting to meet her again at fancy hotel, then to have them witness to her husband's abandonment. Blerg.

Unbeknownst to Ellie & Frank but knownst to us, it turns out the company Ellie & Frank are joining is also the company Julie is currently singing for. Since leaving the Cotton Blossom, Steve has left her and Julie has taken to drinking in response. Even singing "drunk", Gardner's voice is so much more pleasant than Grayson's.

Ellie and Frank drag Magnolia along to the show to have her try out. As Magnolia auditions with a song from the Cotton Blossom, Julie hears from her dressing room and recognizes her voice. Julie learns from a passing stragehand (wow, word travels fast) that this new girl needs a job because her two-bit, ne'er-do-well, gambling husband ran off and left her. Julie takes a stiffening drink and leaves the show; apparently just runs out into the street, laughing, and telling them to hire Magnolia instead (we don't get to see this moment dramatised, about which I am very miffed).

At New Year, Captain Trumpet arrives in Chicago to visit Magnolia and Gaylord, despite having never had a letter from them. We come upon Captain Trumpet drunk off his ass and escorting a handful of young women to Ellie & Frank's show. He looked for Magnolia at fancy hotel but they had gone and so he hopes Ellie &Frank will be able to tell him where Magnolia & Gaylord are staying. Poor Agnes Moorehead was left a home.

We get to enjoy another of Ellie & Frank's routines, this time Life Upon the Wicked Stage, which, while having absolutely nothing to do with the storyline, was my favorite number. Ellie reminds me of Frenchy from Grease.

Ellie & Frank are followed by the debut act of Magnolia Ravenal. She's nervous and meek and sucks.
And really, who wouldn't be nervous, dressed like that?

But Daddy, rapt with love, gets the crowded club to shush up long enough for Magnolia to get her feet and pull herself together. And, of course, the minute they hear her voice, they love her. God knows why. Captain Trumpet and Magnolia ring in the new year waltzing across the stage and afterward, in her dressing room, she tells Daddy that she's pregnant. She never told Gaylord, always waiting for things to get better, but he left thinking it would be better for her to go back to her family, since he couldn't care for her. And that's what she does; Magnolia goes back to the Cotton Blossom and gives birth to a baby girl, Kim, named so because she was born on the river, between Kentucky, Illinois, and Missouri. At this point, I wanted the movie to end. If it were a modern film, I imagine it would have but our heroine is not yet restored to her husband, so on we trudge for another half hour or so.

We're given snippets of alternating scenes from Gaylord and Kim's lives. Kim's first birthday (despite the fact that their child actor was definitely closer to three or four). Gaylord losing money, looking forlorn. Kim, a few years later, surrounded by family and friends on the Cotton Blossom. Gaylord winning money, looking forlorn. Kim learning to dance with her grandfather and holding her father's lucky cane. Gaylord drinking on a riverboat, looking forlorn. But! On this same riverboat is Julie, now a complete drunk and keeping ill company. She looks very much not together.

When she gives lip to her current sugar daddy, he slaps her and Gaylord knocks the lout out. Oh, I forgot though, they've never actually met, so it takes a bit of sleuthing for Julie to figure out that this is Magnolia's no-good, no-account husband. She goes to confront Gaylord and lets slip that Magnolia has a daughter. Gaylord is shocked and Julie's anger lessens when she realizes he didn't know Kim existed. Julie shows him a news clipping with a recent photo of Captain Trumpet, Magnolia, and Kim. Then Julie leaves, telling Gaylord that, if he sees Magnolia, not to tell her that he saw Julie like this.

This is where Gardner's acting really shone. I was delightfully surprised by the role of Julie, which is, I understand, expanded in this 1951 adaptation. She's complex and incredibly tragic. Gardner does an amazing job at capturing her sensuality, her earthiness, and her despair. Perhaps it is only in contrast to what might otherwise be a rather light and fluffy Hammerstein (minus Rodgers) musical but the poignancy of Julie's situation was very moving.

Gaylord catches up with the Cotton Blossom in Natchez and seeks out Kim. Together they Make Believe he's her father. It's a touching scene, I guess or, rather, is meant to be. I couldn't help thinking how it would be considered creepy and potentially dangerous in today's culture to approach a child and ask them to pretend you are their father, then sing to them. Even if they are, in fact, your estranged child.

Magnolia comes to collect Kim, tells her to run along, and shares a stilted (but lots of eye emotion) conversation with Gaylord. And then Gaylord is half stumbling over an apology and then suddenly they're hugging and kissing. And then it's Saturday forever, with no more cold Monday mornings to follow. They'll be together forever and they don't need to talk about their years of separation, or how to explain his sudden presence to their daughter, or his obviously problematic gambling addiction. Really, I think the moral of this story is that it's okay to gamble, just so long as you succeed. What's the line from Guys and Dolls? "Is it wrong to gamble, or only to lose?"

As the Cotton Blossom sails off into the sunset, happy family happily together, a cloaked figure steps from the sadows and blows a kiss goodbye. Julie has somehow turned into a crazy, gypsy woman and I totally love her.

So, in conclusion, Showboat:
Depending on the day, you'll have one of these two reactions.


  1. Wow, seems like you know a fair amount about this movie going in. :-p

    So glad you include the important details, like what you're drinking. Good choice, btw.

    That's a very interesting chain of information they have in that town. The whores pass the info to the fancy folk? I suppose that only makes sense, as the fancy folk are probably their clientele.

    Osgood! I totally watched Some Like It Hot after I made that GIF review.


    I can't look at Howard Keel and not think "BLESS YORE BEAUTIFUL HIDE"

    Bahahahaha, they ARE singing at each other so hard. Also, I hate every single Spamalot song with the Lady of the Lake in it. She's awful.

    Oooh, I didn't know anything about Ava Gardner. She sounds fascinating.

    Well, that's a clever use of vampirism. DRAMA! WHY DID THEY LEAVE? I mean, I could see getting tired of that, but why leave in a town that tried to arrest you?!?!?!

    Oh, that's why they left, so Howard Keel could have a part. All becomes clear.

    BAHAHAHA. Love that use of pictures. Rich people DO wear white. Silly rich people.

    Wait, wait, there a woman who won't be abandoned in this movie? WHY DON'T THEY EXPLAIN ANYTHING THAT HAPPENS WITH JULIE?


    *headdesk* This sounds pretty awful.

    1. I was surprised by the inclusion of the whore house because it was so blatantly a whore house. And yes, the chain of command in this river town is rather strange.

      Hahaha, Bless Yore Beautiful Hide! I also realized that I have yet to see a Howard Keel film where his hair is anything but ridiculous. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Kiss Me Kate, Annie Get Your Gun, and now Show Boat. I mean, he's got great thick hair but it's always so...big.

      No, there's really no woman not left behind at some point. I wish so much that they had gone further into Julie's story. I read too that her part in the 1936 version is even smaller. :(

    2. You know what they say about men with big hair...

      Yeah, me neither.

      :( This is one of those movies where it sucks to be a woman. Men can come back when they please without consequences. Howard Keel gets to have a daughter and wife that love him anyway, and he got to miss out on the whole screaming diapers thing. Not fair.

  2. I would suggest you better try to get the 1936 version again. That is the much better film. This version, "white wash" the story line. Lena Horn was passed over for Ava Gardner. If Horn played the part, the film wouldn't have been showen in the south.
    That alone, had the film missing the point of what it was trying to make, about the treatment of black people in that time and sadly nothing had changed in the early fifties.