Ava Gardner starred in only one musical, George Sidney's lavish remake of the tearjerker "Show Boat" (1951). She was cast as the mulatto Julie LaVerne after MGM had ruled out Judy Garland, Dinah Shore and Ava's good friend Lena Horne. Ava had agreed to play the part but only if she could do her own singing. For several weeks she was coached by a vocal teacher, after which she recorded her two songs "Can't help lovin' dat man" and "Bill". In her autobiography "Ava: My Story" (1990), Ava remembered giving her test record to producer Arthur Freed: "I don't think the son of a bitch ever even listened to it. He just put it on a shelf and delivered the usual studio ultimatum: "Now, listen, Ava, you can't sing and you're among professional singers." So Freed had professional singer Annette Warren record the songs as well and chose her vocals over Ava's. Ava was quite upset with MGM, and I think rightfully so since she did a wonderful job singing those songs (I actually prefer her renditions over Annette Warren's).
But despite being upset with MGM, Ava liked playing the role of Julie LaVerne-- in fact, it was one of the few roles she liked. Her performance was well received, not just by critics but also by people in the industry. Jerry Wald, producer of such classics as "Mildred Pierce" (1945) and "Key Largo" (1948), saw Ava in "Show Boat" two months before the film opened and was very impressed. He wanted to let her know how much he liked her performance, so he wrote her the following letter on 18 July 1951 (at the time Ava was married to Frank Sinatra, hence Wald's opening line):
Source: heritage auctions/ reproduced with permission
|Writer/producer Jerry Wald and Ava Gardner in the scene where she sings "Bill".|