Edna Ferber’s Showboat, from Page to Stage to Screen

Show Boat movie poster 1936

Show Boat (1936) began in 1927 as a revolutionary stage musical, with music by Jerome Kern and book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II.

Based on Edna Ferber’s best-selling novel of the same name, the musical follows the lives of the performers, stagehands, and dockworkers on the Cotton Blossom, a showboat on the Mississippi River, beginning in the late nineteenth century.

With themes including racial prejudice and enduring love, the musical contributed such classics as “Ol’ Man River,” “Make Believe,” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” to the American songbook.


Show Boat in brief

In brief, Show Boat tells the story of three generations of performers on a floating theater, the Cotton Blossom. As the titled show boat travels down the Mississippi River from the 1880s to the 1920s, readers get a glimpse of a forgotten form of American entertainment.

Floating theaters stopped in river towns that normally didn’t have access to high quality performances because of their distance and isolation from major urban centers. Edna Ferber captured the spirit of this way of life with her skillful storytelling and captivating characters. Read more about this classic novel.

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Show Boat (1951) movie poster

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A historical moment in American theater

The arrival of Show Boat was a historic moment in the history of American theater. The show was a radical departure in musical storytelling and rose above the operettas and light musicals that were in vogue at the time, and it was an equally radical concept when applied to film.

Irene Dunne stars, playing Magnolia, with Helen Morgan as Julie and Paul Robeson as Joe, who sings “Ol’ Man River.”

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Show boat stamp

Hello, U.S. Postal Service — wouldn’t it have been nice to give credit
to Edna Ferber, the author of Show Boat?

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1951 — the Technicolor version

In 1951, just 15 years after the 1936 film version of Show Boat, the wildly successful musical was made into a Technicolor, razzle-dazzle spectacle starring Kathryn Grayson, Ava Gardner (whose voice was dubbed), and Howard Keel.

The Jerome Kern songs are as beautiful as ever, including the immortal “Make Believe” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.”

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show boat by Edna Ferber (1926)

Learn more about Show Boat (the novel), published in 1926
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Gorgeous as the film is, it does not gloss over the reality of the American racial divide, when integration and miscegenation were prohibited by law. This musical is the one that changed American musical theater from light comedy to near opera.

William Warfield’s rendition of “Ol’ Man River” is as wise and sad a song as has ever been sung. Tip: See the 1936 version first.

Contributed by Leonard Kniffel, excerpted from Musicals on the Silver Screen: A Guide to the Must-See Movie Musicals, @2013 by the American Libraries Association. Reprinted by permission.

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Scene from Giant, 1956 film starring Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor

See also: Giant, the 1956 Film Based on Edna Ferber’s Epic Novel

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