“Love is such a funny thing; there’s no sense to it.”
Response to Peary’s Review:
I’m in agreement with most of Peary’s assessment points: the production is indeed “lavish”, the cast is in fine form, and many of the songs are quite enjoyable. I also appreciated the opportunity to see Show Boat-theater so lovingly revived for modern audiences, who otherwise would have little understanding of this erstwhile form of traveling entertainment. However, I don’t find the film as a whole nearly as engaging as Peary seems to. The primary problem is that the central narrative — about Dunne’s rocky road to fame and troubled marriage with Jones — simply isn’t all that interesting, and the most compelling characters — Morgan, McDaniel, and Robeson — are relegated to supporting roles. The miscegenation subplot which propels the earliest portion of the screenplay is quite fascinating, and Whale deftly handles a pivotal scene in which Cook takes unusual measures to demonstrate his commitment to Morgan; but other than a critical appearance once more later in the story, Morgan’s tragic story is left sadly unexplored.
Meanwhile, Robeson’s performance of “Old Man River” does indeed remain (for me) the film’s indisputable highlight, leading me to wish we could learn more about his soulful character as well (the Expressionist montage flashing across the screen while Robeson sings could easily morph into a film of its own). To that end, as Peary notes, “the film’s portrayal of blacks is a sticky issue”, given that “on the one hand, they fit into stereotypes”, but “on the other, they display class, talent, [and] strength”, and are “given quality screen time”; overall, I think Whale does a respectful job handling the film’s thorny race issues, despite the unfortunate yet historically realistic appearance of Dunne in black-face at one point. Indeed, Whale’s direction is never at fault, and fans of his work will surely be interested to check out his foray into a genre completely different from the one he’s best known for (horror). But unfortunately, I can’t quite recommend this title as must-see viewing for all film fanatics.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments: