by Sam Juliano
Note: The following is an interview conducted over the summer at the Happy Dale Nursing Home in Des Moines, Iowa with 86 year-old Agnes Ferber, niece of celebrated writer Edna Ferber. Ms. Ferber is professor emeritus at Drake University, specializing in theatre and cinema studies. Ms. Ferber, who retired in 1987, has spoken about her aunt’s work at a number of universities across the country, and has more than an affectionate regard for James Whale’s 1936 film version of ‘Show Boat,’ which is based on her most celebrated work. The loquacious and fecund scholar magnanimously agreed to share her opinions on the film’s music, historical context and artistry for the musical countdown.
SJ: Hello Ms. Ferber. I want to thank you for agreeing to impart your vast wealth of information, experience and insight into your aunt’s most famous work and the famed stage and film versions that widened it’s cognizance worldwide.
AF: Young man -or I can call you that compared to where I have progressed to- the honor is mine. I understand you are doing some kind of a musical countdown, and the 1936 version of Show Boat is expected to do quite well.
SJ: Thanks so much my friend. Yes I do expect the film to do quite well with the seven-member panel. I have placed it quite high on my own ballot, and consider the Kern-Hammerstein score one of the greatest in Broadway history. I always thought James Whale was the only director to get it right.
AF: Well, I’d like to say at the start that Aunt Edna originally opposed a musical or comedic adaptation of her profoundly serious novel. Only when Mr. Kern arranged a meeting and explained just what he wanted to do, was she willing to reconsider. Kern had reportedly read Edna’s book in October of 1926. It was about a show boat called the Cotton Blossom, which traversed the turbulent waters of the Mississippi with its various show folk over several generations, from the 1870’s to the present. It was exactly the kind of textured, serious, yet inherently musical material he had been searching for. I was told that during the intermission of a Broadway show, Kern asked the critic Alexander Woolcott to arrange the meeting. Kern then moved to secure a librettist, and Oscar Hammerstein didn’t have to think twice.
SJ: Fascinating. Would you say that what was required of Hammerstein for this assignment, was much unlike anything he had ever done before?
AF: Absolutely. In dealing with the story stuff, Hammerstein’s task was unlike any challenge faced by a librettist or lyricist for the American theatre up to that point. No musical had ever been adapted from a serious novel, none had to deal with a three-generation time span in the story, none had to bring a story from the past to the present, and certainly none had dealt with white characters and black characters sharing the stage as full dramatic entities. As if that weren’t enough, Show Boat also had to sing with a score that not only honored the traditions of its entertainment milieu, but engaged the audience in its lighter and more romantic moments.
SJ: Would you say that Hammerstein, whom many consider to be the best ‘book’ writer in Broadway history, strayed a bit from the original material?
AF: No. Hammerstein’s libretto was remarkably faithful to Aunt Edna’s novel. Cap’n Andy’s showboat, the Cotton Blossom, travels up and down the Mississippi for decades. Among its colorful passengers are his brittle wife, their glowing daughter, Magnolia, her gambler husband, and a troupe of complicated supporting characters. Perhaps the most complicated is Julie LaVerne (Dozier in Aunt Edna’s novel), a mulatto performing on the showboat and married (illegally, by the laws of the South) to a white man; her secret revealed, she leaves the boat and winds up, in the second act, a wasted alcoholic version of her earlier buoyant self. Show Boat’s height of invention – among many highlights of course – is the revelation of her secret, which comes not in dramatic exposition, but when she sings “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” to the smitten Magnolia. Half way through the song, Queenie, the showboat’s black cook, recognizes the tune. “Ah didn’t ever hear anybody but colored folk sing dat song – sounds funny for Miss Julie to know it.” Ya know, Sam, Julie’s defensive reaction – “What’s so funny about that?” – tells the audience everything it needs to know and sets the stage for a dramatic showdown two scenes later. To put this all in perspective, the dramatic dilemma at the core of the biggest hit musical at the time, Good News!, was whether the football captain could win the big game, pass his astronomy exam, and get a date with the girl. But the changes that were made are still intriguing to this day. A slew of minor figures inevitably were dropped. Julie’s ultimate degradation as a lady of the streets went unmentioned. Though at the end of the novel many of the principals were dead or had drifted far away, Hammerstein contrived to reunite all of them except Julie. His ending may have been less realistic than Aunt Edna’s, but it did tie together the loose ends of the history in a theatrically happy fashion. Furthermore, Hammerstein managed to create a heroine whose character develops and matures; he also confronted black-white relations head-on.
SJ: Beautifully said, and I’m sure there are very few out there who don’t know the story of this show inside out. But the score is one of the most famous ever written. I think I’d go as far as to say it is one of the two greatest scores ever written for the theatre, and it’s impossible to rank them even at that. It rates with Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s score to West Side Story. Both are miracles of melodic felicity, both are operatic and both are well integrated in the story they serve.
AF: Sam, I agree. I’d say that Kern’s music to Show Boat is certainly the grandest and most ambitious of its time – arguably the greatest ever written for the musical theatre. Hammerstein had to weave characters in and out, but Kern had to weave musical idioms and exploit his audience’s knowledge of genres and fads in order to propel the narrative’s complicated storytelling without falling into clumsy pastiche. I’d say his surefootedness was breathtaking. African American folk idioms (“Ol’ Man River”) mix with operetta (“Make Believe”); comedy numbers (“Life Upon the Wicked Stage”) frame Latin cinvent hymns; torch songs hold their own with upbeat ensemble numbers; even the traditional “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” is turned on its head in its reprise – tricked into a ragtime number to bring us into 1904.
SJ: Fascinating. I’ve always had a difficult time identifying what song was my favorite in the score. I guess it all depends on what mood I am in. I could go weeks singing the lovely “Make Believe” in operatic bliss, but then turn to the arresting “Bill” for musical sublimity, and then to the infectious and bouncy “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and finally for one of the most soulful songs ever written, the masterful “Ol Man River.” And several others songs would fall into the mix. I’ve always thought to categorize this an an operetta, though I know the designation is loose.
AF: Sam, first of all, I can well understand your quandary in naming a single song as your favorite. The reason why this is such a monumental score -in addition to the diversity we previously discussed- has to do with the fact that it doesn’t have a weak number. Neither a Vienese operetta nor an American musical comedy, it was the first real “musical play”: a lyric piece with a relatively serious romantic story about essentially everyday people set to music neither as clipped as typical musical comedy writing nor as fully arioso as operetta, although I would say leaning towards the latter. It could be called American operetta, if only “operetta” could lose its perjorative connotations. Once again the matter of integration arises. Given the exigencies of the communal theatre the aim of a subtle, seemingly inevitable blend of dialogue, song and dance is a probably unattainable goal, at least in its purest form. But if inevitability is replaced by reasonableness a number of our best shows certainly attain it.
SJ: And Show Boat is certainly high among the best! Professor Ferber, I think it would be impossible to talk about this great score with any meaningful closure, without broaching “Ol’ Man River,” which by general agreement is the most important number. Could you shed some light on that?
AF: Indeed. “Ol’ Man River” links the score just as the Mississippi ties together the plot and the characters. When Kern played the song to my still-skeptical aunt in 1927, tears came to her eyes. “I knew this wasn’t just a musical comedy number,” she later wrote. “This was a great song. This was a song that would outlast Kern and Hammerstein’s day and your day and my day.” I think we can safely say Sam, that hundreds of singers and musicians, black and white, have used it in a variety of ways to express themselves musically, emotionally or politically. It just keeps rolling along.
Sam, can I offer you some coffee or tea and rice cakes? Betsy’s got some fresh corn dogs made too. Would you like to try some?
SJ: Why thank you. I’ll wait a while though. I had lunch not more than two hours ago. I had a chicken breast sandwich and a fruit salad.
Ms. Ferber, I’d like to focus if we could now on the 1936 film version, which of course is widely and easily considered to be the best of the three versions made from your aunt’s novel. The 1929 version was compromised in a number of ways, and the version in 1951, though boasting some fine performers and set pieces falls short of the version that is widely accepted today as the closest one can get to ‘definitive’ at least comparatively.
AF: Indeed Sam! The second film version featured the stage original and never-to-be-equaled Helen Morgan as Julie; Paul Robeson (Kern and Hammerstein’s first pick to play Joe in the original cast–the part of course went to Jules Bledsoe, at least for three years after the show opened) Irene Dunne, who had played the role of Magnolia on the road; Charles Winneger, the original Captain Andy; and popular tenor Allan Jones. Yes, Sam this is the ‘definitive’ version, but how could it be nything but, with the hand-picked cast, three new songs, and most importantly, full supervision by the show’s creators, including the script by Hammerstein himself.
SJ: Are you perhaps suggesting that this 1936 version was fully faithful to the play then?
AF: No. This is not a slavish recreation of the stage musical at all. In fact, Hammerstein and Kern dropped some of the score and scenes, opting for a faster-moving, modern version of the operetta. Hattie McDaniel’s lead turn is worth mentioning. She’s especially good in her scenes with Paul Robson–that have that rare chemistry. Almost like Mickey and Judy, there is a strong bonding here between the two and they are obvious having a ball sparring. McDaniel also shows some sensitivity in her scenes with Irene Dunne as the young Magnolia. It’s a lighter approach than the one she took with Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind. McDaniel here plays a well-rounded character than never stoops to stereotype, and much could be said for Robson’s strength of character as an influence. It’s a markedly understated performance that is nonetheless most impressive.
SJ: Fascinating. Was this film not a great departure for Universal, who were mainly known for horror, westerns and low-brow comedy. And was this not a radical tuen for James Whale, who was the prime horror maestro at the studio?
AF: Again I say “indeed.” Universal only had one single success in the musical genre with King of Jazz in 1930, yet they still manage to produce one of the all-time great musicals, even with director James Whale at a moderate confidence level. Whale, as an Englishman may not have understood all the ‘southern mores,’ but his cast was there is all their glowing confidence–Irene Dunne and Allan Jones particularly. Dunne was a lovely performer, who was equally adept at comedy, tragedy and musicals, and she won five or six Oscar nominations as I recall. Most would mention her work in Roberta, Love Affair, I Remember Mama and Penny Serenade.
SJ: Not wanting to interrupt, Ms. Ferber, but I think you may have accidentally forgotten her greatest turn of all in The Awful Truth from Leo McCarey.
AF: Ah, quite right Sam! That was her ‘piece de resistence.’ But getting back to Whale, I think he and his excellent cinematographer John Mescall gave the film a naturalistic look, while Whale typically took some serious visual risks like retaining a blackface minstrel show number “Gallivantin’ Around” in the film (the obvious wrongheadedness of this presentation is framed with a tracking shot from the theatre’s back, where a segregated black audience is viewing this farce–we never see facial reactions, but can well figure what they are thinking).
SJ: I thought Whale superlatively brought some expressionism into the mix too, black and white work that recalled his style with the Frankenstein films. I’m sure you know this well.
AF: Absolutely. Whale shot his evening rendezvous songs with the star’s faces in shadows, which would seem to be a thrust on his part to go for broader comedy through close-ups of exaggerated mugging.
While I expected that our talk today would focus mainly on the film’s artistry, I think it must be mentioned that Whale did not flinch in his depiction of racial segregation in the communities around the Mississippi River. This was at at time (1935-6) when the subject was taboo in Hollywood. This was clearly delineated in the scenes of the white and black audiences entering and exiting the floating theatre on parallel boards. The more sensitive white members of the audience at that time may have chosen to ignore this racial divide, but the blacks themselves appeared to realize the circumstances surrounding their second-class citizenship. You may also recall that the show boat’s black crew was forced to stand outside the church and watch the ceremony, being shunned from seating at the official wedding celebration. Jim Crow was alive and well at that time, sad to say.
SJ: Thanks so much Professor, for that telling social/historical perspective. I wanted to now broach with you the whole larger than life persona of Paul Robson’s Joe, which I think is singlehandedly the driving force of nature behind this film and the show that inspired it. Robson, of course, took over from Bledsoe on stage three years after the show opened as I mentioned earlier.
AF: Well, I can see why you’d say Robson’s character and performance came off as “larger than life,” but I always saw the transition from (potential) broad caricature to a character of exceeding humanism -and one who reflects a telling universality – as the most profoundly moving aspect of his spectre.
SJ: Brilliant Professor. Brilliant. Going further I’d like to say that I always throught that Whale’s use of close-ups for the justly celebrated “Ol’ Man River’ song sequence underscored the critical importance of Robson’s interpretation of the role, which acknowledged in large measure Hammerstein’s contempt for racial double standards. This pre-dated the black revoluation of decades later. Professor, I thought I would play the Robson version here, which I have on this CD player.
AF: Nice. I never tire of that song.
SJ: Here goes:
Dere’s an ol’ man called de Mississippi
Dat’s de ol’ man dat I’d like to be!
What does he care if de world’s got troubles?
What does he care if de land ain’t free?
Ol’ man river,
Dat ol’ man river
He mus’know sumpin’
But don’t say nuthin’,
He jes’keeps rollin’
He keeps on rollin’ along.
He don’ plant taters,
He don’t plant cotton,
An’ dem dat plants’em
is soon forgotten,
But ol’man river,
He jes keeps rollin’along.
You an’me, we sweat an’ strain,
Body all achin’ an’ racket wid pain,
Tote dat barge!
Lif’ dat bale!
Git a little drunk
An’ you land in jail.
Ah gits weary
An’ sick of tryin’
Ah’m tired of livin’
An’ skeered of dyin’,
But ol’ man river,
He jes’keeps rolling’ along.
Colored folks work on de Mississippi,
Colored folks work while de white folks play,
Pullin’ dose boats from de dawn to sunset,
Gittin’ no rest till de judgement day.
Don’t look up
An’ don’t look down,
You don’ dast make
De white boss frown.
Bend your knees
An’bow your head,
An’ pull date rope
Until you’ dead.
Let me go ‘way from the Mississippi,
Let me go ‘way from de white man boss;
Show me dat stream called de river Jordan,
Dat’s de ol’ stream dat I long to cross.
O’ man river,
Dat ol’ man river,
He mus’know sumpin’
But don’t say nuthin’
He jes’ keeps rollin’
He keeps on rollin’ along.
Long ol’ river forever keeps rollin’ on…
He don’ plant tater,
He don’ plant cotton,
An’ dem dat plants ’em
Is soon forgotten,
but ol’ man river,
He jes’ keeps rollin’ along.
Long ol’ river keeps hearing dat song.
You an’ me, we sweat an’ strain,
Body all achin an’ racked wid pain.
Tote dat barge!
Lif’ dat bale!
Git a little drunk
An’ you land in jail.
Ah, gits weary
An’ sick of tryin’
Ah’m tired of livin’
An’ skeered of dyin’,
But ol’ man river,
He jes’keeps rollin’ along!
AF: I’d venture to say that in addition to being one of the most soulful songs ever written, it’s one of the theatre’s most arresting codas, and a song that goes to the heart of a people and their way of life. But there’s another song in this score that has achieved comparable stature.
SJ: That’ll be “Bill” right?
AF: Yes, Sir. It’s one of the two songs performed by the venerated Helen Morgan. One is the playful, but delightfully infectious “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine’ which is the favorite of many. But we kinda talked about this earlier in the interview when we were considering the theatrical score.
SJ: Oh yes, we did. I recall saying that some days the operatic “Make Believe” won my heart with its ravishing melody. I just wanted to mention here Professor, that I do believe that Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote the most perfect song of the twentieth century with their “All The Things You Are,” from the failed Broadway musical Very Warm for May in 1939.
AF: I adore that song. Yes, it may be the greatest. The modulations of that song were highly unusual for a pop song of that period, and the harmony has always been a favorite among Jazz musicians.
Time and again I’ve longed for adventure,
Something to make my heart beat the faster.
What did I long for? I never really knew.
Finding your love I’ve found my adventure,
Touching your hand, my heart beats the faster,
All that I want in all of this world is you.
You are the promised kiss of springtime
That makes the lonely winter seem long.
You are the breathless hush of evening
That trembles on the brink of a lovely song.
You are the angel glow that lights a star,
The dearest things I know are what you are.
Some day my happy arms will hold you,
And some day I’ll know that moment divine,
When all the things you are, are mine!
I’d say Sam, that it is that all-too-rare instance where sublime lyrics are seamlessly wed to one of music’s most rapturous melodies.
Anyway getting back to “Bill” Morgan delivers a flawless vocal performance, that’s frankly is spine chilling and electrifying. It’s sad to think that Morgan never worked in film again after moving mountains in this seminal musical. Few may realize that the song was written by P.G. Wodehouse, and was a reject from previous Kern-Wodehouse musical collaborations.
SJ: Tragic. I wasn’t sure, but was pondering whether or not every song made it’s way from stage to this film, but figured not.
AF: A few didn’t make it in, but “Why Do I Love You?” and “Life Upon the Wicked Stage” are woven in the film score by way of incidental music.
SJ: Ah yes, true enough. Professor Ferber, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for this remarkable talk today and for your endless insights into your aunt’s towering masterpiece, Show Boat, and the 1936 film that did it the most consumate justice. I will send you the results of the poll in a few weeks, and will alert you to the day the interview is published at the site.
AF: The pleasure has been mine Sam. This was quite an enthralling conversation. Now how about that corn dog? Some lemonade?
SJ: Many thanks Professor. I’d be glad to.
How Show Boat made the ‘Elite 70’:
Judy Geater’s No. 3 choice
Dennis Polifroni’s No. 5 choice
Sam Juliano’s No. 7 choice
Greg Ferrara’s No. 17 choice
Allan Fish’s No. 21 choice
Marilyn Ferdinand’s No. 24 choice
Pat Perry’s No. 52 choice