Steamboats in the Movies - MGM's Cotton Blossom, Page 1


Backlot filming of 1951 SHOW BOAT with Howard Keel as Gaylord Ravenal standing on one of the curved stairways aboard the Cotton Blossom while Director George Sidney sits next to the cameraman on a crane-like apparatus suspended over the water as they prepare to shoot a scene. MGM's "waterfront" buildings (sets) in the background are familiar from Mickey Rooney's HUCKLEBERRY FINN and Glen Ford's ADVANCE TO THE REAR.


MGM BUILT The COTTON BLOSSOM, A 134 foot long, 34 foot wide replica steamboat, for their 1951 movie SHOW BOAT. In 1971, MGM sold it at auction to the Worlds of Fun theme park near Kansas City, Missouri, where it was reconstructed, and then dedicated on May 26, 1973.

Attached 2 photos - on the left one taken on dedication day and on the right when the restoration was nearing completion. Unfortunately the Cotton Blossom was demolished after the attraction closed in 1995. It's a shame they didn't place more value on their investment after all the trouble they went to transport it to the Midwest, reassemble and restore it. See the article on this link to Jennifer's Worlds of Fun blog where photos document how much effort it took to accomplish the neglected boat's resurrection.

Wish I had known about it when I was in K.C. in 1979 and later in mid-90's, would have loved to have seen the 'Blossom in person.


COTTON BLOSSOM at Worlds of Fun

Promotional photo from Worlds of Fun near Kansas City, Missouri of their restored COTTON BLOSSOM prop steamboat from the 1961 MGM movie SHOW BOAT.


COTTON BLOSSOM attraction at Worlds of Fun

From a color slide a photo of the COTTON BLOSSOM during its retirement, serving as a static attraction at Worlds of Fun. Wish we could see the tops of the stacks and more of the rest of the boat including main deck and hull but what we are able to see here is impressive.


MGM Publicity still from the internet of the studio's mascot "LEO the LION" (who "roared" at the beginning of every film) escorted by his trainer on Lot 3 in Culver City at the edge of the lake where the COTTON BLOSSOM floated against the opposite shore with a hillside of oil wells in the background.

in the movies

COTTON BLOSSOM on the man-made lake on one of the MGM Culver City back lots. The color scheme is relatively subdued in this photo, not the overly gaudy "peppermint candy" red trim against white that looked a bit over the top in the Technicolor SHOW BOAT. There is no name board on the pilot house and no name painted an the port side stern either so the boat was probably being kept "neutral" until she needed to be rechristened for use in another movie. Photo courtesy of well-known, much accomplished steamboat model maker John Fryant.


COTTON BLOSSOM steamin' and smokin'. Murphy has a print of this photo in their collection and it also appears in Miles Krueger's book about Edna Ferber's novel, the celebrated productions of Jerome Kern's musical on stage and the motion picture adaptations of the novel and musical.

Show Boat: The Story of a Classic American Musical 1978 by Miles Kreuger Oxford University Press 1978

The iconic replica boats like MGM'S COTTON BLOSSOM and Universal's ENTERPRISE are more familiar to the general public than most of the genuine boats that plied the waters of the Mississippi River valley.

ShowBoatCottomBlossomMGMsetStill HALF size

Taken on MGM's Culver City back lot lake of an exterior set representing the shore line of Natchez during a break during filming of SHOW BOAT in 1951. I can make out about 16 "dress extras" - 8 African Americans and 8 "white folks" in costumes around the cotton bales on shore. The building in the background appears to have been built originally as a small town depot set and probably moved from somewhere else on the back lot to represent a steamboat landing office. There's a little set slate next to the capstan and a cunning little box office for the "Floating Palace Theatre "to the right of the swinging stage far right. The headlight mounted on the jack staff looks like it was borrowed off one of the studio's vintage locomotives.

A motion picture camera may have been mounted on the stern of the skiff in the foreground, hard to tell since it's not clear what was going on out of the picture in the lower right corner.

The man at the oars looks dead serious . . . making an expensive Hollywood musical had to be a sobering business.


Show Boat article by Ferber in STAGE magazine 1938

Act 1 (Scene 2)

STAGE magazine August 1938

Pages 31 - 34

"Pardon my Pointing" by Edna Ferber

The author of Show Boat sings a sentimental Southern song, in which she remembers how the musical came about. In which she also calls our attention to the fact that Mr. Kern wrote a score worthy of the Metropolitan, even if he did write it in the American language.

Though I say it who shouldn't, I confess to being one of those thousands whose eyes grow dreamy and whose mouth is wreathed in wistful smiles whenever the orchestra - any orchestra - plays "Ol' Man River."

I've heard it played in the bar of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, at Le Pré Catelan in the Paris Bois, at the Savoy in London (we writers get around).

Certainly I must have heard the score of Show Boat played a thousand times. I never have tired of it.

This, truthfully, is what is known in Tin Pan Alley as a song plug. I didn't write the music or the lyrics of the musical play entitled Show Boat.

I just happen to think that when Jerome Kern wrote the Show Boat score he achieved the most beautiful and important light-opera music that has ever been written in America.

And I consider Oscar Hammerstein's lyric to Ol' Man River to be powerful, native, tragic, and true.

It was Alexander Woollcott who acted as "shadchen" (Yiddish for"matchmaker") in the marriage between the novel entitled "Show Boat" and the music of Jerome Kern.

The happy union brought forth the musical play presented by Florenz Ziegfeld at the Ziegfeld Theatre in 1927.

Since that time, eleven years ago, there never has been a week when Show Boat was not being performed somewhere-on the stage, on the screen, over the radio.

It was Jerome Kern's idea - having read the book - that a play with music could be made from the story. We never had met.

One night I went to a first night with Alexander Woollcott ("olav hasholem" - Yiddish for "Mat May Peace be Upon Him") I think we saw Fred Stone and his family in "Stepping Stones" at the Globe Theatre.

After the first act we drifted out to the lobby and my courtly escort bounded off to talk with someone else, leaving me to my own devices, of which I had none.

A pixie-looking little man with the most winning smile in the world, and partially eclipsed by large thick spectacles, now fought his way through the lobby throng toward Woollcott.

He said (I later was told): "Look, Aleck, I hear you know Edna Ferber I wonder if you'll kind of fix it for me to meet her sometime soon. I want to talk to her about letting me make a musical from her Show Boat. Can you arrange an introduction, or a meeting or something?"

Mr. Woollcott, with a dreadful relish for the dramatic plum which had this fallen into his lap (if any), said, musingly, "M-m-m, well, I think I can just arrange it if I play my cards right."

"Thanks," said Kern. "Thanks awfully, Aleck, I'll be -----."

Woollcott now raised his voice to a bellow: "Ferber ! Hi, Ferber ! Come on over here a minute." Then, "This is Jerome Kern. Edna Ferber."

Well, folks, that is how your grandm ------- I mean, as the writing of the play proceeded (and its ups and downs were even more heartbreaking than those of most musical plays) I heard bits and pieces of the score.

Once or twice everything was seemingly abandoned because Ziegfeld said he couldn't produce the play. Almost a year went by.

I had heard "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" with its love-bemused lyric: "Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, I gotta love one man till I die. Can't help lovin' dat man of mine."

I had melted under the bewitching strains of "Make Believe," and of "Why Do I Love You?," and to Gaylord Ravenal's careless insolent gambler's song.

But then Jerry Kern appeared at my apartment late one afternoon with a strange look of quiet exultation in his eyes.

He sat down at the piano. He doesn't play the piano particularly well and his singing voice, though true, is negligible. He played and sang "Ol' Man River."

The music mounted, mounted and I give you my word my hair stood on end, the tears came to my eyes, I breathed like a heroine in a melodrama. This was great music.

This was music that would outlast Jerome Kern's day and mine. I never have heard it since without that emotional surge.

When Show Boat was revived at the Casino Theatre in New York just four years after its original production I saw a New York first-night audience, after Paul Robson's singing of "Ol' Man River," shout and cheer and behave generally as I've never seen an audience behave in any theatre in all my years of play going.

Of all the songs in all the shows none is cherished with more heart and soul and sung with more feeling than "Ol' Man River. . ."

If Carmen is Spain, and if Louise and Bohème are France, then Show Boat is legitimate American opera and I'd like to see it produced at the Metropolitan, as it should be.

I'd like to hear that Metropolitan orchestra tear loose with "Ol' Man River."

I'd like to hear Grace Moore or Lily Pons sing Magnolia, and Martinelli do Cap'n Andy, and Paul Robson sing Joe, Lawrence Tibbett sing the dashing Gaylord Ravenal, and Gladys Swarthout as Julie.

That would be stirring and glamorous and true American opera, as it should be sung and played. And I'll bet anything you like that you'd see no stuffed-shirt husbands asleep in the red plush boxes that opening night.

Joe E. Brown - cornet

Joe E. Brown as Cap'n Andy in SHOW BOAT, "playing" the cornet in front of the fire curtain aboard the COTTON BLOSSOM.

There are 5 steamboats in vignettes on the fire curtain and one on the upright piano below the stage.

The name BETSY ANN is under the painting in the lower left but the names under the other boats are obscured or are too dark to read. Hope a better photo of the fire curtain turns up or perhaps on the DVD of the movie some more details are visible. The fire curtain itself may have been sold in the MGM auction.


Howard Keel as itinerent riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal with Owen McGiveney as Windy McClain, pilot of the COTTON BLOSSOM, who is selling tickets for the next show at a boot on shore. The steamboat/show boat COTTON BLOSSOM is visible in the background at center.


Nine more screen captures from SHOW BOAT.


Neat photo of a carpenter doing detail work to gingerbread during the restoration of the COTTON BLOSSOM for the Worlds of Fun theme park. The wide angle lens gave the illusion that the round capstan was "squashed" into an oval shape, otherwise everything looks the way you would expect it to. Believe that a while back this image was featured on the Worlds of site but it does not appear to be there anymore as of January 2017.


M-G-M publicist Lionel Ascher visits the COTTON BLOSSOM during the filming of the 1951 SHOW BOAT.

From an online virtual tour of the Studio's back lots:

More Cotton Blossom - click here