Excerpted from the Foreword by Foster Hirsch
As all connoisseurs of the American musical theater readily acknowledge, Florenz Ziegfeld’s 1927 production of Show Boat, with a score by Jerome Kern and book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, is America’s first serious musical play—a landmark. The show’s startling opening lines—“Niggers all work on de Mississippi, / Niggers all work while de white folks play”—issued an immediate challenge. Also revolutionary was the level of integration between music and narrative; in unprecedented ways, most of the songs and dances grew out of and complemented the action. Kern’s soaring score and Hammerstein’s big-hearted lyrics for “Ol’ Man River,” “You Are Love,” “Make Believe,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” and “Bill” (original lyrics by P. G. Wodehouse and revised by Hammerstein) have ensured the work’s enduring appeal. MGM’s 1951 fi lm carried the following description: “based upon the Immortal Musical Play.”
Often overlooked is that Kern and Hammerstein had adapted the 1926 bestselling novel by Edna Ferber, which provided all the characters, the settings, the plot points, and—not least—the song cues. Ferber’s description of the arrival of the show boat, for example, cries out for musical accompaniment: “As they neared the landing, the band, perched atop the , forward, alternated with the calliope. From the town, hurrying down the streets, through the woods, dotting the levee and the landing, came eager figures, black and white.” Wisely, Kern and Hammerstein seized on the scene as the inspiration for their show’s high-stepping opening numbers, “Cotton Blossom” and “Cap’n Andy’s Ballyhoo.”
With its picturesque backdrop, its sweeping-across-the-generations narrative, and its richly evoked Americana, Show Boat is camera-ready, grist for the Broadway and Hollywood mills. But the novel is far more than a template for big-budget theatrical adaptations; it is a work of genuine literary craftsmanship. Ferber had a knack for selecting unusual settings steeped in American history. During a troubled out-of-town tryout for her play Minick (cowritten with George S. Kaufman), theatrical producer Winthrop Ames told Ferber about show boats; she knew at once he had given her the seed for the kind of robust saga of the American past that was already her specialty. Like a vigilant graduate student Ferber embarked on a program of intensive research, supplementing her extensive reading with firsthand experience on an actual show boat, the James Adams Floating Theatre, hosted by producer Charles Hunter and his actress wife, Beulah Adams, who was known as the “Mary Pickford of the Chesapeake.”
Though Ferber had never been on the Mississippi before she wrote the novel, the river becomes her central character, a commanding, mystical presence that guides the denizens of the show boat to their awaiting destinies. In her vivid opening chapter, “the roar and howl and crash of the great river” envelop the action.
Throughout, Ferber paints radiant wide-screen vistas:
When April came, and the dogwood flashed its spectral
white in the woods, the show boat started. It was
the most leisurely and dreamlike of journeys. . . .
Miles—hundreds—thousands of miles of willow-fringed
streams fl owing aquamarine in the sunlight,
olive-green in the shade.
Equally lyrical are the stage-struck novelist’s accounts of the shows performed on the show boat—the hoary melodramas and the minstrelsy-based olios. “To the farmers and villagers of the Midwest; and to the small planters—black and white—of the South, the show boat meant music, romance, gaiety,” she writes with the fervor of a die-hard theater lover.
It penetrated settlements whose backwoods dwellers
had never witnessed a theatrical performance in all
their lives—simple childlike credulous people to whom
the make-believe villainies, heroics, loves, adventures
of the drama were so real as to cause the Cotton Blossom
troupe actual embarrassment.
“Often quality folk came to the show boat,” Ferber adds, and her racing syntax makes it easy to imagine the author herself waiting on the levee in anticipation of showtime.
Ferber’s strength is in her panoramic long shots. Breadth, scope, horizontality are the cinematic qualities that link her work to the swashbuckling style of Hollywood epics. Her detractors claim that in close-ups—in her characterizations and her intimate scenes—she lacks depth.
This may be true enough, often enough to have blocked Ferber from admission to the literary pantheon: her characters can seem drawn to type, lacking dimension and complexity. But in her strongest writing—in Show Boat, Cimarron, and Giant —she outwits her critics and creates characters of size. In Show Boat her three principal female characters—her high-strung, questing heroine Magnolia; Magnolia’s forbidding mother, Parthy; and Magnolia’s nurturing friend, Julie, a mulatto—are more sharply drawn than in Hammerstein’s libretto. Because at heart Edna herself was beyond the reach of piety or sentimentality, she holds her characters to a stricter reckoning than Hammerstein, blessed with a sunnier disposition and angling for a Broadway hit, was able to.
Ferber’s Magnolia, far more than Irene Dunne’s prim interpretation in the 1936 fi lm or Kathryn Grayson’s sugar-coated heroine in the 1951 version, is defiant, a backwoods rebel who identifies with the turbulent Mississippi rather than its placid tributaries. Repeatedly, Magnolia stands up to her tyrannical, frostbitten mother. Against her mother’s orders, she marries an untrustworthy buccaneer, riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal; when he abandons her and their daughter, Kim, she has the strength to survive on her own, first as an entertainer and then as the proprietress of the Cotton Blossom . “There stood Magnolia Ravenal on the upper deck of the Cotton Blossom Floating Palace Theatre, silhouetted against sunset sky and water—tall, erect, indomitable,” Ferber writes about her heroine in the book’s final scene. Surviving without a man by her side, the fearsomely independent Magnolia has become a proto-feminist, and as enduring as the river.
It’s tempting to see the strong-willed Magnolia as a projection of the novelist herself, a lifelong spinster “married” to her work, a woman without a man, who husbanded her zest for life, her great curiosity, and her equally great ambition, into her writing. Ferber slyly places her endorsement of Magnolia against her disapproval of Magnolia’s convent-educated daughter, Kim, who has an orderly marriage and a career as “almost the first of this new crop of intelligent, successful, deft, workmanlike, intuitive, vigorous, adaptable young women of the theater. There was about her—about them—nothing of genius, of greatness, of the divine fire.”
Ferber’s Parthy is a darker—fiercer—character than Hammerstein’s sentimental libretto could sustain. Like the Mississippi, she is omnipresent and implacable. And perhaps reflecting Ferber’s tortured relationship with her own unyielding mother, she is unlovable. Typically, however, as in both the 1936 and 1951 films, Parthy is played as a comic character—a domestic scold. But Ferber has higher intentions: “There stood Parthenia Ann Hawks . . . a massive and almost menacing figure in her robes of black—tall, erect, indomitable.”
“Indomitable” women; weak or irresponsible men: this is a recurrent pattern in Ferber’s work, nowhere more central to her theme than in the matriarchal Show Boat. It is after they lose their mates—Cap’n Andy drowns; Gaylord Ravenal disappears—that the women thrive: Parthy assumes command of the Cotton Blossom; Magnolia awakens. The men are not of the same caliber. Cap’n Andy is genial, softhearted, generous of spirit—but he can’t survive the raging river. Ravenal is handsome, passionate, sometimes caring—but ultimately a cad. Ferber introduces the gambler with a cunning detail: seen from a distance, standing on the levee, he looks like a dashing gentleman; up close, his shoes are cracked and his clothes too shiny.
Ferber works hard to give shading to her tarnished “hero,” but he remains a stock figure out of a romance novel. Is there a streak of male-hating, or at least of resentment of the sexual male animal, in Ferber’s dipped-in-acid portrait? “He was not an especially intelligent man,” she writes about Ravenal. “He had no need to be.” Ferber’s characterization is also undermined by her curious avoidance of sex. There are no scenes of love-making between her spirited heroine and the presumably hot-blooded gambler—the author’s descriptions of the surging river have more sexual force than her tepid accounts of Magnolia’s marriage.
In the musical, both Cap’n Andy and Ravenal survive. Unharmed by the river, Hammerstein’s captain remains first to last the show’s jaunty master of ceremonies, and along with Parthy, Magnolia, and Kim, he is onstage at the end, alive and kicking, as three generations of Hawkses celebrate life on the river. Whereas Ferber dismisses Ravenal in a cryptic sentence (“Magnolia never saw him again”), in Hammerstein’s libretto, as if rising from the dead, he returns to the show boat for a tear-jerking reconciliation. Ferber’s finale, a woman alone, triumphant in her solitude, is of course much harsher than Hammerstein’s bow to domesticity and inclusiveness—and decidedly more modern.
Perhaps because it defies the logic of Ferber’s original design, all attempts by Hammerstein and other adapters to reinsert Ravenal have been trivializing. The worst “solution” is Hammerstein’s for the 1936 fi lm: by outrageous coincidence Ravenal is the doorman at the theater where Kim is having a rip-roaring opening night, as Magnolia, a retired star, watches the show from a private box seat. The smartest is screenwriter John Lee Mahin’s invention for the 1951 film: meeting by chance on a riverboat, Julie tells Ravenal that he has a daughter, of whom he was not aware, thereby motivating his return to the Cotton Blossom.
While it reflects the racial politics of a bygone age, Ferber’s depiction of the light-skinned Julie, who passes for white, is unflinching. When the fact of her Negro heritage is revealed, Julie and her common-law husband, Steve, must leave the show boat, a departure that exposes the racism in the southern culture of the era. Ferber attempts what none of her adapters has ever tried for: she suggests that the rebellious outsider Magnolia is metaphorically a “black” character. In the novel’s most moving scene, when Magnolia embraces Julie as she is about to depart forever from the show boat, the two characters seem to merge.
And when finally they came together, the woman
dropped on her knees in the dust of the road and gathered
the weeping child to her and held her close, so that
as you saw them sharply outlined against the sunset the
black of the woman’s dress and the white of the child’s
frock were as one.
Striking out on her own, Magnolia becomes an acclaimed singer of “coon songs,” which she had learned from Negro workers on the Cotton Blossom. “You a nigger?” snaps the bigoted owner of a club in Chicago for whom Magnolia auditions. “You cer’nly sing like one.” A highlight of the 1936 fi lm is when Irene Dunne, performing “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” breaks into a Negro shuffle, becoming “black” before our eyes as she imitates the movements she has learned from her Negro friends, who sing along with her. (The 1951 version destroys the point of the song by turning it into a duet between Magnolia and Julie and segregating the Negro characters on a lower level of the show boat.) In the novel, as in all versions of Show Boat except the 1951 fi lm, Julie returns only once after she leaves the Cotton Blossom . Ferber’s scene is stark. When Magnolia goes to the house of a notorious Chicago madam to return one thousand dollars that Ravenal has borrowed, Julie appears as the madam’s gaunt accountant. “A white face—no, not white—ivory, like something dead. . . . The eyes were incredibly black in that ivory face.” When she recognizes Magnolia, Julie flees in horror. The encounter couldn’t furnish Kern and Hammerstein with the song cue they needed, so, understandably, they place Julie at a night club where she performs “Bill,” a torch song about a man who got away. (Helen Morgan’s world-weary performance of the song in the 1936 fi lm is indelible. In the 1951 fi lm, Ava Gardner’s rendition, dubbed by Annette Warren, inaptly evokes Hollywood glamour.)
For a rousing Broadway revival in 1994 , Hal Prince, with the permission of the Rodgers and Hammerstein office, extensively revised the show’s ragged second act; his version is now the official one. Until that point, Show Boat had never had a published script and so had never been “frozen.” From the initial production in 1927 until Prince’s staging nearly seventy years later, Show Boat was subjected to numerous revisions, with numbers, characters, and scenes added, dropped, repositioned.
For good reason, the show has been assailed for its structural flaws, and though Ferber herself has often been blamed, in fact her novel is more sturdily built than any of the movable-feast adaptations. The weakest moment in the play and the films is a scene that doesn’t appear in the novel, a chance encounter in a Chicago rooming house between two Cotton Blossom troupers and Magnolia that motivates the rest of the action. The coincidental meeting is as contrived as any in the blood-and-thunder melodramas performed on the show boat.
Nonetheless, there is a fl aw in Ferber’s narrative design that no adaptation can ever overcome. Once the setting shifts from the river to Chicago, where Ravenal becomes a full-time gambler, there is a distinct letdown. Ferber works with her customary zeal to enliven the gambling world of Chicago, but the setting can’t match her rapturous accounts of life on the river. And in her final section, set on Broadway in the 1920 s, a world she knew firsthand, her scene-setting is oddly stingy.
But at her best, when she’s on the show boat as it makes its way down the river, Ferber writes with a bardic, incantatory impact. As she lunges with almost biblical intensity into descriptive passages replete with repetition and elaborate parallel constructions, and as she piles on adjective after adjective, her writing is occasionally tinted with purple. But who would want to stop her? In the most musical sections of Show Boat , as her prose hums along with a rapt rhythm, Ferber proves beyond any doubt that she is a popular writer of scintillating gifts. It is an honor to welcome her resplendent pageant back into print.
Foster Hirsch, professor of film at Brooklyn College, is the author of sixteen books on film and theater, including Kurt Weill on Stage and Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King. He is now at work on a history of Hollywood in the 1950s.