Appropriation is a real tricky thing in popular culture. While music did, for obvious reasons, lift heavily from African-American folk songs and performances the result has been highly rewarding and helped to cement the likes of Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday the American collective memory. Show Boat includes one of the most stirring musical compositions ever realized in Paul Robeson's version of "Ol' Man River," however, this is only a singular element within the larger narrative of appropriation. Musical performances during this era, as well as decades earlier pulled quite gladly from minstrelsy and thus found no trouble performing numbers in blackface, even when there were characters within the narrative that also are clearly black themselves. It is rare for me that the inclusion of a minstrel performance, particularly one with such intense racial elements manages to not make me hate the movie, even if its inclusion is momentary and decidedly arbitrary to the larger narrative. However, as much as I adore Paul Robeson and even a few of the other musical numbers in this Hammerstein driven musical, it's use of minstrelsy, even if minor proves to reflect a larger issue within the narrative, one that both appropriates black culture and uses it as a stepping stone geographically to set up a narrative that focuses instead on struggles of white persons who simply want to be in love. As showy and performative as the film may be, Show Boat manages to revert its possibilities for cinematic consideration of the layers of racial identity, by again, making race merely a part of the narrative which must be acknowledged, as opposed to being dealt with in an intense and inquisitive manner. Employing some of the most prolific African-American actors of the time in Paul Robeson and Hattie McDaniels it is amazing that TCM has not pushed it to the forefront on its screening times, but then again this is the same company that often edited out these very performances to placate audiences not wanting to confront a problematic past. Show Boat is both a time capsule regarding the racial indifference in Classic Hollywood, as well as an enigma as to how a film could both concern itself with passing and also pass as something completely detached from racial considerations.
Show Boat is narratively set over a forty year span, beginning with the arrival of a boat based revue to a nondescript town on the Mississippi River. The boat The Cotton Palace is known for a variety of plays, musical numbers and even comedic bits all intended to pull upon the dreary and uneventful lives of the persons existing in the spaces. Of course, since the space is in the antebellum South, it is also occupied by African-American workers, most notably the Queenie (Hattie McDaniel) and her husband Joe (Paul Robeson) whose backbreaking work provides the livelihood of an otherwise transitory space. The narrative is also troubled by issues of miscegenation when the leading lady is shown to be of mixed blood and a rumor that she is married to a man who is wholly white causes them to be suspect to breaking the law. Although the couple is capable of tricking officials into believing that they are not involved in miscegenation, it does require that they step away from the show. In this moment, aspiring actress and daughter of the river boat captain Magnolia Hawks (Irene Dunne) is able to take the stage, only in need of a new leading man to stand next to her. In a stroke of pure luck a wandering debonair named Gaylord Ravendal (Allan Jones) serves the part his dashing looks and genuine adoration for Magnolia proving more than enough to make their acting work. The two quickly hit it off and eventually marry, even having a child. It is, however, during this time that the Hawks family discovers Gaylord's past as a gambler, even committing a murder although apparently in self-defense. Becoming a point of frustration, Gaylord and Magnolia move away to Chicago, wherein they live for a considerable amount of time off of Gaylord's gambling winnings. Tragically, however, Gaylord hits a series of bad luck and loses almost all of his finances. Julie (Helen Morgan) the very woman who was charged with having mixed blood has managed to remain successful, although also a bit of a lush, still managing to revive Magnolia's career when her and Gaylord part. In the closing moments of the film, when Magnolia seems content to live a somewhat tragic life, she attends the performance of her daughter, only to have Gaylord arrive and in a show of admiration their daughter asks them to sing a duet to closeout the film, followed all to problematically by Robeson's humming of "Ol' Man River" in the closing moments of the film.
As I noted Show Boat is a performance and should certainly be considered as such. Indeed, the opening moments of the film have the camera panning into the stage of a play, complete with the title cards as part of the diegetic world, therefore, allowing the possibility that this version of Show Boat is also a metanarrative, or a series of performances within a performance. This includes the staging of a play as part of the larger play, an occurrence that happens on multiple times. Take for example the song between Gaylord and Magnolia called "I Have the Room Above Her," by its physical existence it should not serve as a division as in most any apartment setting, a man whaling at the top of his lungs would cause another to hear them and likely inquiring as to why they are singing, particularly if the song is about said person listening. Yet, assuming Show Boat to exist within a theatrical staging it allows not only Gaylord to sing such a song, but for Magnolia to provide responding melodies completely detached from an awareness that he too is singing. It is something essentially only possible within the metaperformance. This would make the film wildly intriguing and worth embracing where this layered performance not also extended to include issues of racial performance as well. Indeed, the actress playing Julie is white and to suggest her as a mulatto (a person mixed race) character implies a racial performance even if only in narrative. It is blackface, in that it denies the role to a woman of color and is made all the more an absurd performance in contrast to the blackface number led by Irenne Dunne and a series of minstrel singers and dancers. This is all in contrast to the staging the film, at least initially, within the rural South, wherein racial elements are at their highest intensity and rather openly confronted via Robeson's singing. Indeed, while I would never knock what Robeson is doing in this moment, his stirring rendition reflecting the confusion and frustrations at play in race relations, it becomes exploitative in the larger frame of the narrative, one whose closing embraces forgiveness to a river boat gambler, while only marginally acknowledging the previous elements of race.
Key Scene: "I'm sick of living and scared of dying."
This film is certainly of historical importance and Paul Robeson's singing is enough to be intrigued, but, honestly, you could just watch his section on YouTube and be all the better for it without having to sit through the remainder of this frustrating film.