Show Boat (1929) is a film based on the novel by Edna Ferber. It was released by Universal Pictures in 1929, both as a silent film and as a part-talkie with a prologue. The storyline follows the book rather closely, with the significant exception of the racial angle present in all other adaptations of the novel: the 1927 Broadway musical Show Boat and the film versions of the musical, made in 1936 and 1951.
The 1929 film was long believed to be lost, but apparently large chunks of it still exist, and have been shown on Turner Classic Movies. There have been recent claims that long-missing parts of the soundtrack have been discovered on old Vitaphone records, and if so, it is extremely likely that these will be used in a more complete restoration of the film.
Contrary to what is often claimed, the 1929 film is not an adaptation of the classic 1927 Kern–Hammerstein Broadway musical Show Boat, which was based on the same novel. Its plot line sticks much closer to the novel than to the stage production, but avoids the racial controversy that plays a prominent role in both the book and the Broadway show. On the other hand, it features risqué material related in the book but completely omitted from the Broadway musical adaptation, such as the depiction of a Chicago bordello.
Following the novel, the film starts when Magnolia, the daughter of Captain Andy Hawks and his wife Parthy, is still a little girl. (Magnolia is aged 18 at the start of the musical.) In both the novel and in the 1929 film, Cap'n Andy and Parthy die, whereas the musical and the subsequent film versions based on it carefully avoid any of the four deaths mentioned in Ferber's novel, despite the fact that the story spans forty years (in the novel, the span is a decade longer). However, in a nod to the stage musical, Magnolia and her gambler husband Gaylord Ravenal are reunited on the show boat at the end of the 1929 film, whereas in the novel, Ravenal not only never returns to Magnolia, but dies in San Francisco, and Magnolia returns to Mississippi to run the show boat alone after Parthy's death.
The interracial love story between the mulatto actress Julie and her white husband Steve, the section of Ferber's novel that made the stage musical so unusual for its time, was completely dropped from the 1929 film to appease censors and Southern audiences, and Julie in this version was not only made a white woman, but was evicted from the boat because of Parthy's jealousy over her relationship with Magnolia (to whom Julie is a sort of surrogate mother and confidante).
The film stars:
These were the years in which film studios were making a transition from silent films to sound films and this version of Show Boat was first made as a silent film. (One must keep in mind that it was not intended to be a film version of the musical, but of the novel.) However, the studio panicked when they realized that audiences might be expecting a talking picture version, and the film was temporarily withheld from release. Subsequently, several scenes were then reshot to include about thirty minutes of dialogue and singing. Because of the success of the stage musical, which was playing on Broadway at the same time that the film was being shot, a two-reel sound prologue, featuring original Broadway cast members Helen Morgan (Julie), Jules Bledsoe (Joe), Tess Gardella (Queenie) and the Jubilee Singers singing five songs from the show, was also added, and the movie was released both as a part-talkie and as a silent film without the prologue. Otis Harlan, who played Cap'n Andy in the film, served as Master of Ceremonies in the prologue, which also featured legendary impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, producer of the stage musical version of Show Boat and Carl Laemmle, the producer of the film, as themselves. Three of the songs heard in the prologue were not heard in the film proper. In the actual storyline of the film, Laura la Plante, with a dubbed singing voice, performs five songs, two of them being Ol' Man River (which Magnolia does not sing at all in any other version of "Show Boat"), and Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man. Both of these songs were sung in circumstances entirely different from any version of the musical. The other songs that Ms. La Plante sang in the film were traditional spirituals, as well as an outrageously racist song of the early 1900's entitled "Coon Coon Coon". Her singing voice was dubbed by soprano Eva Olivetti.
The singing voice of Stepin Fetchit, who played Joe in the film, was provided by Jules Bledsoe, the original Joe of the 1927 stage production of the musical. Fetchit mouthed the lyrics to a popular song of the time entitled The Lonseome Road, which, as sung on the soundtrack by Bledsoe, served as the film's finale instead of Ol' Man River.
The original stage score, except for Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man, Bill, Ol' Man River, and the little-known C'mon Folks! and Hey Feller!, was replaced in the 1929 film by several spirituals and popular songs written by other songwriters, and largely because of this, the movie was not a success. It is likely, though, that the fact that it was a part-talkie may have played a part in its failure. The then-recent 1929 film version of The Desert Song, an all-sound film, had been a huge success, and audiences were no longer willing to accept part-talking musical films.
The 1929 movie was long considered a lost film, but most of it has since been recovered, although large portions of the sound track, including several songs from the Prologue are still missing as of 2006. Several of the extant parts of the film have been combined and occasionally shown on Turner Classic Movies. Fragments of the prologue not included in the TCM showings - both sound and picture - were shown as part of the A&E's biography of Florenz Ziegfeld. However, in the TCM version, the visual print of the Prologue sequence have been replaced with an "Overture" card.
This was the only film version of Show Boat to be given a road show presentation, and the only one of the three film versions to run over two hours (the stage musical ran three hours originally, and was filmed in 1936 and 1951 at a length of slightly less than two hours).