Steamboats in the Movies
Show Boat 1936 - Universal Studios


Show Boat (1936) Universal
1 hour 53 minutes
Director: James Whale
Writers: Edna Ferber, Oscar Hammerstein II (stage play)
Starring: Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, Charles Winninger
The 1936 version was filmed at Universal Studios on the back lot and sound stages, but no outside locations.

Plot: Despite her mother's objections, the naive young daughter of a showboat captain is thrust into the limelight as the company's new leading lady.

Show Boat Universal 1936 matte shot and set River Queen

On the left is a frame capture from the 1936 Universal Studios film adaptation of Edna Ferber's novel SHOW BOAT.

The shack on the left, the cotton bales, roustabouts, main and boiler lower decks of the packet "RIVER QUEEN" were a full sized set but the rest of the steamboat and the cloudy sky behind it were achieved with a "matte" painting.

On the right is a detail from an 8 x 10 still of the full sized set with Allan Jones as the gambler Gaylord Ravenal disembarking from the RIVER QUEEN, destined to soon meet his future wife Magnolia Hawks on her father Cap'n Andy's show boat.

The art directors based this steamboat detail on another set Universal had built 10 years earlier which replicated the lower deck of the KATE ADAMS (as LA BELLE RIVIERE) in Universal's 1927 silent film adaptation of UNCLE TOM's CABIN.*


Beautiful still from the 1936 version of SHOW BOAT directed by James Whale, who was especially proud of the movie although he is best remembered for directing the Universal "horror movies" FRANKENSTEIN, BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, and THE INVISIBLE MAN.

The interior of the "Cotton Palace" (named "Cotton Blossom" in Edna Ferber's novel) as seen from "back stage" provides a convincing facsimile of the floating theatres (big structures built on barges essentially and pushed by towboats) that tied up on the waterfronts of towns and cities along the Mississippi River and its tributaries to entertain the citizens of those communities.

The actors from left to right in the far left foreground on stage are:

Sammy White as Frank Schultz
Queenie Smith as Elly May Chipley
Charles Winninger as Cap'n Andy Hawks
Helen Westley as Parthenia Ann "Parthy" Hawks
Irene Dunne as Magnolia Hawks

Irene Dunne with banjo is performing "Gallivantin' Around," one of the additional songs written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II for the 1936 film version of SHOW BOAT.

The name of Miss Dunne's birthplace is mentioned in the opening line of the song:

"Liza Matilda Hill, visiting friends in Louisville . . ."


Irene Marie Dunn was born on December 20, 1898 in the Ohio River city of Louisville, Kentucky, to Joseph Dunn, a steamboat inspector for the United States government, and Adelaide Henry, a concert pianist/music teacher from Newport, Kentucky.

Irene Dunne would later write, "No triumph of either my stage or screen career has ever rivaled the excitement of trips down the Mississippi on the river boats with my father."

Irene was only eleven when her father died in 1909. She saved all of his letters and often remembered and lived by what he told her the night before he died: "Happiness is never an accident. It is the prize we get when we choose wisely from life's great stores."

After her father's death, Irene, her mother, and her younger brother Charles moved to her mother's hometown of Madison, Indiana on the Ohio River.

Remembering Miss Dunne's fondness for steamboats, Walt Disney chose Irene to dedicate the steamboat MARK TWAIN on the opening day of Disneyland on July 17th, 1955.


A steamboat mock-up on Universal's back lot, supposedly from the 1936 version of SHOW BOAT

8" x 10" vintage photograph identified as having been taken during the filming of the 1936 version of SHOW BOAT, featuring a group of motion picture extras wearing antebellum costumes as they stand waving at unseen folks off camera from the main deck of a steamboat mock-up on Universal's back lot. If this was actually from the 36 SHOW BOAT it doesn't seem to have appeared in film after viewing it on the DVD. This scene may have "ended up on the cutting room floor" as the saying goes. The steamboat set seems to consist only of the front half from the bow to "amidship" which could have been an economic decision to reduce the set building budget of a production since the motion picture camera's lens could easily include only selected portions of a set so it wouldn't be apparent to an audience watching the film that it wasn't a "complete" set. Matte paintings could also be employed by the art director to "complete" a set in post production in which case the stern and paddlewheel could have been painted on glass by an artist and superimposed where the stern did not exist on the set, this was a common practice in many studio productions. Universal photo archive #1363-59


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