Steamboats in the Movies
Show Boat 1929 - Universal Studios


Show Boat (1929) Universal
2 hours 27 minutes
The first Show Boat movie, 1929, was a mix of silent and talkie, filmed on the Sacramento River.

The movie is an adaptation of Edna Ferber's novel, rather than a filming of the Jerome Kern stage musical that Florence Ziegfeld produced on Broadway in 1927. The movie only includes a couple of the songs written by composer Jerome Kern and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II for the Broadway show.

Director: Harry A. Pollard
Producer: Carl Laemmle
Writers: Charles Kenyon, based on the novel by Edna Ferber
Edward J. Montaigne (story supervisor)
Starring: Laura La Plante, Joseph Schildkraut, Emily Fitzroy


Still of the actors and musicians rehearsing on the Cotton Palace under the direction of Cap'n Andy (Otis Harlan).

A melodramatic moment from one of the Cotton Palace Floating Theatre's repertoire of thrillers. This is a stage set especially designed at Universal City. At the center of the stage is Cap'n Andy, played by Otis Harlan, vigorously rehearsing the troupe.

Reading from left to right: Neely Edwards, Max Asher, Theodore Lorch, Alma Rubens, Elise Bartlett, Otis Harlan, George Cheseboro, Harry Holden, Jack Query, Joe Mills and Grace Cunard.


The attached photo is from the point of view of the roof of the "pilot house" on the COTTON PALACE with "Parthy" Hawks "twisting the arm" of her then young daughter Magnolia for some imagined "misbehavior" near the center of the photo at the front end of the showboat's deck.

The caption was included in the margin of the attached photo . . . from the popular 1927 song "HERE COMES THE SHOWBOAT" music my Maceo Pinkard and lyrics by Billy Rose that was incorporated into the musical score for this '29 film version. Ethel Waters had introduced the song in a '27 Broadway revue called AFRICANA. Composer Pinkard was an African American born in 1897 in West Virginia and is best down for writing the music to "SWEET GEORGIA BROWN" in 1928.

After a long musical introduction the lyrics of this song are included in the following version by Jean Goldkette's jazz orchestra:

Jean Goldkette "Here Comes the Show Boat" (1927) Youtube


"Joe" (Stepin Fetchit) playing the banjo in the kitchen of "Queenie" (Tess Gardella) aboard the "COTTON PALACE" showboat as the young "Magnolia Hawks" (Jane La Verne) sits by appreciatively eating a piece of pie.

I like the nostalgic ambiance of the set and Stepin Fetchit's expression and pose here. "Fetchit's" real name was Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry. He played in fifty-eight movies from 1925 to 1976, including this one and Steamboat Round the Bend.


This is a detail from an unidentified photograph which probably dates from 1929 during the filming.

The "RIVER QUEEN" appears to have been remodeled from an existing Sacramento River boat, probably at Stockton, California. Twin "stacks" have been substituted for the larger single stack which the boat would have been built with.

In this version of SHOW BOAT the "RIVER QUEEN" may have been the steamer upon which the gambler Gaylord Ravenal arrived in Natchez where he was drafted by Cap'n Andy Hawks to play young leading men in melodramas performed aboard the showboat that was given the name Cotton Blossom by Ferber in her novel.

You can see pretty much all of the sternwheeler in the distance behind the River Queen and on the far right the front end of the "Show Boat." The owners of the actual showboat "COTTON BLOSSOM" on the Mississippi wanted a large fee for the use of the name so in the two Universal SHOW BOAT adaptations (1929 & 1936) the showboat was called the "COTTON PALACE."

The carriage and horses in the left foreground and the guys waving in the right foreground are in soft focus, guess the photographer's lens wasn't equipped for that much depth of field. Am pretty sure that is Stockton on the Sacramento River rather than the city of Sacramento. Ocean going ships sail all the way up the river to Stockton, it's an "Inland Port." The concrete embankment on the far side of the river may have been a levee/flood wall to keep the river from inundating the town during high water.


Two stills taken on the Sacramento River during the filming.

The little towboat pushing the show boat is named MOLLIE ABLE which was the same name that Ferber gave it in her novel that she evidently got from the St. Louis - New Orleans sidewheeler MOLLIE ABLE built in 1864 at Jeffersonville, Indian and destroyed on March 8, 1871 in the Great St. Louis Tornado. The show boat itself in this movie was named COTTON PALACE, not COTTON BLOSSOM, because the owner of the actual show boat by that name apparently wanted an extravagant fee for the use of the name which was short sighted on his part because if it had been used it would have given free publicity for his floating theatre.


All captions provided by Dave Thomson, primary contributor and historian.