Monday, February 7, 2011

Detour - Irene Dunne And "Show Boat"

Irene 1929 in "Show Boat"

“Show Boat” certainly had a special place in Irene´s career. In 1929 she entered the first road company of “Show Boat” as Magnolia – with great success – and this engagement turned out to be her catapult for a Hollywood career. There are different versions of how Irene managed to snatch that role, but I like the one she told herself in an article titled “Hats, Hunches And Happiness” from the year 1945:
 A few years later, in New York, a blue hat did it again. Any young girl aspiring to a theatrical career held Florenz Ziegfeld in awe. When I found myself riding in a lift with the great showman, I was too much too frightened even to look at him, much less get off at the same floor. Imagine my surprise when a few minutes later, I discovered a young women calling after me.
"Stop, stop," she called, "Mr. Ziegfeld wants you, you, the girl in THE BLUE HAT!"
Show Boat was the result.
Anyway, blue hats, just a simple audition or whatsoever, all of this would have ended in nothing without the needed talent, skills and ambition, and certainly not in a long term Hollywood career.

Beyond the fact that her participation in Show Boat proved to be the decisive step towards a Hollywood career, Irene had a personal, emotional approach to the subject of life on the Mississippi and steamboats. Her father, Joseph Dunn, was a supervising inspector of steamboats and one of Irene´s fondest memories of her childhood was a trip with her parents she made down the Mississippi from St. Louis to New Orleans. Irene´s father is described as a wonderful story teller, full of exciting stories on the life on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, and knowing every boat and bayou. Joseph died when Irene was only fourteen, but nonetheless he proved to be a formative influence for the daughter of his. Miss Dunne, surely not the most outspoken person when it came to her personal life, spoke frequently about him – a sure sign of his importance.

Perhaps this very personal background and the fact that Irene knew the musical “Show Boat” backwards, are the reasons why she didn´t like the film very much. She certainly had definite ideas about this production, and in her opinion James Whale was “more interested in atmosphere and lighting and he knew so little about that life” and she added “No, I never cared for Show Boat (the film), but I thought the stage production was one of the best things. The score was marvelous, but even the book could have stood up on its own.” (interview with John Kobal, 1972).
This is something I regret, but Miss Dunne´s dislikes put aside, the film made the number 24 of the American´s Film Institute´s list of best musicals in 2006, and a place on my personal list of favorite Irene Dunne films.

Show Boat

Irene as Magnolia 

Release date 05.14.1936

“Fish got to swim and birds got to fly, I got to love one man till I die,
 can't help lovin' dat man of mine…”

Great turmoil in town: the showboat “Cotton Blossom” is going to land! The variegated troupe of artists pouring from the boat is headed by captain Andy Hawks (Charles Winninger) and his bossy wife Parthy (Helen Westely). The third member of this family is teenage daughter Magnolia (Irene) who meets gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Allan Jones), and instantly falls for him.

meeting Gaylord (Allan Jones) - and singing a duet with him

Magnolia's closest friend on the boat is leading lady Julie LaVerne (Helen Morgan) who gets in great trouble when an ex-friend out of jealousy denounces to the sheriff that she as a mulatto is married to a white man, which is against the state's law. Julie and her husband flee, and as things go Magnolia and Gaylord -looking for a ride on the boat to keep out of jail - take over the leads. No wonder this pair is a success because as lovers they play a couple in love,and soon the wedding bells are ringing and drowning out Parthy's strident protest.


Though he is deeply in love with his wife, Gaylord isn't reformed, and while Magnolia is giving birth to their first child, he is gambling. On a lucky streak he leaves the showboat with Magnolia and their little daughter Kim, and takes them to Chicago. But as we know lucky streaks are not for a lifetime, and after a couple of years Gaylord leaves his family hoping that they are better off without him.If he hoped that Magnolia would simply turn to her family again, he is all wrong. Instead she is determined to make a living for her daughter and herself singing… a lot more to tell, but that would be all spoilers and so I just won't!

Irene surrounded by three members of this wonderful cast:
 Paul Robeson, Hattie McDaniel and Helen Morgan

Sentiment, beauty, laughs, atmosphere, an absorbing plot and an “evergreen-heavy” score - all of this achieved by a wonderful cast under the firm direction of James Whale - who could ask for anything more? With the exception of the end, this 1936 filming of the musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II based on Edna Ferber's novel, follows the stage production closely, no wonder considering the fact that the screenplay was written by Oscar Hammerstein II. Ten numbers from the original score were actually sung, four were especially written for the film. The cast is mainly consisting of actors and actresses who had on stage experience with “Show Boat” and they obviously knew their vehicle. In particular worthwhile watching is the first half of the film, the part which actually plays on the showboat. From Paul Robeson's pivotal interpretation of “Ol' Man River” to Charles Winninger's tour de force acting out all parts of the hilarious showboat play on his own, numbers like “Can´t Help Lovin' Dat Man” with Irene breaking into a shuffling and trucking step, or Magnolia's and Gaylord's first encounter ending in “Make Believe” - it's all there.

and the great Charles Winninger, here rehearsing a love scene
with our two leads

In the end the film gets a little bit hasty – director James Whale had to cut some scenes - and this shows. Regrettably, one scene which ended on the cutting floor was Gaylord and Magnolia singing “Why Do I Love You?” on a trip with an automobile. Of course Irene, already in the second half of her thirties, didn't look like a teenage girl anymore, but she emanates the air of youthfulness, something she accomplishes mainly through her way of moving. Magnolia is an interesting role with a wide range of emotions – no problem for Miss Dunne who knew this part back and forth. As you know by now, I have quite a weakness for Miss Dunne's singing voice, and once again she doesn't disappoint me, neither does the rest of the cast – Helen Morgan's touching version of “My Bill” certainly deserves an extra mentioning.

and that´s our lost chance of hearing "Why Do I Love You?"

Meritedly, this second screen adaptation of Show Boat – first filmed in 1929 as semi-talkie production, remade in 1951 by MGM as a Technicolor musical – made it to the list for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, but we are still waiting for an official DVD release, at least rather good TCM rips are around. Though the film is on YouTube, I highly recommend watching it on the biggest screen you have at hand – this film simply cries for a big screen.
Well, have a wonderful time visiting the “Cotton Blossom”!