Show Boat (1951)
Directed by George Sidney

Artistic Value: * * *
Entertainment Value: * * * ½

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Cap'n Andy Hawks (Joe E. Brown) operates a riverboat on the Mississippi and travels from town to town presenting theatrical shows. After his two leads, Julie (Ava Gardner) and her husband, are forced to leave when it is revealed that one of Julie's parents is black, the captain's daughter, Magnolia (Kathryn Grayson), and a dashing gambler, Gaylord Ravenal (Howard Keel), take their places. Magnolia and Gaylord soon fall in love, marry, and leave for Chicago for their honeymoon. Unfortunately, Gaylord eventually loses all his money gambling and, feeling guilty about his fruitless pursual of Lady Luck, abandons his wife, who returns to her parents on their show boat, where she gives birth to a daughter.

George Sidney's Technicolor musical Show Boat, while hardly realized with any great aesthetic sensitivity, is a bright, affecting, and genuinely fun film.

Unlike the majority of musicals that were made at roughly the same time it was, Show Boat is suffused with a number of dark themes, which are able to engage the viewer with the story the film tells in a way the trite narratives of many of those other movies cannot. Instead of giving way to vacuous, unaffecting sweetness, Show Boat presents a world the inhabitants of which are made to experience both joy and suffering with a real intensity. Julie and her husband not only endure the racial prejudices of their countrymen, but are, eventually, brought to drunken ruin because of the injustices inflicted upon them. The viewer is not merely saddened for a brief moment because of some minor inconvenience the two characters tolerate, but is able to feel a genuine sense of tragedy when he realizes that they will not recover from the treatment they have been given. Even Magnolia, while she may regain her happiness in the end, suffers severe troubles through the course of the movie. Not only is she burdened by a worthless husband who squanders his money and then abandons her, but she is even left to raise a child on her own.

This generally affecting story is greatly enhanced by the movie's visual and aural qualities. Show Boat is so consistently lavish and colorful that it is always a joy simply to look at. The sets are rich and nicely realized, and the rainbow-hued costumes are invariably elaborate and brilliantly vibrant. While the film may never evince any particular sophistication, it is so multicolored and so alive that the viewer is unlikely to be able to avert his eyes from the spectacle being presented to him.

I cannot say that I was ever awed by the beauty of the movie's songs, and I was rarely impressed by the talent of either Grayson or Keel, but most of the numbers performed are, at the least, enjoyable. A few, such as "Old Man River," are beautiful and touching, and a several others are rousingly fun. While the viewer may not feel as though he has heard much of inherently great value, he is still likely to be entertained by the film's songs and dances.

Even though it may not be a tremendous artistic achievement, Show Boat is a pleasant, engaging film that is well worth seeing.

Review by Keith Allen

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