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.
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!