Musical Monday: It’s Show Boat, Kittens!

Posted on April 23, 2007


The showboat people are coming and they want to BURN YOUR RETINAS!

Yes folks, it’s Show Boat! That technicolor ode to racism and good women marrying bad men. Also, Boy George’s favorite musical. There’s a LOT of plot (and sadly, no clips on YouTube), so let’s get crackin’!

As the Cotton Blossom pulls into port, the entire ensemble explodes from the boat in their neon-colored finery, a-shuckin’ and a-jivin’ like mad to earn a couple pennies and get people to look at them. Thus, in the Old South, drag shows were born.

To illustrate this point, the crowd is introduced to Ava Gardner as Julie:

Julie’s a former trannie prostitute who dreamed of making it to the big time and now turns tricks in an ice cream parlour.

Okay no, Julie’s the leading lady of the company but she’s got a secret.

Julie’s husband Steve, the company’s leading man who secretly is also Mayor McCheese, dukes it out with – oh, I can’t be bothered to look up the character’s name. He’s got like 4 lines. He hates Julie because she spurned him. That’s all you need to know. The townspeople are fearful of these colorful low-class strangers and scurry back to their farms and plantations where they can take out their frustrations on their servants.

Later, Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson meet and engage in foreplay.

Keel is Gaylord Ravenal, who is not a homosexual at all but is a big time gambler who needs to move on from this town and set up somewhere else. He’s looking for passage on the Cotton Blossom. Grayson is Magnolia “Nolie” Hawks, a virgin. She’s looking for sex.

The divine Agnes Moorehead and Joe E. Brown play Nolie’s parents, the proprietors and Captain of the Cotton Blossom.

Agnes can smell her daughter’s hormones from 20 yards away and quickly says no to Howard.

But this is a musical and when a professional virgin like Kathryn Grayson sings a duet with a man, that means she’s got it bad and all we can do is sit back and watch the train derail. She heads up to see Julie, figuring “She’s pretty slutty. What would she say?” Ava launches into the sublime “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” Delicious. She was dubbed, but supposedly her original tracks were considered by many to be superior. Either way, she was gorgeous to look at even if she was just lip-synching.

Later, Marge and Gower Champion do something cute. Seriously, these two are annoying. Talented dancers and he was easy on the eyes, but their whole schtick was so sickly sweet and ain’t-we-cute. Every time they have a dance number, the whole movie comes to a halt and you’re left there wondering “Who put muppets in this movie?”

Meanwhile backstage, the Sheriff shows up to arrest Julie and Steve. Turns out Julie’s biracial and apparently the southern part of the United States had some racial difficulties at one point. It’s all very obscure, but Julie and Steve have to get out of the state due to anti-miscegenation laws.

Seriously, it’s a bizarre shift in tone to go from Gower Champion’s goofy grin to “Get that negro out of town,” in seconds. This version of the story (the 1936 film is generally considered superior) is certainly to be lauded for openly discussing the racial issues, but drops the ball in the long run because no conclusions are made, nor are any real comments made about it. It’s just a plot point that gets dropped and picked up again whenever it’s needed.

Also, pay attention to Ava Gardner. In each subsequent scene, her skin gets darker and her hair gets curlier. Ah, musicals. Subtlety is a dirty word.

So, Steve and Julie head out immediately in a drippingly sad scene as William Warfield sings “Old Man River” to their departing carriage.

“Old Man River” suffers under the weight of too much cultural referencing, but when it’s sung well, it is an amazingly stirring song. Warfield’s no Paul Robeson (who sang it in 1936), but he sells the hell out of it and the sequence is genuinely sad as Julie pulls away.

Gardner is luminescent in this scene and it took a while to get a clear screencap but the look of sadness on her face as the song wells to its final note and she takes one last look at the Cotton Blossom? Kittens, that’s what musicals are for.

Smarmy Howard Keel shows up just as the boat’s preparing to leave, ever the opportunist, and asks if they’re looking for a new leading man.

Try and guess the reactions when Nolie and Endora hear the news. Nolie gets to be the new leading lady, the Cotton Blossom can trumpet their all-new lily-white cast, and Nolie and Gaylord get an excuse to make out every night.

They kiss like two lampreys stuck together.

When they finally come up for air, they’re engaged and Endora is NOT happy.

But Nolie’s gotten a taste and that’s all she needs. She dons her best vagina hat and heads off to Chicago to marry Gaylord and live the high life. But you know how it is with gamblers.

One minute you’re dressed like a toilet paper roll cover and living in a gilded doll house…

…and the next, you’re sitting in a coldwater flat, wearing an ugly dress and staring at the dregs of bitter coffee in the bottom of your cup.

Nolie’s a bit of a spoiled little brat and tears into Gaylord before they both stomp out.

Later, Marge and Gower show up in the most ludicrous of plot twists and stand there uncomfortably as Nolie discovers that Gaylord has left her and all she has left is his lucky walking stick. Which she rubs. A lot.

Meanwhile, Julie is also working in Chicago and her life has taken a down turn since Steve left. Drunk and unglamorous, she’s something of a problem to her employers.

And speaking of employers, Hey! Coincidence! They also happen to be the same club that the Champions are booked at and they take Nolie along for an audition just to get her to put down that damn walking stick.

Guy in the middle? Five lines. Hot ass. Look for him.

Julie overhears Nolie singing, gets the lowdown from the hot guy with the nice ass and runs off, quitting her job so Nolie can take her place. She’s Black now and that means her needs always come second to the pretty white girl in trouble.

Later, Captain Andy rolls into town on New Year’s Eve, thinking to catch Nolie and Gaylord, but winding up with a gaggle of prostitutes instead.

Unfortunately, he’s in for a shock…

As Nolie comes out dressed like…well, Jesus. What IS she dressed like? A slutty party favor?

Backstage, they press their faces really tightly together and Nolie tells him that Gaylord left her and oh by the way, she’s pregnant. We can’t have the nasty particulars hashed out because this is a musical, so you know what that means! Montage time!

Forty seconds later, she’s back on the boat in the arms of her loving family with a 6 year old daughter and no one mentions how badly she’s fucked things up.

Although everyone on the boat understands to just walk away when she pulls out that walking stick. It’s better than standing there in awkward silence as she pants and rubs.

Meanwhile, Julie’s darker than ever and the darker she gets the further down she falls. She’s a drunk on a gambling boat wearing shitty clothes and making a fool of herself.

She runs into Gaylord and figures out who he is. Stepping up to her role as helpful guide to white folks, she tells him about his daughter and where he can find his family before stumbling away tragically.

He runs down to the docks, scoops up the first little girl he sees and starts singing to her. Luckily for him, she is in fact his daughter. And she’s annoying.

Nolie and Gaylord discuss their marriage and their options maturely, with no rancor, and decide to work on compromises and solutions to address certain issues while learning to communicate their needs effectively, without accusations.

Haha! No, they just kiss.

We’re heading into the two-hour mark, so people have to act wildly out of character in order to wrap this thing up. Endora is inexplicably thrilled that the gambler who impregnated and abandoned her daughter has shown up after seven years.

And Ava, now a lovely caramel mocha color, watches with satisfaction as she reflects on how she has torn down her own life in service to another’s, losing everything and watching a white girl take her place. She smiles and blows a kiss at the Cotton Blossom. All is right with the world.

All we have to say is, thank God this ended when it did because if this had gone on another half hour, she would have been in full Aunt Jemima drag by the end.

Next week: Prepare to feel pretty and witty and GAY, bitches!


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  • Anonymous

    What a summary! I’ve played in the orchestra for two different productions of this show, I didn’t enjoy either. Though there are some terrific individual songs.

    As you said, the original 1936 production is better on several levels. One interesting note about the original is the director was James Whale.

    That said, I’ll let Bill do his thing about the ’51 production. The last thing I want to do is steal his considerable thunder.

  • Jules

    Excellent summary! And I so agree with the “burn your retinas” – I was blinded by those opening shots.

  • Emily

    Thank God you noticed the browning of Ava. The first time I saw Show Boat, I thought I was having a stroke.

    West Side Story! YAY!

  • Anonymous

    OOOOOOOOOO George Chakiris!

    He’s, like, old now but still wears the Bernardo pomp.

  • Muse of Ire

    Kathryn Grayson has to be one of the least talented musical stars ever. Her thin, pseudo-operatic trilling always makes me reach for the mute button.

    Showboat is a prime example of my theory that the second heroine of a story is usually more interesting than the primary one, who just has to sit around looking virginal all day.

  • potty mouth princess

    I’ve never been able to get thru this one…now I know why. Bless you girls for suffering for the rest of us. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Can’t wait for WEST SIDE STORY!!!!

  • Gorgeous Things

    Oh, my sides hurt from laughing! I took a master class with Paul Robeson back in the ’80s. I think he was about 85 at the time, and he was so dignified. He had a wonderful walking stick (he didn’t rub his, he leaned on it), and sang a couple of songs, including ‘Old Man River’. He brought down the house and was a real inspiration to us students. And he was funny and sweet. Ah, sigh!

    Anyway, great take on a cheesy musical! I can’t wait til WSS next week!!!

  • Kathryn


    Sorry. Kinda sorta love that musical a little bit.

    I’ve heard of Showboat but haven’t seen it, so I didn’t enjoy this one as much as I usually do. Loved the commentary, though =).

  • mumblesalot (Laura A)

    “………just walk away when she pulls out that walking stick. It’s better than standing there in awkward silence as she pants and rubs.”

    Wow that stick is instrumental in the plot no wonder i never understood this movie.

    Muse of Ire….yep Grayson’s voice triggers automatic mute response from me and her usual partner, Nelson Eddy is so creepy.. heck I don’t even want to type his name.

  • Mike

    notice everyone picked up on the next week hint? Can’y wait on your take on the dancing gangs

  • Anonymous

    Hate Showboat. Stupid racist movie. Though the plot devices in film/tv still ring true today. Lena Horne was supposed to play Julie in the film but the production code board vetoed her because miscegenation was banned in film. Hooray for Hollywood!

  • chicksinger

    Holy hell, what is she wearing in that “After the Ball” scene? It’s like some weird amalgamation of a dancing girl from Frontierland and a Mardi Gras-themed Vegas cocktail waitress.

    I really liked the touring production of Showboat about 12 years ago, but the films, especially the 50s version, have never really done it for me.

    And I once knew a struggling actress (with a thin, high soprano voice) who claimed to be Grayson’s granddaughter and said grandma was a bitch. So there you have it.

  • Bill

    “We’re heading into the two-hour mark, so people have to act wildly out of character in order to wrap this thing up.”

    Perfect summary of what happens in far too many musicals.

    I’m ashamed to admit that I have never seen Show Boat. I’ve seen the glaringly colorful opening sequence and the Old Man River bit and that’s about it.

    Sounds like Marge & Gower Champion have silly parts in this movie. But they're Broadway legends so I'm going to bat for them (plus I've got nothing to say about the movie since I haven't seen it).

    Gower was responsible for directing & choreographing Carnival, Hello Dolly, Sugar, Bye Bye Birdie & 42nd Street (among others). Gower died the morning of the opening of his Broadway production of 42nd Street. In a legendary move of showmanship, Gower's death was kept from everyone by producer David Merrick and was announced to the stunned cast and audience during one of the curtain calls of the wildly successful opening night.

    We have run into Marge Champion in NYC many times in the last few years. She was wonderful in a Broadway revival of Follies in 2000. She is still quite pretty and a lovely person. She is also stepmother to Liz & Jean (Double Trouble) Segal and Katey (Peg Bundy) Segal.

  • Anonymous

    So sorry, I know this is Show Boat’s comments section but I am so excited and cannot wait for the Male Camel Toe Fest that is West Side Story!!!

  • littlekarnak


    West Side Story…YAY!!!! Finally a musical I’ve seen all the way through!! (I know, sad.)

  • thombeau

    Yay! Vagina hats! Endora! Slutty party favors! Boy George! You guys hit all the right notes on a musical that just drags (in every sense of the word).

    Word for the day: quadroon.

    Looking forward to next week!

  • snf in va

    Aaaarghh!!! My eyes!!!! My eyes!!! I’m blind!! Somebody help me! Oh, wait, it’s just Technicolor.

    Yeah, Lena Horne was supposed to have played Julie…apparently Lena was friends with Ava Gardner, too, and they had a good laugh about Max Factor formulating a new shade of pancake makeup for Ava to use in this film, called ‘Dark Egyptian’. Or something like that.

  • aimee

    Hee! I’ve only ever seen “Showboat” on a really shitty pirate videotape that I’ve had since I was a teenager, and honestly I thought it was a problem with the color on the tape that made Ava get darker. What were they *thinking*?

    and: EEEEEEEEEEEE! West Side Story!

  • winged_sheep

    You guys are amazing!!!! Thank you thank you …

    and speaking of technicolor, racism, and great songs, how about “Finian’s Rainbow”??? It has a wonderfully dated video version you would eviscerate in your inimitable styles!

  • Neverwhere


    Seriously boys, your witty, insightful commentary is the only thing that makes mondays worth getting up for. Your loving yet snarky tributes never fail to make me laugh out loud. A lot. ๐Ÿ™‚

    *bounces excitedly in ancipation for West Side Story* ๐Ÿ˜€

  • Anonymous

    My grandparents would let me and my sister watch musicals until we had cheesy lyrics coming out of our ears. I loved it and wanted to be Gene Kelly so bad growing up. I guess tap lessons and having rhythm would have been helpful.

    This musical would have been better if we watched that whore, Julie, on her downward drunken spiral into the gutter.
    Was Eva married to Frank Sinatra at during the production of this?

  • The Divine Miss M

    Bless your hearts for doing this. I can remember watching this show as a high school freshman in drama class. My drama teacher lurved this show, and was so happy that I would get to see it. Aside from the jolly racism throughout the movie, the one thing that pissed me off the most was how happy the slaves were when the showboat was pulling in. Do y’all remember this part? All of the slaves are in the field, and they’re grinning and yelling that the showboat is here! Oh, Lawd, I’s been pickin’ cotton since the sun come up, and Massa done had his way with me earlier in the day, but the showboat is here! Oooh, I’s happy now!

    And (gorgeous) Ava instead of (perfect) Lena? Insane. But it was kind of hard to stomach “real” miscegenation back then.

    Yeah…sorry for the rant, but I can’t stand this movie.

  • annabelle

    West Side Story? Yay! One of the best musicals, as long as it isn’t’ preformed by high schoolers.

  • Ian

    The original production makes so much more sense than the movie… unfortunately it costs such a bomb to produce and doesn’t feature hit songs by a now-retired band from the baby-boomer generation, it’s unlikely to be mounted again soon on any stage.

  • dr k

    thanks so much for showboat…i’ve never posted. but i am waiting… for diva match with the incredible ava gardner. look out you pale grease-paint-brow bitches. ava was the real deal…


  • Alice

    I have always HATED show boat, it’s boring, racist, and just annoying (although I love Howard Keel, just not in this movie). I must say your recap was much more entertaining than the movie itself. Can’t wait for WSS!!

  • Anonymous

    You guys NEVER fail to deliver the wittiest and funniest recaps. Thanks for brightening my Mondays!

  • KingRoper

    Show Boat (1927) was arguably the first real ‘musical theater’ show – it had a plot, songs that (usually) advanced the story, and had a point to make (racism is bad) … and it began the use of a song contrivance still in use today (there’s a name for it which escapes me at the moment)…

    When the two main lovers first meet, it’s not plausible for them to immediately fall in love and sing a love song, so they wrote the next best thing… the ‘imaginary’ love song. It’s “Only Make-Believe” I love you… thus they can have a love song early in Act I. Hammerstein used this a LOT throughout his career… (“If I Loved You”, “People Will Say We’re In Love”… etc)

    Can you imagine what this garish flick must’ve looked like on a giant screen? Horrifying! You must check out the ’36 b/w version sometime… it’s a MUCH better adaptation.

  • lisasabatier

    God, I love you!

  • Say What?

    I think I need to kick my family out of the house for a week and rent every musical I can find. Put on some sunglasses so I don’t totally burn out my retinas, make a huge bowl of popcorn and just immerse myself in singing, dancing, racism, weak story lines, cheesy acting, and tight pants!

    Next week should be excellent! I have actually seen WSS! Our high school just put WSS on last week. Didn’t get to go, but heard it was pretty good.

  • pokeystar

    Can not wait for West Side Story.

    Bring on the snaps!!!

  • anapestic

    I’ll have to admit here that all of my experience with Show Boat comes from seeing (vastly superior) productions of the stage musical on PBS, but in that (vastly superior) format, it’s a musical about racism rather than a racist musical. The plot is a bit silly even in the stage versions, but not nearly so silly as what you’re describing here. And, in my experience, the stage versions are well in excess of two hours and not in the least difficult to endure.

  • Tina

    OMG! I love SHOWBOAT! Howard Keel is da man! I have to say I prefer Helen Morgan as Julie though.

    Incidentally, the story takes place from around the 1890s to the 1920’s so it was well past the slavery days.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you! I actually look forward to Mondays now!

    Please tell me Camelot is coming up sometime soon…

  • Skippy Devereaux

    The guy in the middle with the hot ass—isn’t that Chick Chandler?? Never have seen “Show Boat”, but he is in the movie.