Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBBB. USA, 1936. Universal Pictures. Screenplay by Oscar Hammerstein II, based on his stage play adapted from the novel by Edna Ferber. Cinematography by John J. Mescall. Produced by Carl Laemmle Jr.. Music by Victor Baravalle, Oscar Hammerstein II, Jerome Kern. Production Design by Charles D. Hall. Costume Design by Doris Zinkeisen. Film Editing by Bernard W. Burton, Ted J. Kent.
James Whale is most famous for his contribution to the horror genre (particularly the Frankenstein movies), while his directing one of the first bold and dynamic musical films is, ridiculously, not nearly as well known. This adaptation of the hit Broadway musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, which itself was a game-changer for the American stage, takes its narrative from the Edna Ferber novel of the same name, about a troupe of players aboard the titular vehicle that goes up and down the Mississippi River. America’s institutional racism is the backdrop upon which the character’s personal dramas are set, including the plight of lead singer Julie (Helen Morgan), whose being of a mixed race background causes her problems both personal and professional, while young Magnolia (Irene Dunne gets away with playing the role despite being all of thirty-seven years old at the time) falls in love with a handsome stranger who abandons her not long after their marriage and the birth of their first child. Most of the key players appeared in the stage version at one point or another, including Charles Winninger and future Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel, with Paul Robeson giving cinematic history a miraculous gift by preserving his performance of the incredibly powerful “Ole Man River” on film forever (and if your eyes are dry after he says he’s “tired of living and scared of dying”, you have no soul). Most impressive, though, is that just as sound films are breaking through in their development from the early, awkward talkies to the more mature achievements of the mid-thirties and beyond, this dynamic and organically performed film integrates song performances with drama in a way that few films would do in the golden age of musicals. A great deal of the songs from the show have been kept in, with a few new ones added including an unfortunate and unnecessary minstrel number performed by Dunne in blackface, the one major blight on what is otherwise a perfect experience.