Show Boat and the History of Screenwriting

Among the many films I have my History of Screenwriting students watch as we march through the chronological eras of that history from Silents to (what I call) Superhero Saturation, I include a couple of musicals to illustrate that genre. Among those musicals I include Show Boat for many reasons. 

First, because they ought to know about Edna Ferber, who wrote the novel on which the show is based, had an interesting history with Hollywood in that she did not approve of selling off her IP (intellectual property) completely – so she leased novels to Hollywood (including the Pulitzer Prize-winning So Big, and the popular Giant (starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean and adapted by Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat). 

Second, because they ought to know Paul Robeson who starred in the 1936 film adaptation after having played “Joe” in the London production and became synonymous with the song “Ol’ Man River”.

Third, because it was one of the earliest musicals to take a social justice stance and even handle the subject of miscegenation.

Fourth, because it’s a classic. 

But, I recognize even being socially conscious for their times that there are moments in the portrayals of the African American characters that aren’t always comfortable for my students of color so I’m always on the lookout for ways to teach this.  That’s why I was happy to come across this 2013 book by Todd Decker Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical where he focuses on how the story is really the story of how a white girl singer becomes famous on the riverboat by using a ‘black’ voice, making the story more a study of cultural appropriation. I’ve only begun reading it out of order (movie section first, stage play section second) but have found what I’ve read fascinating. 

Check it out at your local library or find it here

Also of interest is the various changes to the original lyrics of “Ol’ Man River” made by artists over the years.

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