Fresh Air critic Lloyd Schwartz reviews the 1936 production of Show Boat, now out on DVD:
Based on a best-selling novel by Edna Ferber published only the year before, it’s a serious melodrama with musical numbers that actually reveal character and further the plot. We call this kind of musical “integrated,” and with its multi-racial cast and a plot that deals, among other things, with the plight of an inter-racial couple for whom it’s illegal to perform together in certain southern states, it’s “integrated” in more ways than one.
In the first film version of Show Boat, partially silent, the whole issue of race was dropped. But in the next movie version, released in 1936, director Whale, whose previous films include Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and The Bride of Frankenstein, restored the prickly racial issues. As the stevedore Joe, Paul Robeson — long before he was blacklisted for his pro-Soviet politics — sings the show’s most memorable anthem about how the mighty Mississippi River, that unstoppable force of nature, is completely indifferent to human suffering.
Image of Paul Robeson as Joe, courtesy of Warner Bros. Digital Distribution