Showboat

showboat1951_poster“Old Man River”, “Bill”, Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man“,  I’d heard the songs before, but hadn’t seen the movie. So it’s this week’s old movie. Set in the late 19th century, Showboat tells the story of Magnolia, a young girl, whose parents own a showboat, a river boat that goes up and down the Mississippi performing for people on the river banks. (It seems like a cool idea I’d like to see revived.) The stars of the show are Julie and her husband Steve. When a jealous, no good man discovers Julie doesn’t want anything to do with him, he tells the police Julie’s secret, that she’s half Black. Since interracial marriages were illegal, the police force Julie and Steve off the boat.

Since the show must go on, young Magnolia (Nolia) and Gaylord Ravenal, a talented, dashing singer are tapped to fill in. They’re a hit and fall instantly in love. Nolia’s parents are skeptical about Gaylord for their daughter. He certainly not stable, but Nolia ignores them and marries her true love. They leave the showboat and head to Chicago where Gaylord, who is a big gambler makes a fortune and soon loses it all. Ashamed and broke, Gaylord deserts Nolia leaving her with enough money to go back to her parents. He’s unaware that she’s pregnant. Julie also hits the skids and winds up drinking too much on a regular basis while getting by singing at a nightclub in Chicago. Steve has left her and she’s never gotten over it. When Nolia comes to the club to audition, Julie catches a glimpse of her and secretly acts to give her a break. While there’s plenty of coincidence, the songs and the emotion carry the show and make it satisfying.

SPOILER

I do think that the ending is one written for an earlier era. When Gaylord eventually returns after about 5 years’ absence, Magnolia immediately takes him back and the band strikes up a happy tune. Nowadays we’re more cautious. I tend to think more proof is needed before taking a gambling husband back. In the interim, Gaylord had continued to gamble. There’s no suggestion that he can sustain real change, which wouldn’t make Nolia or her daughter’s life much better.

Still that’s a minor flaw. All in all, Showboat’s wonderful songs still make it a good musical centered on interesting themes.

Showboat

“Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly . . . .” These Showboat lyrics still linger in my head over a week after seeing the musical. If you’re any where near the Lyric Opera,go see Showboat. Period. End of story. It’s fabulous.

The ads on PBS brought me in. I loved Aida, so why not try Showboat. I had no idea what the story was beyond something about a boat that went up and down the Mississippi with performers on it. I’d heard “Old Man River” plenty of times, but only casually and out of context. Even though I had to go the night before I was leaving for China, I couldn’t pass up this last chance for some culture.

The story was a lot meatier than I expected. Based on Edna Ferber‘s novel about a biracial woman, who passes, married to a white man Showboat offers the audience complexity along with great singing and dancing. I admit I expected fluff, but the story goes down the dark alleys inherent in marrying a guy who doesn’t amount to much. While Ms. Ferber was concerned that too much sugar might be added to her novel, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II transformed the genre, which up till then was light and frivolous. The original New York Times review asserts that

The adaptation of the novel has been intelligently made, and such liberties as the demands of musical comedy necessitate do not twist the tale nor distort its values.

Some critics mark Showboat as a turning point in American musicals.

I recommend going to the pre-performance lecture an hour before the curtain when you’ll learn about the flooding of the Mississippi at the time, Ms. Ferber’s influences, and background information on the creation of the show.

I was disappointed that I had to leave the show early to catch the 10:35 train home. !@#@!$ Metro for not having an 11:35 train. I toyed with the idea of staying for the whole show, but I just couldn’t get home at 1:15 that night. So I am now scouring Jinan for a DVD of the film. No luck so far. Rats!

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the help

A fine film about a horrible time when the middle and upper classes of Mississippi were blind to the hideousness of the racism that kept their households running. (If they weren’t blind, they’d taken denial to new heights.) Based on the best selling novel, the film follows an aspiring journalist who after getting a job as a columnist writing about house cleaning decides to expose the inequity inherent in a society where African American women raise white people’s children, cook all their meals, and keep their homes immaculate, yet can’t use the same restrooms not just in town, but  in the homes where they work. It’s a look at a society that is starched and genteel, where asking a few questions about the injustice all around them is sure to get you in trouble, big trouble.

Skeeter, the journalist, doesn’t really belong in pink and poofy Jackson, Mississippi as the civil rights movement begins. She’s smart and hasn’t rushed into marriage as all her friends have. She wants a job and respect. This frustrates her Southern Belle mother to no end. Her goal is to write about “The Help.”  The hard part is convincing the housekeepers to participate. Most know that in this society where vengeance is swift and severe.

The film is touching and often humorous, though there were a couple parts I didn’t quite by. I do think anyone would detect the smell or consistency or something about the special ingredient the housekeeper she fired added. Yet that was a small matter. I liked the film, though I hated Mississippi. I just kept thinking “How can anyone stand living here?” Even in the days of Jim Crowe, Mississippi was considered the most racist state.

What’s interesting about the plot of the book is that while the action develops, there isn’t much change in the characters. Skeeter becomes moderately successful, but she never was a racist. Her beliefs were just confirmed. The housekeepers, Aibileen and Minny, become a bit braver, but it’s not like they’ve gone under a major change. They were always strong, smart women. None of the racists change. So much for scriptwriting rules — and that’s okay by me. This was more plausible. I’ve grown tired of the same old narrative structure and its rules.