Irene Dunne, Hattie McDaniel, Helen Morgan, and Paul Robeson in Show Boat (1936) (Photo by Donaldson Collection/Getty Images - Image courtesy gettyimages.com / IMDB)

Performing Race in James Whale’s ‘Show Boat’

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".

Show Boat
James Whale
31 March 2020

Whether you are discussing the 1926 Edna Ferber best-selling novel, the stage adaptation by Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern first produced in 1927 by impresario Florenz Ziegfeld and its many subsequent productions and reimaginings, or the various films based on the musical, of which the fascinating 1936 version directed by James Whale concerns us here, one of the most famous and disturbing plot points in Show Boat revolves around the figure of Julie La Verne. La Verne is the leading lady of a troupe of actors traveling and performing on the showboat, The Cotton Blossom. At the opening of Show Boat, she is the main attraction of the entertainments presented by Cap’n Andy Hawks, the owner of the boat and the director of its theatrical offerings.

Not surprisingly, the role is typically played by a recognizable and gifted singer, in part, because two of the most celebrated songs of the production, “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” and “Bill”, are hers. In the 1936 film, Julie is played by Helen Morgan, the renowned torch singer who originated the role and performed it in both this filmed version and the earlier 1929 film directed by Harry A. Pollard and based more on the novel than the musical. And yet, a viewer unfamiliar with the plot may be surprised to discover that Julie is not the leading lady of Show Boat itself. That role is assigned to Julie’s protégée, Magnolia Hawks (Irene Dunne in the 1936 film), the daughter of Cap’n Andy.

The reason for Julie’s prolonged disappearance from the narrative is the plot point in question. Julie is biracial and passing for White. Her secret is somehow discovered by the ship’s engineer Pete (Arthur Hohl). Once she rejects his advances, he informs the authorities in the Southern town in which the showboat is currently docked: Natchez, Mississippi. Mississippi, like much of the Jim Crow South in the 1880s, maintains fairly stringent laws against miscegenation and Julie is married to a white man, Steve Baker (Donald Cook). So, as soon as Julie is established as a central character, she is ushered right off the screen, only reappearing briefly at another pivotal moment before vanishing once again.

img-2662Film Strip by joseph_alban(Pixabay License / Pix

The audience first becomes aware of Julie’s biraciality through performance. Magnolia has just met a young man, the raffish gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Allan Jones) and feels she may have already fallen in love with him. Julie warns her that this Ravenal may turn out to be an unreliable fellow, he may be “no-account”. Magnolia blithely claims she will just fall back out of love then. Julie assures her that is not so easily done. She claims that Steve has often proven himself given to violent moods and is at best a mediocre actor, but that her devotion to him is unassailable. Julie then sings a song she has apparently sung to Magnolia on several occasions, “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man”. The song is a Kern masterpiece—just the right mixture of Tin Pan Alley typicality and blues inflection. It’s one of the high points of any production of Show Boat.

She’s overheard by the ship’s Black cook, Queenie (Hattie McDaniel), who wonders how she came to know that song insofar as she had only heard “colored folk” sing it previously. When asked why she should be so surprised that Julie, a professional singer and entertainer after all, should know the song, she just claims that it’s funny to hear Julie, whom Queenie accepts as White, do it. She even challenges Julie’s knowledge: “Do you know the rest of it?” Julie’s face betrays a mixture of concern and ire. Of course, she knows the rest. Queenie joins in for one verse of the song, which gives away the game here in that it’s a fairly straightforward blues. And this is the issue, clearly. Julie has revealed a deep knowledge of a song that is coded Black.

An interesting element to this scene, however, is Queenie’s insistence that the song sounds “funny” coming from Julie. On one level, she clearly means to note the incongruency of a White woman singing a piece of Black culture in a heavily segregated society, a mode of segregation enforced by law, custom, and common prejudice. Although the lives of the White and Black occupants of the showboat intersect in numerous ways (they live, after all, in rather confined proximity), there are certain lines of identity that are not to be crossed. And Julie seems to be crossing them.

On another level though, I think we can take Queenie’s assertion literally. The song does sound “funny” coming from Julie, insofar as Morgan performs it as a torch song, not a blues per se. Her striking but rather thin mezzo-soprano voice, coupled with the quasi-operatic rising embellishments Kern employs in the B-section (the least bluesy moment in the song), mask or at least obscure the blues language that suffuses the tune.

Morgan’s delivery is reinforced by her acting. Morgan is a fascinating screen presence: here she leans into the song almost as if she were resisting its blandishments but ultimately finds its sounding presence too much a part of her to deny. She identifies with the tune but she recognizes that it has the power to identify her, to lay her secret bare. The song is nearly as much of a threat in its performance as Pete’s vicious attempts at revenge.

The song itself is a rather complex signifier. The verse is basically pure blues. Julie only sings it after being challenged by Queenie as to her familiarity with the song. Later, it’s this portion of the tune that Queenie sings—her only solo contribution to the scene. The blues is marked Black here, Black in its purest form. One suspects that this is precisely the portion Queenie intended when she inquired whether or not Julie knew the whole thing. In fact, it’s precisely this portion of the tune that plays instrumentally under this moment of the scene on the soundtrack.

Julie immediately sings the verse, as though rising to the challenge. The B-section, as mentioned, bears little to no blues influence. It’s pure Tin Pan Alley and like most such B-sections it consists of harmonic sequences that serve to arrive at the dominant chord (built on the fifth scale degree of the key) that will demand the return of the A-section’s tonic. In short, the B-section builds tension through a relatively conventional use of European chromatic harmony; it borders on light opera in its harmonic and melodic vocabulary.

The A-section is somewhere in between these two modes of musical expression and harmonic-melodic structure. The first two measures contain one of the most typical Tin Pan Alley progressions in the repertoire. This is immediately answered by a plunge into blues-based harmonies. Then, almost as if the music attempts to literalize what was just implied, the section ends with Julie singing an overt blue note (the lowered third) that achingly falls to the cadence. Hence, the song is designed as a special kind of performance for Julie. It includes obvious coded language that adumbrates her exposure as a biracial woman but it also includes an admixture of elements that would seem to disavow that connection. The literal performance of the song at this moment was first intended for one purpose (to demonstrate to Magnolia that love is not so easily dismissed) and becomes applied to a different and far more dangerous purpose: to demonstrate her knowledge of Black music to Queenie while not necessarily revealing how she came to have such knowledge.

Queenie’s husband Joe (the redoubtable Paul Robeson) enters and declares that this is his favorite song, another indicator of its identification with Black life. This is when Queenie sings her verses, a kind of gently mocking account of his laziness and attempts to shirk his chores. “He can be happy with just a sip of gin,” she warbles, to which he responds, “Why you all talking about gin?” She gives him a genuinely loving smile and finishes with “I even loves him when his kisses got gin,” to which Joe beams. This rendition of the verse is performative in a different sense. It allows a space for Queenie and Joe to declare their love for each other openly and sweetly without appearing mawkish.

The scene quickly expands. Several Black onlookers appear at the dock, looking into the boat’s kitchen where the scene had been staged. Now Joe, Queenie, and the onlookers join Julie in a soaring, polyphonic choral rendition of the chorus. Meanwhile, another kind of racial performance is being executed. In one of the more disturbing moments of racial mimicry in the film (and this is a film that sports a blackface minstrel act), Magnolia begins to move around the kitchen in a strange, disjointed, bewildering approximation of Black dance.

Her eyes roll toward the ceiling, her lips become pursed, her cheeks puff out, her hips gyrate in a loping manner. Her body contorts and undulates, arms flopping at her sides, bending awkwardly at the elbows; eventually she raises these arms straight into the air, shaking her hands (“jazz hands”) in the exaggerated but familiar gestures of minstrelsy. Outside the Black choristers dance in a circle in a comparatively naturalistic manner as though a demonstration of the distinction between feigned and authentic performance.

Inside the boat, both Queenie and Joe take notice of Magnolia’s bizarre writhing. “Look at that girl shuffle,” Joe muses, as Queenie sits down to get a closer look at the display. The entire quartet moves to the deck of the boat as the song reaches its apotheosis and all four gesture toward the “audience” of onlookers with the extended arms often employed to conclude such theatrical entertainments—a gesture that points the attention back out to the audience that has been so attentive. In this case, of course, that audience comprises the Black denizens of the town. Their Blackness has been performed back to them. Magnolia and the others seem to request their endorsement of the mimicry.

It’s a complex scene and this film presents it in all its worrisome, labyrinthine entanglements. Race is here revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden. One might be tempted to think that Julie is simply revealed by the song, that the truth of race will out, that her exposure is inevitable and only futilely deferred. It’s a plausible reading but it’s not supported by the scene overall. “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” in all its rich contradictions and mixing of codes is the perfect emblem for a biracial woman hiding in plain sight. She performs her role flawlessly. Magnolia performs her racial mimicry in an almost ridiculous manner; it’s meant to be seen openly as performance, as exaggeration.

But even Queenie and Joe, whose Blackness is readily apparent in their faces, perform race in intricate ways that demonstrate that their being Black is not a simple essence to which they are consigned but rather makes available to them several possible ways of being. Let’s take Joe as our example. At first glance, Joe’s character seems like he’s meant to be yet another iteration of the Jim Crow minstrel trope: a shiftless, lower-class, Black man who takes a certain pride in his idleness and works hard at not working hard. And yet, partly owing to the self-assured resolve Robeson brings to the role, we never actually believe that Queenie’s depiction of him as lazy fits appropriately. After delivering her supplies, he sits at the dock to continue some whittling he had begun earlier in the day. Queenie scolds him and departs, leaving him alone to waste his time.

But that’s just what he doesn’t seem to be doing. He sits at the dock, pulls out his knife and stick. He declares that Magnolia, who at this moment is just going in to consult Julie in the scene we’ve just discussed, ought to consults instead with “Old Man River” insofar as he knows everything. He then sings the end of a verse of this celebrated song, written by Kern with Robeson in mind. The camera starts to Joe’s right and then arcs around him, moving behind his back as he whittles, arriving to his left side just as he launches into the familiar refrain.

Robeson’s performance here is mesmerizing. His sonorous voice and incisive wit carve out a sonic space for the song that leaves an indelible impression on anyone who hears it. But what can be more easily overlooked is the manner in which Robeson demonstrates that this is a kind of performance for Joe as well: the whittling, the singing, the reflective, existentialist contemplation of a river that “just keeps flowing along” despite the petty concerns of the people that it passes and who pass upon it.

There are cutout scenes depicting certain images from the lyrics. We see Joe (who is first presented as a lazy Jim Crow figure) touting bales of hay. We see a tired, aching, and shirtless Joe (a rather daring image for a 1930s film) railing against the strain of his exhaustion, the soreness of his muscles. We see him trying to alleviate his worries in drink and landing in jail. It borders on cartoonish literalness but then we return to that face, that knowing face, grinning but serious, joyful but wise. We realize he’s performing. He’s performing as much for himself as he is for his wife or for the people on the showboat or for the people on the docks. The patient whittling becomes a talismanic connection with the eternal flow of time and its sublime indifference to our efforts. The river’s flow never ends. It reaches the delta and disperses but the water continues to flow, staying in one location and yet forever moving. Constant motion going nowhere, never ending.

Joe’s seeming idleness is a farce, a performance he enjoys, in part because it exemplifies a vision of life that redeems the very concern with performance, racial and otherwise. In the end, it’s all performance and it’s all futile. That doesn’t make it worthless. There’s no need for an end as a guarantor of meaning. All these performances, Joe’s and Magnolia’s no less and no more than Julie’s, are fragile. Julie’s performance works because she invests so much in it. Joe’s works because he isn’t all that invested in it. Magnolia’s fails until she learns to invest and then disinvest.

All performances are tenuous and tendential; all performances are fugitive and futile. They afford the player a moment to strut and fret her hour upon the stage. In the end, we are all heard no more. But it hardly matters because nothing does in the grander scheme. The play’s the thing.

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Criterion Collection has released a blu-ray edition of the 1936 film version of Show Boat, arguably the finest filmed rendition of the Hammerstein and Kern’s renowned musical. This film was out of circulation for many years starting in the 1940s. It returned to wider availability in 2014 but it perhaps has never looked as crisp and inviting as it looks in this restoration.

Show Boat is a remarkable, if troubling film, and deserves to be seen and contemplated in America’s continuing struggles to come to terms with race and the ways in which American’s wish to be seen and understood. The edition comes with several extras including an interview with James Whale biographer James Curtis, a program on the issues surrounding race in the film, a tribute to Paul Robeson, two radio adaptations of the show, and the 1929 version of the film.