Show Boat

In DVD/Blu-ray by Samuel Love

From famed horror director James Whale (Frankenstein, The Invisible Man), Show Boat is a charming 1936 musical romance based on the 1927 musical of the same name by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. Now available in the UK with a sparkling Criterion Collection release, does this early musical hold up?

Packed with emotion, humour and wonderful songs, the sweeping story spans over 40 years in the lives of performers on a Mississippi river boat. Proving he is far more than a horror filmmaker; director James Whale sensitively directs this powerful story and handles the themes of racial prejudice and unrequited love with warmth and passion – for the most part. There are certainly elements of the film that feel dated, with a blackface routine feeling particularly hard to swallow in today’s world. 

The cast of the film are truly wonderful – Irene Dunne is magnificent, despite being wholly unconvincing in the first act of the film when portraying the eighteen-year-old Magnolia Hawks. Dunne was 37 at the time of filming! But it is Hattie McDaniel and Paul Robeson who steal the show, delivering beautiful performances as the ship’s cook and her husband.

Criterion’s newly restored 4K digital transfer is simply beautiful, while the uncompressed mono audio sounds surprisingly crisp for a soundtrack of its age. A huge wealth of informative supplemental features round out the gorgeous package, giving Show Boat a terrific release to honour its far-reaching legacy.

With timeless numbers like ‘Ol’ Man River’ and ‘You Are Love’, Show Boat is a beautiful musical that paved the way for future entries in the genre – the influence of this film is felt in all that followed it.