1929 Show Boat answers

From: David P. Hayes
Date: 1997/10/28
Newsgroups: alt.movies.silent, rec.arts.movies.past-films

There have been a number of conflicting accounts posted on this subject.

oconnell@pobox.upenn.edu (Kathy O'Connell) asked the first questions:

I'm so confused! Can someone tell me the story of the 1929 Show Boat? I'm watching the tape from TCM's showing of "Show Boat" a couple of weeks ago.  It's silent…title cards and all. It's lovely. And there's Laura LaPlante with beautiful blonde ringlets. Well, halfway through the movie, Laura LaPlante as Magnolia has gone from blonde to brunette, and it's no longer a silent movie!!! Did this movie take an unusually long time to film?  Did talkies come in smack in the middle of the filming?


cornfed@primenet.com (Scott Cleveland) responded:

This film like many from 1929 is a part-talkie. It probably was well into production when it was decided to add some sound here and there to salvage some commercial value out of it… . Does anyone know if the prologue to Showboat is lost? There is sound (ie.Aunt Jemima singing, among others), but no picture.


roxor2@aol.com (Roxor2) addressed the existence of the prologue:

Both picture and sound portions of the prologue to the 1929 Show Boat *do* exist--or did, at least. I remember seeing same at MoMA some years ago. Not terribly exciting footage, but interesting nonetheless.


I also addressed the issue of the prologue, and of the film having been started when silents were the norm:

The 1929 "Show Boat" had a very long production history. Universal bought the movie rights to the book before there ever was the 1927 Broadway musical. Universal was unfazed and went on to shoot their silent film.  When talkies and the success of the Broadway musical made it clear to Universal that the public would expect the movie to use the popular songs, they contracted for them (but surprisingly didn't use much of it). Two reels of sound is missing, which is why on TCM and the "Complete Showboat" laserdisc there are superimposed subtitles--and complete silence.

> Does anyone know if the prologue to Showboat is lost?
> There is sound, but no picture.

There are two issues here: before and after the story, there is entrance and exit music without picture.  This seems to be the way that the film was made.  HOWEVER, what you didn't see on TCM was a lengthy prologue of songs from the show, presented apart from the story, and featuring different actors than in the story part of the movie. … The prologue I just wrote of does exist and was excerpted in quantity on the supplements disc of the CAV Criterion edition of the 1936 "Show Boat."Strangely enough, MGM/UA's "Complete Show Boat" (a set of the 1929, 1936 and 1951 versions, with a lot of supplements for the 1951) doesn't contain any of the non-story prologue, just the drama itself and thus only has those songs that are integrated into the story as filmed for the 1929 version.


aabramsny@aol.com (AAbramsNY) disagreed with what I knew of the MGM/UA laserdisc:

David - Actually the set has the sound from the prologue but not the picture and claims that the picture portion is lost. The CRITERION version has part of the picture and sound. My understanding is that all of the sound from the prologue exists but not all of the picture. I'm curious as to why the MGM set claims that the entire picture portion does not exist--my guess is they were covering up the fact that it might not have been made available to them.


And just when it seemed that at least we understood that there were dialogue sequences in the drama portion of the film, a scholarly source wrote: As for SHOW BOAT, we can't really say how well the film worked or didn't, since so much of the sound seems to be lost.  Contemporary accounts of the film do indicate, however, that the film employed a synchronized music and effects score throughout and had a number of synchronized songs as well.  There wasn't, though, any dialogue sequences that I'm aware of. …


Although aabramsny@aol.com (AAbramsNY) and I disagreed in our initial posts, he was gracious enough to trade private email with me, and together we were able to determine what the facts are.I'd seen the TCM presentation and a playing of the 1929 feature on the MGM/UA "Complete Show Boat" laserdisc box set; AAbramsNY knew the contents of all of the discs and soundtracks of that three-film laserdisc set.  (When I saw the 1929 version on disc, it was when a friend played for me with the disc's main soundtrack.  The picture on the prologue is not in the set, and my friend, knowing that I'd seen the lengthy excerpts of the prologue included in the Criterion set, apparently considered sharing the picture-absent audio inconsequential.  And I may have misunderstood that just because all of the 1929 "Show Boat" included with the set fit onto one 2-hr. disc, that didn't exclude additional soundtrack on alternate audio channels.) Aabramsny has informed me that the sound portion is on an alternate track on the MGM/UA set.

What oconnell@pobox.upenn.edu (Kathy O'Connell) and I saw on TCM is exactly what I saw on that disc, as I remember it: the story part of the film, which for a short time does have black screen with music as exit music.

Other interested parties can confirm from the TV listings (and TCM's web site) that the 1929 "Show Boat" has been scheduled in two-hour slots (most recently on Saturday, Oct. 18th from 8am-10am Pacific Time)--which doesn't allow for both the prologue AND the drama portions. (aabramsny@aol.com (AAbramsNY) doesn't receive TCM so he hadn't the opportunity to directly answer Kathy and Scott on that issue.)


Regarding the peculiarity of the MGM/UA "COMPLETE [!] Show Boat" not having the picture portion of the prologue, AAbramsNY wondered in his posting: I'm curious as to why the MGM set claims that the entire picture portion does not exist--my guess is they were covering up the fact that it might not have been made available to them.


I wonder about this too.  Okay, so the film is not in their possession, but if it's in someone else's possession, why not arrange to get it?

Would Turner turn a blind eye to footage not in their library?


The major film libraries have made a practice of acquiring materials from each other when they have omissions.  Universal and the Hitchcock estate acquired early-generation material on "Vertigo" from Paramount (the original distributor) for the restoration.  Paramount bought the John Gilbert early-talkie "His Glorious Night" from MGM for a never-made remake and has recently turned to MGM to make possible a restoration.  If MGM/UA or Turner knew of the "Show Boat" prologue being on the Criterion collection, they could track the source (to Universal?) and contract for it.

A final word: those still questioning that the film had or still has dialogue segments, please read again Kathy's and my postings.  In seeing the film recently, we each have offered our assurances that it does.

David Hayes


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