MovieChat Forums > Show Boat (1936) Discussion > Saw it for the first time tonight

Saw it for the first time tonight


Turner Classic Movies is having a special all May on black actors in film. This was one of the films that they showed. Anyway, I enjoyed it especially Paul Robeson's Old Man River number. But theres one scene that was offensive and racist and it really didn't spoil the whole film. I'm talking about the Gallivantin Around black-face number sung by Irene Dunn. Especially at the end of the songs where all the white people in the auidence are laughing. Yeah like it was really funny fools.

I always tell the truth even when I lie Tony Montana (Scarface)

reply

You have to remember that that particular scene takes place in the 1880's, and in the 1880's, blacks were not allowed to perform onstage, especially in the South. So every time a black character was portrayed onstage, he/she was played by a white actor with blackface makeup. If you had been able to see a performance on a show boat in which a black character appeared, you would have seen a white actor with black makeup.

We don't know what the portrayals of blacks were actually like on 19th century stages, but I'd guess they were similar to what was done in that song. They probably were pretty exaggerated. Minstrel shows existed back then.

The only black character portrayed in a dignified way onstage back then was probably Shakespeare's "Othello", and yes, in the 19th century, Othello was always played by a white actor with black makeup.

Of course, that blackface number in "Show Boat" wasn't really necessary - it's not from the original show. It was written by Kern and Hammerstein especially for the film.

reply

In 1936, Al Jolson was still doing blackface for a living, Mickey and Judy were doing blackface at MGM, and it was still viewed as a valid, if more and more unsettling, form of entertainment. "Gallavantin' Around" can be excused in a film where the southern black characters are treated with dignity, respect and authenticity, if not necessarily with the "political correctness" of seventy years' worth of hindsight. In the stage show, the spot was filled with an "olio" dance for Frank, which would not be too persuasive in an Irene Dunne film. Besides, the audience isn't laughing at the character. They're laughing at the prop bird that gets stuck "mid-flight" during the number.

reply

That's a very misleading statement that you make about Jolson actually, he was not "doing blackface for a living" in the mid or late 1930s but had already moved beyond that part of his act for the most part. The only time I've seen him do blackface around that time was in the film version of George Gershwin's biography, "Rhapsody in Blue," in which he was supposed to be portraying himself in the early 1920s singing "Swanee." Furthermore Al Jolson was never a traditional minstrel performer except perhaps in his very early days. A lot of what he did was to try to undermine the stereotypes through the use of blackface. But it all kind of falls under a generic category in people's minds these days.

Did I not love him, Cooch? MY OWN FLESH I DIDN'T LOVE BETTER!!! But he had to say 'Nooooooooo'

reply

It was unessacary to the plot of the movie. And thanks for clearing that audience laughing scene up for me.

I buried those cockaroaches Tony Montana (Scarface)

reply

It would be difficult to have a musical film called SHOW BOAT and not have a musical number exemplifying that particular type of entertainment. "The Parson's Bride" scene might suffice for a non-musical film, but not for a musical. You need a "show boat" performance number somewhere. It's also dramatically sound to have a "performance" number for the character of Magnolia early in the proceedings to give a hint of her future success as a performer. In the play, the olio number was given to Frank to cover a costume and scenery change, unnecessary in a film.

And not all songs have to move the plot along. Certainly "Ol' Man River", wonderful song that it is, doesn't move the plot along one inch. Sets a mood? Yes, wonderfully. Advances the plot? No, not a bit. Nor do all show songs have to.

reply

I agree, that song is the only real problem with this movie version, and I've never understood why it was added. It was not part of the original play. Most of the songs in the movie that deal with black characters are dignified but this one almost undoes a lot of what the others accomplished. The blackface act isn't offensive in and of itself to me (although I know it is to a lot of people), but it's highly unfortunate that the song perpetuates certain sexual stereotypes of black people as extremely promiscuous. It's the same stereotype that we saw in a more virulent and hateful form the following year in "Gone With the Wind" in the sequences where the freed slaves immediately begin seeking out white women to rape. I can't explain why Hammerstein wrote the song or why it was added to the play. Blackface entertainment wasn't even popular any more in the late 30s, but I assume they felt that since a lot of the appeal of "Show Boat" was nostalgic they could include it as a period piece. I also think that by the 1920s and 1930s the stereotypes presented in the "coon shows" had become so extreme that they were almost completely divorced from the reality of black people in most people's minds, especially since these shows had gone on for so many generations that they actually became traditional. I don't think that many people thought about it the way we would now. But Oscar Hammerstein was a very liberal guy in a lot of ways so it's hard to explain why he wouldn't.

Did I not love him, Cooch? MY OWN FLESH I DIDN'T LOVE BETTER!!! But he had to say 'Nooooooooo'

reply

Actually, you're mistaken about Jolson. He was still doing blackface in films as late as 1934's WONDER BAR. And if you find "Gallivantin' Around" disconcerting, wait until you see WONDER BAR's "Goin" To Heaven On A Mule".

reply

He always had the blackface thing as part of his act it's true, even though I think his film masterpeice is "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum!" and he didn't use blackface in that one at all.

Did I not love him, Cooch? MY OWN FLESH I DIDN'T LOVE BETTER!!! But he had to say 'Nooooooooo'

reply

I actually think "Gallivantin Around" in those times was meant as a loving tribute with no malice intended. It perfectly depicts the kind of song num ber that would be done on a show boat. The laughing of the audience comes when the fake bird gets stuck. They are not laughing at the blackface in the number. The film more accurately depicts a period of history starting in 1880. The cut up dinale of the film is a little out of whack, but I think this is definitely the better version of the film. If "Gallivantin Around" was done today in a film, I can understand those who are offended as this form of entertainment is dead now, and few would understand the historical reference to a style of oerformance that was perfectly acceptible by both whites and blacks. Bert Williams was black and he was known as one of the greatest entertainers in the early part of the century. His trademark was blackface as well.

reply

'Gallivantin' Around' was a really bad addition to what should have been a great film. I'm sure that you are aware that it was NOT in the original "Show Boat"

"I love corn!"

reply

yes we know by now it wasn't in the original Broadway musical. It has been mentioned a few times in this thread.

Oh GOOD!,my dog found the chainsaw

reply

That's how it was back then. In the movie "Yankee Doodle Dandy" about the career of George Cohan and his family (known as the Four Cohans), if I'm not mistaken there was a blackface number. Not all of it but a clip, meant to show the various songs they sang.

reply

There is a Minstrel number in Yankee Doodle Dandy with the four Cohans. But I can't compare that number to the Minstrel numbers in Babes In Arms (1939 Mickey Rooney Judy Garland) Babes on Broadway (1941 Mickey Rooney Judy Garland) Show Boat (1936) Wonder Bar (Al Jolson 1934) Holiday Inn (1942 Bing Crosby) and several others that were just racist and offensive. Maybe not back when they were made but now they were.

You're the garbage man No I just take out the trash

reply