It’s the 1890s and wherever Cap’n Andy Hawks ties up his showboat along the Mississippi, he’s a welcome sight from white mansions to black shacks. But the onboard merriment comes to an end when star of the show Julie has to leave the boat because she’s half black, and her husband and co-star goes in solidarity. The same fate soon befalls their successors, the captain’s daughter, Magnolia, and gambler Gaylord, when their love begins to extend beyond the stage. The newlyweds honeymoon in Chicago, where Gaylord quickly amasses a fortune at the gaming tables that he just as quickly loses again. Financially ruined, he abandons Magnolia, not knowing that she is pregnant … The “beautiful songs, beautiful people” that the barker touts early on in Show Boat lend the picture a superficial lustre, but tragedy soon looms from behind the colourful backdrop, with the famed song “Ol’ Man River” providing an early clue to what’s coming. As Gaylord’s luck turns sour, the colour palette of this unusually sober musical also darkens. The film’s beautiful final message – that a touching song can permanently brighten up ruined lives – is however, simply one more piece of show industry “Make Believe”.
by George Sidney
with Kathryn Grayson, Ava Gardner, Howard Keel