TBT: Show Boat (1951)


It’s true that I often hunt down movies because of a costume picture. This is Frock Flicks, after all. And while there are multiple versions of this stage musical on film, it was 1951’s Show Boat that I needed to see because of Ava Gardner in this ah-may-zing green and plaid bustle gown designed by Walter Plunkett. No, it’s not historically accurate, but yes, it is a stunningly gorgeous creation, and not just because of Miss Gardner.


But before I get to the costumes, let’s talk about the story. The stage play is set in 1887 on a show boat called Cotton Blossom that’s arrived in a Mississippi small town. The show’s lead actress, Julie (Ava Gardner), and her husband, the lead actor, Steve (Robert Sterling), make a splash and draw attention from the townsfolk. Meanwhile, a gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Howard Keel) comes aboard and makes eyes at the sweet young captain’s daughter Magnolia (Kathryn Grayson).

At the big show, the town sheriff tries to arrest Julie because someone in town has discovered that she’s biracial — part Black — so her and Steve’s marriage is miscegenation. Steve takes a pin to prick Julie’s finger and suck blood from it, since ‘just one drop’ of Black blood is all it theoretically takes to make him also Black under this law, and thus there’s no miscegenation and their marriage is still legal. However, Blacks can’t be onstage with whites, so they have to leave the Cotton Blossom and their show.


All of this takes place in the first 30 or so minutes of the film, and the rest is a fairly generic love-’em-and-leave-’em story between Magnolia and Gaylord. Even the rest of the musical numbers are just so-so — Julie has already sung “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” (though Gardner was dubbed by Annette Warren) and Joe (William Warfield) sings “Ol’ Man River” as Julie and Steve leave, and these are the iconic songs from the show.

Show Boat (1951) - William Warfield, "Old Man River"

Lena Horne says she was passed over for the role of Julie, and of course the Production Code at the time could have questioned an actual Black women depicting miscegenation onscreen. But the fact that all the major characters are shown on Julie’s side and against the stated laws (that they dutifully, if sadly, comply with) seems like the tiniest evidence of change. Magnolia considers Julie her best friend and idolizes her. Steve tries to change his race because he loves Julie so much, and he leaves his career for her. The idea that Julie was “passing” as white is inherently racist and born of the white supremacist system that means a Black woman wouldn’t be able to sing, perform, and earn a living on stage, either within this story or in this film (as Lena Horn’s experience shows).

But for 1951, Ava Gardner does a decent job for the period of elevating the tragic mulatto stereotype. Does that make this a good movie? That’s for each person to judge. I do think it makes Show Boat a better movie than it could have been and one worth looking at for these reasons. I’d much rather talk about the topics this movie raises than throw it out and pretend it does exist.


So, with a fat load of racism, only a couple good songs, and a slog of a romance, can the costumes save Show Boat? It’s Walter Plunkett goes Victorian by way of all the Technicolor he can muster. Do not adjust your set, he really does use all these colors all at the same time! Garish, yes, but hey, Victorians were pretty garish too. The sleek fit is amazing, and while I doubt there are historical corsets under there, I’m sure Ava and Kathryn are girdled within an inch of their lives, because Plunkett didn’t leave even the barest bit of ease in their gowns. They results are sometimes gorgeous to look at, with only a faint nod towards the 1880s.

Show Boat (1951) - Ava Gardner

Walter Plunkett’s sketch for that green gown

Show Boat (1951) - Ava Gardner

Side view of the green plaid gown.

Show Boat (1951) - Ava Gardner

Another green stunner. The black overskirt is a hint at a period style.

Show Boat (1951) - Ava Gardner

Julie makes her entrance in the film in this eye-searing ensemble. The bodice fits like a glove!

Show Boat (1951) - Ava Gardner

Someone at MGM really knew how to work with satin! Also, ostrich feathers.

Show Boat (1951) - Ava Gardner

And then there’s this. It’s … cute but weird?

Show Boat (1951) - Ava Gardner

I like it better in black & white.

Show Boat (1951) - Kathryn Grayson & Howard Keel

This white & black ensemble is one of Kathryn Grayson’s more interesting costumes, tho’ I couldn’t get a full image.

Show Boat (1951) - Kathryn Grayson & Howard Keel

Again, beautifully fitted.

Show Boat (1951) - Kathryn Grayson

The movie is filled with outrageous stage costumes, but I’m only including this one on Grayson. The bath scrubbies on her feet are an interesting choice.

Show Boat (1951) - Kathryn Grayson

Walter Plunkett’s sketch seems a bit more restrained. Not particularly historical, just a showgirl outfit.



Have you seen Show Boat? This version or any of the others?


About the author

Trystan L. Bass

Twitter Facebook Website

A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

29 Responses

  1. mmcquown

    It’s “Ava,” not “Eva.” Stories dealing with race coming out of Hollywood were always hedged bets until the 60’s. “Imitation Of Life” with Lana Turner was a step in the right direction. Period pieces are always going to upset somebody when dealing with issues like slavery and any kind of racial mixing. As far as I know, nobody’s ever touched on the quadroon and octoroon balls. And maybe never will.

    • Saraquill

      There was another “Imitation of Life” movie in the 1930s, starring Frieda Washington as Peola. It doesn’t get as much attention.

      • hsc

        Fredi Washington, not Frieda– and unfortunately, she didn’t get to have much of a career, despite being beautiful and talented:

        The 1934 version of “Imitation of Life” was the one role that was tailor-made for Washington, and even though she got good notices, it just didn’t lead to anything.

        Sadly, about 30 years ago, I was working with a university film committee and was approached about ideas for Black History Month. The group asked about the 1959 remake of “Imitation of Life,” and I tried to steer them towards the 1934 version, because of the historic casting of Fredi Washington.

        Even though I pointed out that the remake was basically a Lana Turner soap opera with a white woman (okay, technically half-Latina, daughter of Mexican actress Lupita Tovar) playing the “passing for white” role, they still went for it– because it was in color and the other one was “too old.”

        • M.E. Lawrence

          hsc, thanks for the info about Fredi Washington. Remarkable face and a lot of talent. Despite my love of Ava Gardner, I prefer the ’30s version of “Showboat” as well; something about the evident effort that went into building Robeson’s role from the standard-issue black servant of the book to the relaxed, intelligent man of the movie, who serves as the conscience of the film.

  2. Saraquill

    A biography I read years ago touched upon a family member who struggled to be an actor, but didn’t get cast because he wasn’t “Black enough” to get Black roles, and heaven forbid he get cast as anything else. He and his wife eventually cut ties with the family to pass as White in order for him to work.

  3. James Kelly

    The cream and black dress worn by Grayson ended up being dyed pink and used as one of the dresses the fashion model wears in Gigi.

    • Shashwat

      The design seriously mixes up natural form and bustle era silhouettes,not in a great way.Strangely,the overall quality and designs didn’t evoke Plunkett’s usual style(his works generally feature a lot of depth and layering in clothing),excellent fitting notwithstanding.
      I feel slightly weird asking this,but as far as I have gathered,slave laws of the time dictated that the child should be identified by the status of the mother.At the same time the property issues were very much biased from a patriarchal point of view,so were people of mixed ancestry allowed to mix with the society if their paternal side of family accepted them after legal means?By “allowed” I mean if it was possible,and also if it was frowned upon when practised?Considering economic liberty heralded social changes,did it have effect on this issue too?It is something that I have not been able to grasp,because law and convention were different things,and it is still something that we don’t learn about much in the modern world,and historical accounts seem rather opinionated instead of a true picture.

      • Shashwat

        Yet another apology from my side,I don’t get why me comments end up posted as replies…

  4. hsc

    Those Walter Plunkett costumes are beautiful, always a pleasure to see classic Hollywood costuming regardless of period accuracy. There was just a special quality about it even when it got ridiculously “off”.

    Lena Horne was interviewed once (“60 Minutes,” maybe?) and told the story of her experience with “Showboat.”

    She said the buzz all over town was that she was going to get the role, and to her surprise, one day the makeup department at MGM gave her a call, telling her they wanted her to come in to work out the makeup for “Showboat.”

    Horne said that they sat her in a chair and studied her skin tone and none of the existing base makeup matched, so they kept mixing and matching until they developed a custom base makeup that matched her skin tone exactly. She said they called the new makeup shade “Egyptian Ivory.”

    She paused for effect and added, “And then they took that Egyptian Ivory– and smeared it ALL over Ava Gardner!”

    And I guess the caption went missing on the B/W picture, but that’s Paul Robeson (Joe), Irene Dunne (Magnolia), Hattie McDaniel (Queenie), and Helen Morgan (Julie) in the 1936 version.

    • MoHub

      Helen Morgan’s rendition of “Bill” is the most heartbreaking thing you’ll ever hear.

  5. Sharon in Scotland

    As a woman of colour I enjoy “Show Boat”, but find the Julie/Steve storyline frustrating and upsetting. I remember watching “Imitation of Life” for the first time, years ago and getting a dehydration headache with all the weeping from the last quarter of the film, when Annie dies and the lead up to the funeral. If you don’t cry like a baby when Mahaila Jackson sings “Trouble of the World” then you are not human.

  6. Natalie

    A childhood favorite! I always loved the costumes from this movie.

  7. Karen K.

    I saw the stage play years ago when it was on tour, but it’s been so long I hardly remember it. However, I remember that Donald O’Connor played Cap’n Andy and that was a pretty big deal. I’ve never seen the film version so I’ll have to add it to my list. Is that Hattie McDaniel in the second photo?

    And I was just driving down I-95 last weekend and saw the signs for the Ava Gardner museum! It’s in Smithfield, North Carolina. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to visit it someday.

  8. Addie

    I’ve always wanted to see Show Boat remade by someone who really gets the racial politics of the period, drop the stupid gambler & ingenue plot we’ve seen a million times.
    Why is it that right after what should be the entrance to Act 2 for the interracial couple’s story (they even have the crossing the boundary moment when they leave the show boat) we whiplash over to the boring people, and the next time we see Julie, she’s a bombed out drunk and Joe has left her? Y’know, the subject of “Can’t Help Loving That Man”?
    I’d love to see a real deconstruction of Jim Crow miscegenation and passing using the interpretation of race as a floating signifier. Maybe Joe and Julie go back to live with her black family in Act 2– Joe has to face what it means living as socially neither white nor black (as his wife has done), and Julie needs to come to terms with how passing has culturally distanced her from her black family? Maybe deconstruct the reductionist tragic mlatto or tragic ngro inherent to Old Man River (as much as I love that song)? Anything is better than what we got.

    • Addie

      Hell, this would also be a good venue to address minstrel shows, which thrived in the Reconstruction period as whites sold themselves the lie about happy Antebellum days and non-threatening or sneaky black people needing and wanting paternalistic control. They even have a bunch of Lost Cause-ism in the river boat shows we see in-universe, it’s RIGHT THERE! Now let’s do something with it! (Preferably headed by a black production team and historians bc I feel like the original Show Boat is what happens when white Hollywood tries to write a racially sensitive movie. Yes, it was revolutionary at the time. Now let’s have another revolution.)

    • Fran in NYC

      What you say is very true but the movie is based on a 1927 stage musical written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein. For 1927, it was rather liberal in its social viewpoint towards AA status in America. Viewing them sympathetically, not as cartoons. I agree the romantic leads are boring but that’s also very typical of the time!

    • Trystan L. Bass

      Wow, a deconstructed Show Boat that focuses on Julie could be an amazing story. Kind of like Wide Sargasso Sea’s take on Jane Eyre, giving Bertha Mason her own story. And keeping it a musical with more songs in the same vein as ‘Can’t Help Loving That Man’ & ‘Old Man River,’ drawing on jazz & the Black spirituals tradition, could also be fantastic. I have no idea who could do it, but I can imagine so many ways it could be brilliant.

      • Addie

        There’s so much you could explore. Like how did Joe go from “I will stand up to this racial injustice for the sake of my loved one” (admittedly not the best motivator bc it’s personal rather than ethics-based but it’s still very romantic) to “lol bye see you at the bottom of the gin bottle!”

        • Trystan L. Bass

          Their story could be a great tragedy that explores interracial romance of the period with complexity & richly emotional songs. Oh yeah, it could such good historical drama.

      • M.E. Lawrence

        What a great idea–“Hamilton” on the river. And, as you point out, our trove of beautiful American music. Joplin and Mississippi John Hurt come to mind. Even Stephen Foster wrote–unconsciously?–a song or two sympathetic to black folk (and drew criticism for it, of course; a black woman was not referred to as “a lady” in 1849): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rbh2n95HbX4

          • Addie

            LMM or someone with similar talents could probably capture the pathos in it, though personally I’d be looking for someone with the style of Alice Walker. I don’t know if that kind of tone can even work with that specific Broadway musical style; Showboat and Carousel both feel kind of weird because they’re trying to walk that line between emotional realism and musicality that extends beyond the possible. Though that’s also why I think they’re more interesting than shows that stick safely in the status quo like the Sound of Music- not better or worse, just they have more genre complexity to dissect.

  9. Melanie Ruth Clark

    Ol’ Man River is one of the most powerful songs I’ve ever heard–Especially Paul Robeson’s performance in the 1936 version. I’ll always have a special place for Show Boat in my heart for that!

    • MoHub

      Hammerstein was far ahead of his time in his politics. And think “You’ve Got to be Taught”” later, in South Pacific. He was a bastion of just causes.

  10. Lily Lotus Rose

    I’ve never seen any version of Show Boat. For me it’s on my “should watch” list. I very rarely make to “should watch” list when there’s so much on my “want to watch” list. However, this post might become the impetus for me to watch this film–either or both versions, finally. I’d definitely be in favor a “Wide Sargasso Sea”-style flip of this story. When I was reading the back-and-forth ideas in the responses, for some reason I kept thinking of the Angelina Jolie-Antonio Banderas movie, Original Sin. I just learned from Playbill’s website that 2 actresses from Hamilton were going to star in a musical called Gun & Powder about the real-life story of 2 biracial sisters in America who pass for white in the 1890s. The article was dated Feburary 2020, so I’m sure that didn’t happen, but I hope the story gets to be told whenever it’s safe for theatrical productions resume. I’d love to see it.

    Re other movies mentioned in the responses: I’ve only seen the Lana Turner version of Imitation of Life, though I’d like to see the earlier version, too. A few weeks ago, I learned of a 1965 film called High Yellow that seems to have a plot similar Imitation of Life, but I haven’t seen in it yet. There are a few movies that touch on the notion of the quadroon and octaroon balls that FrockFlicks has already reviewed–The Feast of All Saints and The Courage to Love.

    Back to the Frocks, even though I’ve never seen this movie, I’ve always LOVED the green and plaid dress when I’ve seen stills from the film! And Ava Gardner being gorgeous doesn’t hurt either!

  11. Roxana

    As the ghost pale granddaughter of a man who ‘passed’ I’ve got no patience with the whole nonsensical system.