Sunday, July 10, 2016

Musical Watch: Show Boat (1951)

Show Boat (1951) is one of those movies you see classic movie buffs referencing a lot, but which I'd never seen and didn't know anything about.  Except that it stars Ava Gardner (bonus!) who doesn't do her own singing (...yeah...).

It is, indeed, about a big paddle-wheel steamer on the Mississippi that acts as stage and home to a troop of river-bound performers in a sort of vaudeville show, and the story of the Hawks family that runs the show.

Familiar faces include the aforementioned Ava Gardner, Agnes Moorehead playing a tightly wound matronly figure (shocking, I know), Joe E. Brown as the ship's owner and stage producer, and Kathryn Grayson as the daughter of Moorehead and Brown, who wants to be a performer herself.

By 1951, color was nothing new in a movie - we're more than a decade past Wizard of Oz at this point, for example.  But, holy smokes, does this movie want to just abuse the privilege of Technicolor.  I don't know who the art director was on the movie, but they have a lot to answer for, particularly in the first reel.  Straight up - sometimes the clashing of colors is so garish, I kinda didn't want to look at the screen here and there, an effect I've only had previously prior to giving up on Speed Racer.*

pick a palette, movie

The plot is sort of a winding, multi-year span that's meant to feel epic, I guess, and reflects the origins from a novel of a certain era.  And the movie does think it's got a certain years-spanning sweep that it never quite earns, despite some gigantic set pieces, especially in the film's opening scenes, filmed somewhere with a paddle-boat, hundreds of extras and a small town on a river worthy of Mark Twain.  It's the 19th Century South, but I couldn't tell you when except "sometime after the Civil War".

You're going to initially be a little uncomfortable with seeing black people happily picking cotton in fields, but the movie suddenly pulls a bootleg reverse and informs you that Ava Gardner is the product of miscegenation, and her marriage to a white dude is illegal, and the whole show has to end.  Just when you thought you were getting regular ol' 1950's-era racism, they had something to say, or at least exploit in order to move the story along. The movie suddenly developing a social conscience 25 minutes in makes some sense with what's preceded it, but it has no intention of making the movie actually about this injustice.

Instead, Kathryn Grayson, waiting in the wings, is thrust front and center and the story becomes hers.  And that's where the plot is supposed to go, but I don't think I cared about anything that happened in this movie to anyone who wasn't Ava Gardner, and she sorta disappears after the first 30 minutes.  So, thanks, movie posters.

I dunno.  Short of seeing "Old Man River" performed in context - easily the most memorable tune of the film, I'm not sure this was really the movie for me.

My big take-away was that if I ever decide that this "Ryan Steans" identity isn't working for me anymore, you can find me under the nom de guerre "Gaylord Ravenal" and wearinga  mustache.

*if you ever want for me to doubt every other thing that comes out of your mouth, support this travesty of a movie

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