Just saw James Whale's Showboat again, and this time around it was like a a fist connecting with your face; you swoon, you see stars, literally.
It's an odd musical, when you think about it; it basically begins with a great story--of Julie (Helen Morgan), the half-black singer who marries Steve (Donald Cook), her white co-star--then for whatever reason angles off to the less incendiary subject of Gaylord (Allan Jones), a gambler who falls in love with Nola (Irene Dunne), the showboat captain's daughter, and stays with them for the rest of the film.
It's not as if the remainder is negligible, but compared to that moment of terror and tension where Julie and Steve have to prove they're innocent of miscagenation, or the scene where Queenie (Hattie MacDaniel) and Joe (Paul Robeson) argue over a mess of peas, I think it's no contest--Julie, Steve, Queenie and Joe have it over Nola and Gaylord in terms of pathos, passion, humor and bittersweet affection.
That said, this is possibly the best role Jones ever had; I've mostly seen him as the male ingenue in Marx Brothers comedies, where compared to their far more vivid presences he usually faded into the background. Here he's a cad, a harmless one who's more likely to give a woman a hurt look than strike her, but is just as unable to support her; his sudden disappearance three-fourths of the way into the picture is sudden, but hardly surprising--you expect it of him. When he comes back for the finale, it's touching how feeble and out-of-touch he seems; Jones, who usually seems sweet and charming, finally achieves the kind of sad pathos his characters are destinied to achieve (they always needed the Marx Brothers' help to come out all right).
James Whale's treatment is splendidly extravagant--the film opens with the camera swooping down on a lovely diorama, with little cutout figures (their clothes and expressions sketched on) tinkling past a marvelously detailed cardboard town complete with lampposts, banners, verandas. Whale reminds us of this shot when he introduces the showboat itself--he shoots at a low angle, from behind the crowd, so that it looks as if a huge, gaudy building was floating into town (much like that cutout parade floated into the cutout town). He inserts volputuous tracking shots of gigantic, gorgeous sets, and stitches them together with precise editing, the little hairs at the back of your neck tingling from the sheer pleasure generated by his visual style. For the number "Can't Help Lovin Dat Man," he layers the room in light and shadow, so that when Dunne does this odd back-and-forth swaying dance she moves in and out of the light, a girl-child hovering between innocence and sexual knowledge.
Later, Nola and Gaylord have become the star of the show, and Whale gives us that show, complete with a hundred and one disasters and a thousand little tricks of the stage--a simple effect, like a lamp with a reflector rising behind a scrim to represent the moon, and the audience gasps with delight. Whale tops the sequence off with an extended scene of Charles Winninger as showboat captain Andy Hawks, describing what the rest of the play would have been like if if the actor playing the villain hadn't taken sick (frightened off the stage by two belligerent viewers offended by his villainy). Winninger plays all the parts at once, filling his tale with titanic struggles and spectacular slapstick, and Whale shoots him head on, following every pratfall; the audience responds by cheering him far louder than they ever would have if the play had been done properly (you feel as if Cap'n Andy would do the whole show all by himself, if he could). It's theater at its most enchanting, the way Whale presents it; you have to shake your head hard to remember that this is a movie from the '30s, being broadcast on cable TV.
Then there's Paul Robeson as Joe, with his wonderful paean to black male indolence "Ah Still Suits Me" that slyly turns into a loving tribute to his wife Queenie, and, of course, "Ole Man River," one of the greatest song numbers in all of cinema.
The song's opening shot couldn't be simpler: Robeson sits with his back against the wharf pilings, his deep church-organ voice pouring out the words; the camera circles closer and closer, looking for the best place to sit down and listen. Whale inserts terrifying images--of a black man with his arms raised in despair; of slow barges to be toted, huge bales to be lifted; of the jail cell that awaits him at day's end. By the number's end, Robeson's pained, gravid voice--slow not with indolence but with an awesome patience--sounds like the voice of the vast, ageless, knowing river he's been singing about (it may not be God, but it sure as hell feels and sounds like something close). His reprise of the song closes the film, giving it a grandeur it otherwise wouldn't have.