“Old Man River”, “Bill”, Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man“, I’d heard the songs before, but hadn’t seen the movie. So it’s this week’s old movie. Set in the late 19th century, Showboat tells the story of Magnolia, a young girl, whose parents own a showboat, a river boat that goes up and down the Mississippi performing for people on the river banks. (It seems like a cool idea I’d like to see revived.) The stars of the show are Julie and her husband Steve. When a jealous, no good man discovers Julie doesn’t want anything to do with him, he tells the police Julie’s secret, that she’s half Black. Since interracial marriages were illegal, the police force Julie and Steve off the boat.
Since the show must go on, young Magnolia (Nolia) and Gaylord Ravenal, a talented, dashing singer are tapped to fill in. They’re a hit and fall instantly in love. Nolia’s parents are skeptical about Gaylord for their daughter. He certainly not stable, but Nolia ignores them and marries her true love. They leave the showboat and head to Chicago where Gaylord, who is a big gambler makes a fortune and soon loses it all. Ashamed and broke, Gaylord deserts Nolia leaving her with enough money to go back to her parents. He’s unaware that she’s pregnant. Julie also hits the skids and winds up drinking too much on a regular basis while getting by singing at a nightclub in Chicago. Steve has left her and she’s never gotten over it. When Nolia comes to the club to audition, Julie catches a glimpse of her and secretly acts to give her a break. While there’s plenty of coincidence, the songs and the emotion carry the show and make it satisfying.
I do think that the ending is one written for an earlier era. When Gaylord eventually returns after about 5 years’ absence, Magnolia immediately takes him back and the band strikes up a happy tune. Nowadays we’re more cautious. I tend to think more proof is needed before taking a gambling husband back. In the interim, Gaylord had continued to gamble. There’s no suggestion that he can sustain real change, which wouldn’t make Nolia or her daughter’s life much better.
Still that’s a minor flaw. All in all, Showboat’s wonderful songs still make it a good musical centered on interesting themes.