Song of the Day #4,441: ‘Ol’ Man River’ – Paul Robeson

Continuing my personal ranking of the 25 movie musicals deemed essential by the American Film Institute…

#14. Show Boat – 1936
(#24 on the AFI list)

Most of the 25 movies on this list were pretty easy to find, either included on streaming services or available for rent. A couple of these titles proved more difficult to watch, including director James Whale’s 1936 film, Show Boat.

I almost watched the 1951 version of the film by accident (it’s easily streamed) before a second look at AFI’s list revealed that they singled out the 1936 release. My wife started an amusing debate by suggesting I just watch that one instead.

Naturally, I found that suggestion absurd. The AFI list recognizes 25 specific movies, so to watch a movie not on the list would mean I didn’t complete the list, which is the entire point of this exercise.

Her counter was that it’s the source material that matters in the case of films — like this one — that are based on stage musicals. Isn’t one Show Boat the same as another, if they are telling the same story with the same songs?

No! Of course not! Different director, different actors, different cinematographer and editor. Different movies!

At any rate, I wound up buying the Criterion Blu-Ray of the 1936 Show Boat and was treated to a beautiful transfer of the film as well as some illuminating bonus material.

As it turns out, this Show Boat is different in quite a few ways from the 1951 release. Several songs, characters and plot points were eliminated or cut way back in the later film.

This version also features Paul Robeson, one of the most remarkable figures of the 20th century, and one I’m ashamed to say I knew nothing about before now.

Robeson, who plays the stevedore Joe, sings ‘Ol’ Man River,’ this musical’s most famous song. Robeson was a true Renaissance man: an actor, singer, athlete, lawyer and political activist. Valedictorian at Rutgers, and an All-American football star. In the 50s, his outspoken political opinions and sympathy with the Soviet Union, led him to be blacklisted.

As a result, this film was impossible to see for several decades. And I complained about having to buy the Blu-Ray.

Show Boat follows a family of entertainers across three generations, working in some of the same themes as Funny Lady and A Star is Born in its central relationship. It’s melodramatic and pretty emotionally effective by the end.

What fascinated me the most was the film’s treatment of race. It features some pretty offensive caricatures of Black people, including a blackface scene and a “shucking” minstrel dance. But it also gives some of its most powerful moments to non-white characters. Joe gets the show-stopping number, and his marriage to Hattie McDaniel’s Queenie is the film’s healthiest relationship.

A key early plot point centers on a mixed race singer who is passing as white. When she is found out, her white husband cuts her hand and drinks her blood, so that he can swear that he, too, has a “more than a drop of Black blood” in him, making their union legal.

The rest of the movie veers into more traditional territory, but I didn’t expect this sort of meaty exploration of race in a film released in 1936.

Note: Show Boat is the first film of the 16 I’ve featured so far to receive no Academy Award nominations.

There’s an ol’ man
Called the Mississippi

That’s the ol’ man
That I’d like to be

What does he care
If the world’s got
Troubles, what does he care
If the da land ain’t free?

Ol’ man river
Dat ol’ man river
He mus’ know sumpin’
But don’t say nuthin’
He jes’ keeps rollin’
He keeps on rollin’ along

He don’ plant taters
He don’t plant cotton
An’ dem dat plants ’em
Is soon forgotten
But ol’ man river
He jes keeps rollin’ along

You an’ me, we sweat an’ strain
Body all achin’ an’ racked wid pain
Tote dat barge!
Lif’ dat bale!
Git a little drunk
An’ you lands in jail

Ah gits weary
An’ sick of tryin’
Ah’m tired of livin’
An’ scared of dyin’
But ol’ man river
He jes’ keeps rolling’ along

Darkies work on de Mississippi
Darkies work while de white folks play
Pullin’ dose boats from de dawn to sunset
Gittin’ no rest till de judgement day
Or musical part

Don’t look up
An’ don’t look down
You don’ dast make
De white boss frown
Bend your knees
An’bow your head
An’ pull date rope
Until you’ dead.)

Let me go ‘way from the Mississippi
Let me go ‘way from de white man boss;
Show me dat stream called de river Jordan
Dat’s de ol’ stream dat I long to cross

O’ man river
Dat ol’ man river
He mus’know sumpin’
But don’t say nuthin’
He jes’ keeps rollin’
He keeps on rollin’ along

Long ol’ river forever keeps rollin’ on…

He don’ plant tater
He don’ plant cotton
An’ dem dat plants ’em
Is soon forgotten
But ol’ man river
He jes’ keeps rollin’ along

Long ol’ river keeps hearing dat song
You an’ me, we sweat an’ strain
Body all achin an’ racked wid pain
Tote dat barge!
Lif’ dat bale!
Git a little drunk
An’ you land in jail

Ah, gits weary
An’ sick of tryin’
Ah’m tired of livin’
An’ scared of dyin’
But ol’ man river
He jes’ keeps rollin’ along!

8 thoughts on “Song of the Day #4,441: ‘Ol’ Man River’ – Paul Robeson

  1. Dana Gallup says:

    The efforts to which you will go to satisfy your completist condition! I’m glad that at least it was worth it to you since you seem to have appreciated/liked the movie and learned about this actor.

    As for your debate with Alex, I see both sides. Consider, for example, a ranking of the top 10 Shakespeare plays or, perhaps closer to the mark here, the top 10 Gershwin musicals. Certainly there are better and worse productions of those works, but if the exercise is to evaluate the source material, then, at least in the case of Shakespeare, you would probably want to watch each play performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company – and ideally by the same cast, director and in the same venue. On the other hand, if your quest was to see and evaluate the best version of each work, then you might seek out Kenneth Branagh’s take on Hamlet over Laurence Olivier’s.

    Beyond simply being a completist, your categorical rejection of Alex’s suggestion as some kind of absurdity reflects that you are ultimately far more interested in the MOVIE than the MUSICAL, which comports with your love of film and lack thereof of musicals.

    • Clay says:

      Well, first, I readily acknowledge that I am more interested in cinema than the theatrical stage. No question. Film is my favorite art form.

      And yes, if my challenge was to watch the 25 musicals considered the best, it wouldn’t really matter which production I watched.

      But this is a list of the 25 most essential movie musicals. Twenty-five very specific movies, made by specific individuals in specific years.

      Indeed, almost half of the movies on this list are original screen musicals that didn’t start on the stage (though some eventually made it there).

      Would it make sense for me to watch a Broadway production of Beauty and the Beast in place of the Disney animated film? Of course not. That movie is on this list because of how it worked, and the ground it broke, as a movie.

  2. Amy says:

    I have heard of Robeson before, but this review definitely makes me want to borrow that Blu-Ray. Your description of the depiction of race alone has me beyond intrigued, as does the fact that the movie was unavailable for so long. I’ve heard the name of this musical lots of times over the years but never realized it was the one that featured Ol’ Man River. Thank you for this education in musical theater… our own little Master Class.

  3. Amy says:

    Wow.. This analysis suggests Whale’s version is absolutely the one that must be seen .” his interpretation of Hammerstein’s lyrical contempt for the racist double standard and the promise of life away from “the white boss” planted the seeds for the black power movement that would blossom three decades later.
    If Robeson’s presence resonates with today’s viewer, equal attention deserves to be given to Helen Morgan, now a barely-recalled performer whose bright stardom was derailed by alcoholism. She is primarily recalled today for “Show Boat” and she gives a devastating performance as the actress/ singer Julie LaVerne, whose life is ruined when it is revealed by a spurned lover that she is mixed race. Morgan performs two songs, the playful “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine” and melodramatic “Bill,” and her vocal grace was peerless in plumbing the frivolity of the first number and the anxiety of the latter tune. Her “Show Boat” work is a triumph, but also a tragedy since there would be no further film work to follow that brilliance. (She collapsed on stage from complications related to cirrhosis of the liver and died five years after this film was released.)
    From a directing style, Whale took extraordinary visual risks – shooting evening rendezvous songs with the star’s faces in shadows, going for wildly broad comedy via tight close-ups of exaggerated mugging of the film’s comic parts (especially with Helen Westley as the overbearing matriarch Parthy), and bringing a new segment into the film that offered a potentially inflammatory blackface minstrel show song performed by Dunne called “Gallivantin’ Around.” The obvious inappropriateness of the presentation is framed with a tracking shot from the rear of the theater from behind the segregated black audience is watching the number – we don’t see their reactions, but we can only imagine what they are thinking – yet the filmmaker also deserved credit for being honest in showing the type of entertainment offered to audiences in that distant era.”

    • Clay says:

      I did notice that the blackface scene was framed in a way that played up the Black people in the audience. I wondered if that made audience in the 30s uncomfortable.

  4. Peg says:

    Interesting analysis today! Besides my first thought that Alex is a patient woman I was intrigued by the history of this movie. I didn’t realize this song was from Show Boat. Love this song and Sinatra did an amazing version on his album celebrating show tunes. What a wonderful voice Robeson had! Didn’t realize Helen Morgan was in it. She was a tragic person and I think The Helen Morgan Story was a movie. Need to check that out. Thank you Amy for bringing it to my attention.

  5. Peg says:

    It was a movie starring Ann Blythe and Paul Newman yet again another biopic 😊

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