Show Boat: Rollin’ on the River

<em>Show Boat: </em>Rollin’ on the River

Everybody loves Show Boat, but where is the love for the woman whose name alone sits above the title in James Whale’s dazzling 1936 film version? Edna Ferber was a best-selling novelist for decades, and in her peak years also a thriving playwright, memoirist, and Algonquin kibitzer, who noted of the clubby socializing at the Lindbergh kidnapping trial, “It made you want to resign as a member of the human race and cable Hitler saying, ‘Well, Butch, you win.’” Now her name epitomizes a type of writer who once commanded the masses but no longer need bother us, as, for example, she bothered Dorothy Parker, who observed of “America’s most successful writeress”: “I understand Ferber whistles at her typewriter.” Neglected in every serious chronicle of American fiction, she is shrugged off with a disdain not unlike that which Ferber herself reserved for her rival, the other Jewish midwestern woman with a pipeline linking typewriter and Hollywood, Fannie Hurst. They were exact contemporaries (1885–1968), with analogous leftish sympathies, implacable feminist perspectives, devoted audiences, and a parched posterity. Edna and Fannie: Shall we now take them seriously?

Maybe just Edna. Parker conceded of Hurst’s early work, “she has written nothing that has not, in some degree, moved me,” while duly detailing her “sedulously torturous style,” which is now all but unbreachable. Ferber, in her best work (Gigolo, So Big, Show Boat), has a reportorial ear and eye, and the saving grace of knowing, and letting us know that she knows, when she is getting stagy and sweet. At any rate, not the least virtue of fiction is an awareness of the times and the roots of their discord, and in an era when lynching was not uncommon, when the Harlem Renaissance liberated black voices and William Faulkner struggled to find his own white, southern one, when the economy went boom before it went bust, Ferber (Show Boat, 1926) and Hurst (Imitation of Life, 1933) explored the fragility of racial identity amid the contradictions of minstrelsy (whites pretending to be black) and Jim Crow laws (whites terrified of black contamination) that made America America. By contrast, white male novelists crossed the racial divide with a Zolaesque presumption: DuBose Heyward’s Porgy (1925) dramatizing black life in a Charleston, South Carolina, tenement beset by violence (the stuff of opera); Carl Van Vechten sensationalizing Harlem with more violence and an unmentionable title (Nigger Heaven, 1926). In Show Boat, Ferber found a rich and unexplored setting, a disciplined thematic structure, and a suitable style for a multigenerational melodrama that unfolds in a world of theatrical melodrama and, not so incidentally, illuminates the transformational gift of black music.

She got the idea after bats disrupted an out-of-town tryout for a play of hers, when the producer quipped that he would test their next production on a showboat, drifting through the river towns. Ferber asked him what a showboat was. During the next two years, she researched and wrote her novel, touring the South and living on a showboat but, by all accounts, never actually visiting the Mississippi. Yet she created the most memorable account of its quiescent and tumultuous waters since Mark Twain. Jerome Kern, reading the novel with mounting inspiration, arranged to meet Ferber to tell her he wanted to adapt it for the stage. When she expressed disbelief that a chronicle spanning nearly half a century—one largely set on a barge, involving miscegenation and the misdeeds and deaths of most of the male characters—could be turned into a Broadway musical, a field dominated by farce and revue, he assured her that his librettist, Oscar Hammerstein II, would figure it out.

“Today, the film unfolds as a succession of delights—an exemplary transference from one medium to another medium to another medium, and likely the best Show Boat ever.”

“Given Hollywood’s conventions, it is a joy to watch the superb performers Robeson and McDaniel undermine typecasting with chemistry, eye contact, affection.”

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