Classic Woman-centric Movie Review: Show Boat (1951)

This week’s classic movie pick masks the seriousness of some of the topic in the plot with glossy musical numbers and an engaging love story. The film is Show Boat, made in 1951 and based on the Edna Ferber novel and the musical of the same name by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. The film stars Kathryn Grayson, Ava Gardner, Howard Keel, Joe E. Brown, and Agnes Moorehead and was directed by George Sidney.

The film opens with the arrival of the show boat, the Cotton Blossom, in a small town in Mississippi. But the only thing to greet them is a fight between the engineer of the showboat and the husband of the company’s leading lady, Julie La Verne (Gardner), and it’s revealed that Julie is half-African American. State miscegenation laws forbid the marriage, and blacks weren’t allowed to appear onstage during the 1880s, so Julie and her husband leave the company. Cap’n Andy Hawks (Brown) decides to cast his daughter Magnolia (Grayson) as the female lead in that night’s performance, much to the chagrin of his wife, Parthy (Moorehead). A gambler by the name of Gaylord Ravenal (Keel) seeks to join the company as an actor, and during the course of a few weeks working together, he and Magnolia fall in love. They end up marrying and living very extravagantly off of his gambling winnings in Chicago, but soon he isn’t so lucky at the tables. Gay and Magnolia slowly descend into poverty, and Magnolia, miserable and heartbroken, angrily denounces her husband as a weak man. Gay leaves Magnolia after this, and she is forced to find work on her own.

Luckily for Magnolia, she meets up again with one of the dance acts who once worked on the show boat, and they take her with them to audition at a night club as a singer. But this is where Julie, alone, depressed, and alcoholic, has ended up since her husband has left her. When she finds out Magnolia is auditioning to sing for the nightclub, she quits, and Magnolia is hired. Cap’n Andy, who happens to be at the nightclub when Magnolia is performing on New Year’s Eve, is exhilarated to see his daughter again, and when she tells him of how Gay left her and of her pregnancy, he insists that she return to the show boat. Her daughter, Kim, is born on the show boat, and enjoys a childhood much like Magnolia’s.

Show Boat poster
Poster from the film. Image via Wikipedia.

Five years pass, and we see Gay aboard a steamer where Julie has found another job as a singer. She recognizes him and derides him for leaving Magnolia at such a vulnerable time. Gay, who knew nothing of the pregnancy, reveals that he left because he didn’t want to bring more misery to Magnolia. Now, however, that he has found out about his daughter, he has decided to make things right. He meets his daughter, who doesn’t know who he is, and in a conversation with her, he discovers that she has always wondered about him. Magnolia sees him with Kim, and they reconcile. Gay and Magnolia are shown kissing, their marriage mended, as Julie watches the departing show boat and blows them a kiss good-bye.

Show Boat juxtaposes the lives of two women and their search for love and happiness while finding their place in this world. It is clear that Magnolia has found a place in the world and is certain of who she is in her separate roles as daughter, wife, mother, and performer. She finds happiness in each of these roles. Julie, however, doesn’t have these chances at finding happiness because of her mixed heritage. Even despite her looks, she is considered to be a black woman because her mother was black, and therefore she is a second-class citizen and unable to achieve happiness and acceptance as Magnolia is in the world at that time. Julies of is an example of the “sad biracial woman” trope that comes up in movies of this period. There is no place for her in either the “white” world or the “black” world because she is part of both, yet she can’t fully belong to either world. Still, she does what she can to ensure that her friends are allowed some happiness, even sacrificing her own happiness time and again, which is a role that seems to befall many African-American woman characters. Julie becomes a sort of martyr and a figure to be pitied, since she’s the result of her parents’ flouting of the rules of society.

This is a trope that I’ve noticed in present-day media, particularly with the character of Bonnie Bennett in the television series Vampire Diaries, a young witch who happens to be African-American and who constantly puts her life on the line and selflessly uses her powers to help her friends achieve happiness. Many times she is required to make some kind of sacrifice to do so. Are there any other examples of this trope used in any media that you know of?

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