Even Old Man River himself could be forgiven for wandering off into another room while one of the innumerable ballads that stops the film dead in its tracks gets crooned by one of the movie’s three main characters. Other than Old Man River’s theme song, the tunes featured here are a collection of dirge-like ditties about love that barley even rhyme, let alone ever approach being hummable. To their credit, the songs never manage to be catchy enough to get painfully stuck in your head, but that doesn’t really make the film go any faster.
You do get to hear “Old Man River” sung twice by William Warfield and with lyrics about how he’s “tired of living” and “scared of dying” you wonder how it slipped in amongst all the junior high love warblings in the movie. Luckily with the advent of DVD, you can just skip to Chapters 12 and 28 to hear it and avoid the rest of this river rat.
After the set up where the Cotton Blossom river boat lands in some jerkwater town and we get introduced to everyone, it becomes clear why the movie takes every opportunity it can to have the stars get the goofy glazed-over look in their eye that signifies they’re about to open their heart (and unfortunately their mouth as well) and let pour forth all their feelings in mangled verse – there’s barely any story here.
Sure, Show Boat was smart enough to go with boy meets girl, boy loses girl when she gets fed up with his gambling addiction, boy gets girl back, but that’s really about as far as it goes. Beyond this bare minimum of plot, there isn’t any further effort to develop it.
Magnolia (Kathryn Grayson) is the daughter of the river boat owner and she falls for Gaylord Ravenal a river dandy with a love for ladies and a lust for cards.
When Nolie (as she’s referred to in the film) meets him, he’s just come up busted and is looking for a lift to New Orleans. In addition to being a compulsive gambler, he’s also an aspiring song and dance man, so he thought he might be able to hitch on with the river boat troupe. Alas, there aren’t any parts open so that seemingly puts the kibosh on his romance with Nolie.
As luck would have it though, the main act (Ava Gardner and some guy who disappears one third of the way through the movie) gets busted for miscegenation and as you know the show must go on (and in this case it goes on and on and on), so Gaylord gets hired and he and Nolie become the featured attraction.
Much to the dismay of Nolie’s mother (professional battle axe Agnes Moorehead), Nolie marries Gaylord and they live happily ever after. At least until Lady Luck kicks Gay out on his streaky ass.
Nolie’s anger at Gay’s gambling problem might be a bit more convincing if we just hadn’t seen a montage of her happily living the high life while he was winning big. You weren’t exactly dialing 1-800-BETS-OFF on Christmas when he was giving you fancy jewelry, were you Nolie?
As a professional river gambler myself, you expect your luck to run out on you once in awhile, but your old lady? Does a plumber’s wife leave him when he goes through a patch where no one’s toilet is clogged? Besides, we all know that compulsive gambling is a disease, especially when you keep losing.
Another thing I didn’t really get about this movie was that most of it didn’t even take place on the show boat! Once Gay and Nolie get married, they move to Chicago (for Gay’s gambling job I imagine) and the next thing you know they’re running into some of their old mates from the ship and these folks are performing at some hotel. How’s that river boat going to make any money if the only attraction is Endora?
And what ever happened to Ava Gardner? She only turns up in time to get Nolie a job and to help Gay reunite with Nolie and the daughter he never knew he had. And it was never explained what happened to her boyfriend.
She did seem to have picked up an alcohol problem though which combined with Gay’s gambling problem at least upped the melodrama enough that there were a few scenes that elicited chuckles, but if you’re wanting that, you could do better with a Susan Hayward or Joan Crawford movie.
Everything is wrapped up in wholly unconvincing fashion without the need for anyone to actually sort out their problems. Compulsive gambler? Who cares as long as you’re back on board the Cotton Blossom. Alcoholic? Sure, but look at how happy she looks as she watches the happy ending take place on the show boat! Abandoned your wife and never met your six year old kid until today? Welcome back, baby!
Obviously, all this whitewashing could be forgiven if this musical had been, well, more musical. If I’m tapping my foot and nodding my head along to some kicky beats and fresh routines, then I’m not sweating the problems that were important enough to be relied to supply the drama, but were unimportant enough to let get in the way of a happy ending.
Colorful costumes, Ava Gardner, and Howard Keel’s likable rogue (sure he’s a scummy gambler who ran out on his family, but he complains of “untidy conduct” when he sees Ava getting slapped around by some punk, then punches his lights out!) can’t make up for stultifying songs and just as stultifying writing. Like Old Man River, it’s best to keep rolling along and right on past this un-pleasure cruise.
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