My sister and I were dazzled by this old Hollywood classic. The print was pristine. The sound was good. The movie was action-packed. There seemed to be something happening every three minutes. True, I know the racial politics were funky but I was taken mostly with the production values of this Hollywood epic, the sweep of it and the acting. When it was over, we stood outside the theater and waited for Mom to drive up to get us. When we got in the car, one of the first things she said was "What did you think of Hattie McDaniel? Wasn't she something?"
Hattie McDaniel was born June 10, 1893. She was a groundbreaker. She was also a Hollywood outsider because she was black. James Whale directed 1936's SHOW BOAT. He was a groundbreaker. He was also a Hollywood outsider because he was openly gay. Whale changed the game for horror movies in the 1930s. He directed FRANKENSTEIN (1931), and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935). Look at BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN again. It's practically BROKEBACK MONSTER. The big, intimidating creature escapes from the bondage of conservative villagers and flees to the woods. He's given care, food and shelter by an older blind man who introduces the creature to classical music, wine, cigars and throw pillows. They have a nice, peaceful life together in a cottage in the woods until conservative white men with guns show up to disrupt and ruin it all. The next thing you know, the lonely monster is back in the conservative village on the verge of entering into what could seem like a marriage of convenience with the newly-created Bride of Frankenstein. That marriage will not work out. Tragedy will ensue. He was happier with the older guy in the woods.
Director James Whale had empathy for the outsider. In his version of SHOW BOAT, African-Americans are the outsiders and the attitudes of racism are The Monster. The 1951 MGM version, done in glorious Technicolor, softened the racial aspect. Whale makes his strong points with the power of visuals just like he did in FRANKENSTEIN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. The show boat is a travelling theater eagerly awaited by the townsfolk in every stop along the Mississippi.
Notice when ticketholders walk into the show boat theater.
You see Americans, black and white, headed into the same place for entertainment. They're pretty much side-by-side, like animals boarding Noah's Ark, but notice they are separated. There are two lines. One for white people. One for black people. The white people are seated on the main floor. The black people have to sit upstairs in the segregated gallery.
Irene Dunne, first seen as the young lady who longs to be on the stage, is fascinated by all the performers. Her best friend -- and the show's main attraction -- is torch singer Julie LaVerne. I know that modern-day viewers may cringe at the blackface Irene Dunne's character does onstage. Blackface was a tradition at that time. I feel Whale is showing the bruising irony on the show boat that reflects society. Because of segregation, black folks could not be stars in the show. Black folks could not sit on the main floor. Black folks had to sit in the gallery where they endured watching a white person perform as a caricature of a black person and get applause.
See what I mean? The director of FRANKENSTEIN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN may have seemed an odd choice to direct SHOW BOAT, a musical that includes a theme of racial prejudice. However, he was a perfect choice. As a gay man, he understood how it felt to be an outsider and excluded. He made racism the monster.
The wonderful Sir Ian McKellen, an openly gay actor, got a Best Actor Oscar nomination for playing director James Whale in the 1998 drama, GODS AND MONSTERS. Hattie McDaniel was born this week in history. In addition to that, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Loving v. Virginia this week in 1967. The Supreme Court ruling made interracial marriage legal all across the country thanks to Mildred and Richard Loving. You read that correctly. Interracial marriage was still a crime in several states as America entered the 1960s. After being jailed in Virginia for simply getting married, Mildred and Richard Loving took their case to a high court. You can see their story in the fine 2016 film called LOVING. Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton are excellent as the landmark couple.