Showboat is a 1927 musical with music by Jerome Kern and book by Oscar Hammerstein II. It is based on the 1926 novel of the same name by Edna Farber and follows the lives of those on board the showboat Cotton Blossom on the Mississippi River through late 19th and early 20th century America. It has undergone numerous revisions since its original premiere, both for conveniences and to address racial and cultural sensitivities.
Showboat as a musical has been adapted multiple times for the screen. The first time was in 1936 by Universal (Left poster), and then in 1951 by MGM (Right poster).
Perhaps the most famous song from Showboat is “Ol’ Man River”, sung by the dock worker Joe multiple times throughout the musical. In the 1936 film Joe is played by Paul Robeson and in the 1951 version by William Warfield, both powerful bass-baritones with extensive performing careers. Robeson was intended to be the original Joe in the broadway production by Kern and Hammerstein, but was unavailable at the time.
Other stars of the 1936 cast included Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, and Charles Winniger. Members of the 1951 cast included Ava Gardner, Howard Keel, and Kathryn Grayson. Grayson’s diverse performing career spanned film, musicals, and opera from Kiss Me Kate and Camelot to works by Puccini and Verdi. Keel is remembered not just for his diverse musical resume, but also for his decade-long role as Clayton Farlow in the TV series Dallas.
The 1936 version was directed by James Whale, known for Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and one of the few openly gay directors of early Hollywood. The 1951 version was directed by George Sidney, who has numerous film adaptations of musicals to his credit including The Harvey Girls (1946), Annie Get Your Gun (1950), Bye Bye Birdie (1963), and Elvis Presley’s musical film Viva Las Vegas (1964).
Stormy Weather is a 1943 film loosely depicting events in the life of dancer, singer, and actor Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and as directed by Andrew Stone. The cast includes Robinson as himself, Lena Horne as Selina Rogers, Dooley Wilson as Bill’s friend Gabe, and even an appearance by the electrifying dance duo the Nicholas Brothers. The film features numerous jazz musicians of the time performing their own works. In addition to Horne as a singer, Cab Calloway makes an appearance as himself, and Fats Waller appears as himself on the piano. The film has been both praised and criticized for its handling of race, being one of two MGM films that year to have an all-black cast and paving the way for cinematic opportunities for people of color, while struggling to distance itself from stereotypes.
Horne making a cameo appearance as Julie LaVerne from Showboat in Till the Clouds Roll By (1946)
Lena Horne was an American singer, actor, and civil rights advocate of the 20th century. In addition to numerous film and television credits, she has a more than 60 year discography and was the recipient of 4 grammys including the Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989. Like Paul Robeson, she was blacklisted in Hollywood during the Second Red Scare of the late 40’s and 50’s and was labeled a communist sympathizer for her activism and associations with other politically active artists. During this period, Horne still sang in night clubs and made studio recordings keeping her career alive. Further examples of her activism include collaborating on legislation with Eleanore Roosevelt, participating in the March On Washington in 1963, and protesting performing for segregated audiences on her tours with the USO during the Second World War.
Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller was an American pianist and entertainer of the early 20th century. His performing career began early in life with piano, organ, and eventually making recordings. One of the pioneers of stride piano, Waller wrote his own jazz tunes such as “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Honeysuckle Rose” but also played organ works of Bach. Waller even wrote a few musicals and has a musical tribute to him in 1978’s Ain’t Misbehavin’. He died of pneumonia in 1943.
Robeson as Joe in Showboat (1936)
Paul Robeson was a 20th century American bass-baritone, actor, and civil rights activist. A true Renaissance Man, he was a two time All-American end for Rutgers, class valedictorian, and participated on the speech and debate team before graduating in 1919. He would go on to receive a Bachelor of Law degree from Columbia a few years later while juggling playing in the NFL for the Akron Pros and Milwaukee Badgers. Following his NFL career, Robeson would pursue the theatre with roles in Shakespeare’s Othello, Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, and the musical and film versions of Showboat.
Robeson would develop stronger socialist and communist sympathetic views in the 30’s and 40’s, which made him and his works a target of Anti-Communist propaganda and the FBI following the Second World War. He would have some recital tours in Europe following the Second Red Scare, but with declining health he would retire in 1963 and died in 1976 following complications with a stroke in Philadelphia with more than 250 recorded songs to his credit. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1995.
Robeson (pictured first row, third from right) with the 1918 Rutgers football team.
Image source: Rutgers.edu
Casablanca is a 1942 film starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Paul Henreid telling the story of a conflicted café owner caught between his past lover and aiding a resistance movement. It was released to critical acclaim, delivering a message of sacrifice for the greater good at the height of the Second World War, and received the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1943. It was added to the National Film Registry in 1989. The soundtrack of Casablanca was written by Max Steiner, but also features tunes like “As Time Goes By”, “It Had to Be You”, and “Knock on Wood” performed by Dooley Wilson. Steiner’s soundtrack incorporates leitmotifs using German patriotic tunes and the French “La Marseillaise”, just one more way that the movie portrays the tension between Nazi Germany and French resistance in Casablanca.