Sunday, November 28, 2010

Show Boat - the musical that changed everything


The Importance of Show Boat

When Show Boat was presented in 1927 by Florenz Ziegfeld, it was unlike anything the great showman had yet produced . His legendary Follies were really just vaudeville shows on a grand scale, featuring popular headliners of the day in unrelated scenes. Legendary performers such as Fanny Brice, Will Rogers, W.C. Fields and Sophie Tucker did their acts along side huge production numbers featuring scantily clad young women. Ziegfeld was 'Glorifying the American Girl', he claimed. He also presented light musical comedies such as Sally and Sunny with music by Jerome Kern. These were shows with wispy plots that were usually just vehicles for the star in question.

In the early part of the century, musical theater consisted of vaudeville shows, operettas imported from Europe or minstrel shows. In the 1910s a new type of musical that was purely American began to be seen. Jerome Kern, along with lyricist P.G. Wodehouse, created a string of this light, American style comedies about young people on Long Island estates and their love troubles. Once again, wispy plots that featured amusing tunes for the stars to sing.

Kern approached Ziegfeld with the idea of adapting Edna Ferber's epic novel Show Boat with a book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Amazingly, Ziegfeld agreed to gamble on a musical concerned with miscegenation, segregation, wife abuse and alcoholism. It was not only the subject matter that was revolutionary. The style was revolutionary as well. Songs grew out of the dramatic situation. True, the operetta roots of Show Boat are evident in songs such as You Are Love. However, the way that Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man grows out of the action in the kitchen scene, and how it comments sadly on Julie's situation and foreshadows what lies ahead for Magnolia, reveals a new depth for the musical. The light revue had been given a death-blow. The 'book musical' would assume prominence from that time forward.

The Pedigree of the 1936 film of Show Boat

There had been a 1929 film version of Show Boat that was largely silent, with some songs tacked on. It is a curiosity at best. The story differs greatly from the story of the musical, and the majority of the film features actors that had nothing to do with the musical's creation on Broadway.

MGM mounted a lavishly produced, Technicolor version of the musical in 1951, starring Kathryn Grayson as Magnolia and Howard Keel as Ravenal. These two leads sing beautifully, but there is not much chemistry between them. Ava Gardner is miscast as Julie. The fact that Lena Horne was available for the role and had sung a spectacular version of Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man in the Jerome Kern biopic Till The Clouds Roll By, gives a tantalizing indication of what might have been. The whole production suffers from what many feel are the great assets of the MGM musicals of the 1950s: lavish production numbers and big-name stars. The whole thing feels bloated.

The 1936 production produced by Universal is the great film version of this musical. At the time, Universal was known as the Horror Film studio. Show Boat's director James Whale already had tremendous success with a string of straight-forward horror films such as Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man as well as the great satire of the genre, The Old Dark House. These films are all notable for an eerie, Gothic atmosphere which can be traced back to the German Expressionism which exerted such a huge influence on early 'serious' film. The atmospherics are there in Show Boat as well. Here, however, they are employed to highlight emotional scenes. A good example of this is the montage during Old Man River. First, we hear Joe singing the song in a naturalistic setting: on a dock surrounded by other workers. As the song reaches its climax, we get a series of abstract images of toil and punishment which could have come straight out of an UFA production of the time.

The cast is fascinating in that many are associated with the original Broadway production. Charles Winninger reprises his Captain Andy from 1927. Irene Dunne (Magnolia) and Paul Robeson (Joe) were not in the original, but were part of the tour and are forever associated with the roles. Alas, we don't get to see Edna May Oliver's Parthy, which she created on Broadway, but it is not hard to imagine how perfect she would have been in the role. The great treasure of the film is the preservation of Helen Morgan's performance as Julie. Morgan, a sensation of the 1920's, is a little old for the role now, her voice a little creaky, but her fragility in the delivery of the torch song Bill is magnificent. She was only to live five more years, dying in 1941 at the age of 41.

Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein wrote two new numbers for the movie, I Have The Room Above Her and I Still Suits Me. They are minor songs, but it is exciting to know that the creators of the show were still working on it as the movie was being filmed. Thus, it is both a reflection of the original, as well as a work in progress.


As Magnolia's performing career on the Cotton Blossom itself blossoms, we get to see many of her performances. The scene between the school teacher and her beloved Hamilton is an affectionate depiction of what types of melodramas were being performed in the days of the Cotton Blossom. The histrionic acting and overheated dialogue seem right. The audience's reaction confirms this. The humor of the scene comes not from the film's condescension to the play, but to the woodsmen's reaction - their belief that reality is happening on stage. The play itself is performed almost in documentary fashion.

The same sort of care is given to reflect authenticity in the musical numbers that are performed within the movie. This does not refer to the songs that grow out of the action, like You Are Love, I Have The Room Above Her and Old Man River. Instead, it applies to the scenes that are showing performances, such as Magnolia's New Year's Eve premiere in Chicago. Instead of composing an original song for this scene, Jerome Kern decided to interpolate After the Ball. This song was composed in 1891 and was a sensation. It sold millions of copies of sheet music, the first song to have such success. It defined the era musically, and for Show Boat's 1927 audience, it would have been an efficient evocation of the era.

The cakewalk performed by Ellie and Frank is also danced to an authenic song of the period, Goodbye, Ma Lady Love. The dancing is staged in such a way as to recall the style of the minstrel shows that would have been current at the time the movie is depicting.

There is no question that Black musical and theatrical performance styles were the pre-eminent entertainment forces in the era being shown in the early parts of Show Boat. True, there was a strong tradition of operetta and opera at the time, but the home-grown entertainment was predominantly derived from Black styles.

Understanding the way the creators of Show Boat were striving to portray authentic musical numbers of the time, should help us to see Magnolia's Gallivanting Around with something subtler than a knee-jerk condemnation of the scene as racist and offensive. Yes, Magnolia is in black-face, yes, she is plucking on a banjo and yes, she is mugging in a bug-eyed fashion throughout. However,
this was a convention of the time being shown. The exaggerated cartoonish depiction of the characters in blackface had little to do with real Black people, just as the characters played by drag performers have little to do with real women. The caricatures of blackface are as irrelevant to our contemporary entertainment sensibility as commedia dell'arte is. The point that needs to be made here is that including a blackface scene in Show Boat is as appropriate as using the N-word in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Both are absolutely appropriate because the intentions behind both are not racist and do not intend to demean. Both intend to portray.

The critic John Lahr has summed this up beautifully, saying, "..describing racism doesn't make Show Boat racist. The production is meticulous in honoring the influence of black culture not just in the making of the nation's wealth but, through music, in the making of its modern spirit."

As further proof, Queenie and Joe, though secondary characters, are not stereotypes. Joe, in fact, moves through the proceedings in the role of Greek chorus, wisely commenting on what is happening. He gets the most famous song of the show, Old Man River. This song also has Black roots in that it is as close to a spiritual as a white man has ever written. The song defines the whole show - time floods on, regardless of people. The fact that this profound observation is put in the mouth of a Black man goes a long way to refute any charge of racism to which the mere depiction of a blackface number might give rise.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Who Kills the Beast? Beauty? Maybe Not.

From the moment the credits start, King Kong impresses as being ultra-modern. This seems an odd thing to say about a film that is 77 years old. I do not mean modern for our times, but modern for 1933. The credits are drawn in bold Art Deco lettering, which reflects the design rage of the day. So many of the films of the early 30s were heavily influenced by Art Deco design, so having the credits so drawn makes it seem as if the film is saying 'I am urgently of today'.

The contemporary cues pile up in the first part of the movie. Anne Darrow's out-of-work situation clearly reflects the Depression that was only then being felt by the population at large. The repeated shots of a glittering New York, the most modern city in the world, are a good offset to that most modern of constructions: The Empire State Building. This building will, of course, figure in the climax of the film in the legendary fight between Kong and the biplanes.

Once this modernity is sufficiently set up, the true conflict of the movie comes to the fore. The romantic journey to Skull Island results in the arrival in the picture of the great, primeval Kong. He is as much a wonder in his world as the Empire State is in New York City. Where the Empire State is a cold, steel and glass phallic presence, Kong is raw sexual energy. The inevitable meeting of the two hastens the climax.

Anne Darrow is the link between these two forces: aspiring star of Manhattan and love object of Kong. This is especially apparent in the scene when Kong pulls her out of her room in the building as he makes his ascent to meet his doom.

Kong in New York is a dangerous, disruptive force not just because he is big, but because there is nothing of the modern about him. He is ancient. He is sexual force incarnate. There is no place for him in Manhattan. As they say in the old Western, the town ain't big enough for the two of them.

Something has to give, and, alas, it is the mighty Kong.

The famous final line seems to be wrong. Beauty doesn't kill the beast. Modernity does.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Ways of Considering The Blue Angel

Der blaue Engel (The Blue Angel) 1930
directed by Joseph von Sternberg starring Emil Jannings and Marlene Dietrich

Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss auf Liebe eingestellt,
Denn das ist meine Welt. und sonst gar nichts.
Das ist, was soll ich machen, meine Natur,
Ich kann halt lieben nur und sonst gar nichts.

Männer umschwirren mich, wie Motten um das Licht.
Und wenn sie verbrennen, ja dafür kann ich nicht.
Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss auf Liebe eingestellt,
Ich kann halt lieben nur und sonst gar nichts.

(I am completely tuned into loving,
that is my world and nothing else.
That is....what can I say?.... my nature!
I can merely love and do nothing else.

Men flutter around me like moths around a light
And if they get burned, well, I can't do anything about that.
I am completely tuned into loving,
I can simply love and do nothing else)
- trans. M. Brown

The Blue Angel is often regarded as a fable of the upstanding member of society brought low by the siren. This is certainly a valid reading, if also a cliched one. The lyrics to Lola-Lola's famous song (see above) belie a nonchanlance regarding the effects of her carnality which borders on amorality, and Professor Rath is burned by her flame. If the film were only this, it would be no more than a moralistic sermon, albeit an entertaining one. The Blue Angel is more than this, however, for reasons of intention by its creators, and reason of coincidence of history.

First, let us look at the reasons of intention. The main character of the story is Professor Immanuel Rath, played by the great silent film star, Emil Jannings. His last name, Rath, means 'counsel' or 'advice' in German. It is a fitting name for a man of erudition . (The title of the Heinrich Mann novel on which the movie is based, is Professor Unrath, is a pun on this name. Unrat means 'filth' or 'garbage', the name that students taunt him with.) It is Professor Rath's decline and fall that is the thrust of the story. He is the embodiment of Prussian rigor and bourgeois self-satisfaction. He marches through his world as the flaming sword of virtue and social correctness. His downfall is painful to watch. His destruction is total.

Were this merely a moral tale, Rath's fall would be tragic, and the cause of that downfall would be depicted as totally evil. Surprisingly, the catalyst for that fall, Lola-Lola, played by Marlene Dietrich in a legend-making performance, is a beautifully nuanced character. Instead of depicting her as a mindless, oversexed hussy, the creators of the film take great care to show Lola-Lola's awareness of her effect on men. This is especially apparent in the scenes in her dressing room with the students. One senses that she is keeping her sensuality at bay. She knows her power, but doesn't use it. Of course, it is still enough to drive the boys mad. If the film followed the conventions of a moral tale, we would expect that she would unleash the full power of her attraction when Professor Rath appears on the scene to upbraid her for corrupting the morals of his students. Instead, she is mildly amused at him and continues getting ready for the act.

The surprise in this relationship happens when the Professor defends her honor before the drunken sailor. In a beautifully modulated performance by Dietrich we see how Lola-Lola is touched by his gallantry. The way she plays this scene paves the way for what otherwise would have been unbelievable: the marriage of Professor and Cabaret Singer. The intention of the film's creators to portray Lola-Lola as less than evil and the Professor as less than sympathetic undermines any interpretation of the film as a simplistic moral lesson.

The coincidences of history lead to more symbolic readings to the film. Two particular historical readings are interesting to consider.

1- When the film was released in 1930, Germany was on the verge of great upheaval. The staggering inflation of the post World War I era had crippled the country. The Weimar Repulic, which had been the government of the country, was in free-fall. Weimar-era Germany is often portrayed as a decadent society that collapsed as the Third Reich was on the rise. Professor Rath can be seen as the decaying social order that was dealt a death blow in World War I and had a long slow slide into death. In this construct, Lola-Lola can be seen as the seductive side of National Socialism which hastened the end of Weimar. Of course, the creators of the film could have no idea what was to happen in Germany in just a few years from the release of the film, but I don't believe that precludes this historical reading of the film

2- The Blue Angel is Emil Janning's first sound film. He was among the most lauded screen actors of the silent era and was hoping that this film would be an auspicious launch to the next phase of his career. Marlene Dietrich was one of the 'immortals' of the sound era. Her silent film appearances were negligible and largely forgotten. With the release of The Blue Angel she became the very definition of screen goddess. It is fascinating to watch the two characters in light of this tension. Rath, as portrayed by Janning's silent era acting style in comparison to the sound era style of Lola-Lola, as played by Dietrich. Janning's is an outsized, histrionic performance, relying on exaggerated facial expression and large physical gestures. Dietrich performance in comparison, is all about the voice and the small gesture.The acting is subtle and modulated. Of course, the grandly theatrical style of silent film quickly perished and was completely replaced by the style represented by Dietrich.

Sideline on Silent vs. Sound film acting:

It was inevitable that the silent film acting style would have died out. When sound was added, a huge artificiality of film was removed and it became more a recording of reality. The gestures and movements of the operatic silent movie style of acting had to go. Even though they were once the standard, they now were incongruous. Looking at a world as shown in a silent film is odd since one of your five senses is excluded and the sense of sight has to compensate for what is missing. Once sound comes in, the balance of the senses is back and the compensation is no longer necessary.

I think it is safe to say that the actors who survived the shift to sound are not necessarily the actors who has good voices, but the ones who knew how to scale things back, or were already naturalistic in the silent era. I'm thinking of Greta Garbo in particular. Valentino didn't have a chance. Of course, dying before sound came in precluded a success in talkies, but still he would have been a disaster.

An interesting case is Chaplin. He was a particular screen presence. The Little Tramp was so ingrained in the consciousness of the world, that when he made talking films with that character, they were essentially silent films with a soundtrack. I am thinking of Modern Times and City Lights. When he made true sound films, the Little Tramp is gone and the films are less successful.