It’s hard to believe that one of the biggest box-office draws of the early 1930s was a comic and entertainer rarely mentioned today. He was a skilled songwriter, comedian and singer who had the ability to not just make people laugh, but draw in his audience to feel “included,” like he was a member of the family. He was already an established entertainer in the 1920s, dominating Broadway for years first as a headliner with Ziegfield Follies, and later his own shows. He tackled radio in its infancy and remained one of the premiere personalities with shows all the way through the 1950s. His songs and records were some of the biggest sellers of the 1920s and 30s, and still, with all of that, he lost his shirt in the stock market crash of ’29, then went about rebuilding his fortune to become a millionaire twice over. This household name was considered one of the most important figures in the first half of the 20th century, not only for entertaining, but as a humanitarian who made the world a better place, creating the charity The March of Dimes (itself a “play” on the newsreels titled The March of Time). That personality was Eddie Cantor.
Cantor was born Israel Iskowitz of Russian Jewish heritage and was singing Yiddish on the sidewalks of New York before he reached puberty. By 1917 at the age of 25 he was headlining Ziegfield’s Follies where he polished his persona, a “light in the loafers” dandy, prancing and singing songs with more than a little sexual innuendo, infused with a Jewish sensibility combining timing, schtick and “takes” to the audience.
Those who know my predilection for comedy teams and early movie comics will understand then why I am such a fan of Cantor. You may not share or appreciate my enthusiasm, but who could? And now that Warner Archive Collection has released a four DVD set of some of his early Samuel Goldwyn talkies, you’ll know that it’s cause for celebration – at least in my little corner of the world.
One has to approach viewing classic films by an artist of extremely narrow modern appeal like Eddie Cantor with an eye towards solitary viewing. For me, this meant choosing several days when my wife would be out of town, so she wouldn’t have to hear “Makin’ Whoopee,” and “Bend Down, Sister!” all night long. If you love someone, make this set’s viewing a “private affair.”
In the early 30s, the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields and Eddie Cantor owned the comedy world. Once sound exploded on the scene, audiences couldn’t get enough of any performer with a “gift for gab,” and although Fields and Cantor had made several silent films, they really hit their stride when they were given the ability to speak.
And although Fields and the Marxes have always held universal appeal; Eddie Cantor is not just an acquired taste, but a quantifiable taste. He’s not a personality you can just sit down and enjoy without “recalibrating your mindset” for the period.
By the early 30s audiences were accustomed, and in fact, hungry for Jewish comedians. They were the style and set the standard for vaudeville, which, after movies, was the prevailing performance art that audiences consumed. The set-up and punch, the cadence of delivery, and eye-rolling “takes” to the audience defined American humor in the teens and twenties, save for the folksy wit and wisdom alternatives like Mark Twain and Will Rogers.
Today, Cantor’s style, which fully embraced and helped define this Jewish sensibility, is the essence of cornball. His telegraphing of jokes, his mugging, exploited by his hugely over-expressive eyes (he was referred to as “Banjo eyes”)and blatant scenery chewing will be almost “painful” to modern audiences. Combined with his “blackface” routines which were as commonplace then as jokes about airplane food and traffic are today, make him almost “unwatchable.” But for those with a little patience, and the ability to see past the period’s obvious insensitivities and archaic attitudes, there is a wealth of enjoyment to pull from these early musical-comedies, and an undeniable admission of Eddie Cantor’s universal appeal and indefatigable charisma.
PALMY DAYS (1931)
Cantor had already dominated vaudeville and radio, but his film record was spotty. His “banjo eyes” and propensity for great physical antics and timing would make him a natural for silent films (of which he made a small handful) but that was only half his charm. His skill at repartee, borscht-belt jokes, and already legendary singing and dancing meant that he needed a medium that would allow the whole package. Luckily, sound came along and with his first feature length “all-talking” musical (based on his successful Broadway smash), Whoopee! became one of the biggest box office hits of 1930. (It was also in two-strip Technicolor which was still a mega-expensive rarity, but showed how much producer Samuel Goldwyn believed in Cantor’s ability to bring in audiences).
Goldwyn, in fact, always the shrewd businessman, grabbed up Cantor fresh from his Broadway success and signed him to an exclusive six picture deal. Much like the maven would do fifteen years later with Danny Kaye (another Yiddish language Broadway success story), Goldwyn excelled at pairing modern comic talents with his ubiquitous Goldwyn Girls and top cinematographers, art directors and composer/lyricists to yield a high return for his considerable investments.
Cantor followed up Whoopee! the next year with Palmy Days, and it’s one of this DVD set’s highlights. Generally, even when comics were the lead in the 30s and 40s, their stories would be relegated to sub-plot status so the unremarkable leads could sing and dance and offer flat “boy-gets, boy-loses, boy-gets girl” scenarios. With Palmy Days, Cantor is front and center as a phony spiritualist’s “stooge.” When he is sent to deliver on his psychic boss’s predictions at a hugely successful bakery, posing as an “efficiency expert,” he ends up wooing the daughter of the CEO. Cantor blunders in and out of shenanigans that continually prove his unwitting necessity for the company. For no reason that can be discerned, every time Cantor gets nervous, he sings instead of talks. This would prove to be a continuous neuroses for Cantor’s characters from then on.
Palmy Days is fast paced and a real joy, not just for Cantor. This is a pre-code comedy that is so racy it could almost stand-in as a stag film. The first third introduces us to Clark Bakery, whose motto is “Glorifying the American Donut.” We are treated to dozens of Goldwyn Girls who wear aprons with no clothes underneath! Bras are even optional, as there’s more jiggling going on than inside a jelly-filled cruller. In fact, one of the tunes, “Bend Down, Sister,” is nothing more than an excuse for the lovely ladies to bend towards camera to reveal a various cornucopia of cleavage. Don’t blink or you’ll miss Betty Grable and Paulette Goddard.
An uncredited Busby Berkeley delivers the choreographed goods (only the second time in his career following Whoopee!) as only the great overhead angler could, with synchronized swim sequences (the bakery has a whole gymnasium where the girls work-out everyday – don’t ask) and big donut delivering geometric patterns.
There are a couple painful blemishes, which if you know Cantor’s material means you’re prepared for his ubiquitous “black face” routine, as well as a very cliché appearance and joke by a “gay customer.” (Girl: “Sir, do you want a frosted rose on the center of your cake?” “No, dearie, make it a pansy!”) (Sigh). But the fun period tunes (“My Baby Said Yes-Yes” plays ad infinitum throughout and is recognizable to those who enjoyed (and remember) Steve Martin’s lip syncing in Pennies From Heaven) and cheeky pre-code humor make it worth the “wince.”
THE KID FROM SPAIN (1932)
With the wildly successful box-office of Palmy Days, producer Goldwyn knew he had a tiger by the tail. He doubled down on his next collaboration with Cantor, and acquiesced when the star pressed him to allow his writers to do a send-up of an Ernest Hemingway true-life story of a painter who went down to Mexico and inadvertently became one of the country’s most celebrated bullfighters. Goldwyn thought the material was too “heady” for Cantor’s audience, so he stacked the deck with production elements that helped Palmy Days success stay in place for this next venture. Busby Berkeley would again choreograph two more sexy, pre-code dance numbers with the hot-cha-cha Goldwyn Girls that included Jane Wyman, Paulette Godard and Betty Hutton again (in fact, Hutton gets to open the movie with a bit of kittenish cooing to the camera, prepping the audience for a negligee number). He also used his “go to DP” Gregg Toland and this time hired director Leo McCary (who had been cutting his teeth at Sennett Studios with Laurel & Hardy and Our Gang shorts). For the book and songs he enlisted Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby (both the composer and lyricist for the Marx Brothers’ hits Animal Crackers and Horsefeathers. In fact, this same team, including Carey, would helm the Brothers’ Duck Soup only a year later.
The plot follows Palmy Days almost beat for beat. Instead of a bakery, we start at college and a woman’s dormitory where the racy first number begins. Cantor has been hiding in the dorm and is brought up before the dean who is about to expel Eddie (Cantor’s characters in every movie are named “Eddie,” just like Jackie Chan’s character were all named “Jackie.”) until his best college buddy Ricardo (an almost prepubescent Robert Young as a “Mexican.” Ay yi yi!) steps in to admit he trapped Eddie there. The dean expels Ricardo and is impressed with Eddie’s attempt at protecting his friend when a whistle blows and Eddie goes “crazy” (yelling and hitting the dean) explaining every time he hears a whistle he loses it (remember his nervous singing from Palmy Days?). This routine was done to much greater effect with the Three Stooges whenever Curly heard Pop Goes the Weasel, and he would go into a conniption as only force feeding him cheese could calm him down.
From there, the usual farcical situations come about with Eddie being forced to drive a bank robbery getaway car and having to hide out in Mexico from the police. There, Ricardo protects him by claiming Eddie is Don Sebastian the Second, son of the greatest Spanish bullfighter of all time, Don Sebastian.
A fun subplot involves Eddie kidnapping Ricardo’s girlfriend but getting the wrong girl, Rosalie, played by Lyda Roberti, a very odd and quirky Polish circus performer (here playing a “Blond Mexican?”) who did some of her best work, a year earlier, in WC Fields Million Dollar Legs as a Mata Hari type. She and Eddie warble one of his biggest hits together, “Look What You’ve Done,” with lyrics changed to match the situation. Unfortunately, Roberti passed away much to early at the age of 31. She was destined to be as skilled a comedienne as Lucille Ball.
Of course, the entire zaniness results in Eddie having to fight with a bull, which is the movie’s centerpiece, and has its comic roots firmly entrenched in Chaplin, Lloyd and Laurel & Hardy scenarios. All in all, it’s fun and frothy, but maybe only half as good as its predecessor. Again, excuses must be made for the blackface number. Since Cantor made his name doing minstrel numbers in Ziegfield Follies, producer Goldwyn believed it was part and parcel with Cantor’s persona. This, sadly, is some of the reason Cantor’s films are rarely screened today.
ROMAN SCANDALS (1933)
Made right after The Kid From Spain, Roman Scandals was my personal favorite when I was growing up. It was the first Cantor film I saw, and it was with my dad who was a huge fan all his life. In fact, my dad would tell the story ad infinitum of writing Cantor when he was a teenager to ask the great man’s advice on becoming a comedian. He felt a kinship with Cantor, also being a first generation Russian Jew, growing up in the same neighborhood. To his surprise, Cantor wrote him a very personal letter back, advising him to never give up, and find any opportunity to perform. “The more they tell you no, the more you have to prove them wrong,” Cantor wrote.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art had been hosting a year long festival of movie comedies, covering everything from the silent period up to the early 70s, and my dad and I would go every Friday and Saturday night, which was where I got my first lessons in movie history and learned to love comedies.
Roman Scandals was a great first dip in the pool. Cantor yet again plays “Eddie,” a middle America small town of West Rome’s mascot. Everybody loves him and gives him odd jobs as the inference is that he’s not all there. What he is, is a sweetheart. When the evil land developer, Walter Cooper, who owns the town, dispossesses the poor, leaves them in the streets with all their belongings, so he can build a new jail, Eddie turns everyone’s frowns upside down by singing the signature tune from the film, “When We Build a Little Home,” preaching that they’ll live outside as a big commune. Cooper sees this as anarchy and has the police throw him out of town. Forced to walk, Eddie soon hallucinates and finds himself back in Ancient Rome. The funny anachronisms fly as the Roman soldiers and royalty have no idea half the time what he’s talking about. He’s thrown into the Emperor’s jail where he’s to be tortured but all of them inhale laughing gas, and before you know it, he becomes the Emperor’s court jester, and after too many attempted poisonings; the Emperor’s food taster.
The ever present Goldwyn Girls are in attendance, this time divvied up between the modern setting and the period scenes. Lucille Ball makes several “blink and you missed her” appearances both in Rome and Eddie’s hometown of West Rome. And while this time around the proceedings start innocently enough, once we get into Ancient Rome, there’s many a scantily clad “slave” being whipped or convulsing around a birthday cake style precipice, all abley choreographed again by Mr. Berkeley. An unusual but appreciated ad-on is Ruth Etting, the famous chanteuse (immortalized by Doris Day in Love Me or Leave Me) who delivers the good in two songs as a beautiful slave who is sold in the marketplace then bought back by the Emperor who likes to trifle with her emotions.
Another surprise attraction is Gloria Stuart as the love interest. The woman most remembered as the Centenarian who gets the story rolling in Titanic had a colorful and rich life as an actress as far back as the 30s, and plays the captured “Briton” turned slave quite well.
As with most of Cantor’s Goldwyn films, there’s much mixed messaging with sexism and racism both rampant and restrained. With Etting’s song of loss, “No More Love,” set against chained and beaten women, there’s an attempted message about the evils of misogyny, muddied by half naked Goldwyn girls similar to Cecil B. DeMille’s hypocritical renderings of sin in its most visual capacity.
And of course, there’s Cantor’s ever ubiquitous blackface routine, made even more distasteful this time around as he goes as far as to imitate an “Uncle Tom,” before finishing off with the usual song and dance. If it weren’t for this lapse in judgment, Roman Scandals would be a perfect example of Cantor’s charisma and charm.
STRIKE ME PINK (1936)
The fourth film in the collection was made three years later than Roman Scandals, and was Cantor’s sixth and final film with Goldwyn. Now that the Production Code was in full force, gone were the naughty bits and pieces that made Cantor’s pre-code films so notable (and fun). Director Norman Taurog took the reins. Taurog was one of the most prolific workmen directors, throughout the 30s all the way through the early 60s where he directed six Martin & Lewis pictures as well several Elvis Presley’s. Gregg Toland was now so well versed in these musical comedies, they brought in a second DP to handle the regular business while Toland focused on the musical numbers and the action sequences; which Strike Me Pink has plenty. In fact, whatever you think of the story itself (a lifting of standard Harold Lloyd milquetoast style material) the last 15 minutes are non-stop crazy action. Cantor is the hapless manager of Dreamland, an amusement park that looks deceptively similar to Coney Island (where it was filmed; a great time capsule) invaded by racketeers who force Cantor to allow their 150 slot machines onto the premises. Cantor and his “bodyguard” (radio comic Harry “Parkyakarkas” Einstein – father of Albert Brooks) rig the slots to payout big on every pull, which causes the gangsters to chase Cantor all over the park.
Whoever imagined this set piece had high aspirations, and the stunt work, rear screen projection and design of the action is remarkable. First Cantor is chased all over the Cyclone rollercoaster, then Cantor falls into a drag race car whizzing all around the park, then he crashes into a hot air balloon where Parkyakarkas pulls him in just as the ballon takes off. They accidentally set the balloon on fire with flares and jump using a parachute. Holding onto Park’s trousers, Cantor pulls them off and goes falling through the air, to land in a net that trapeze artists are using, he is caught by them and flipped through the air as they invariably strip off all his clothes.
The story leading up to this is somewhat standard, with Cantor attempting to be brave and receiving a mail order record and self-help book (“Man or Mouse?”) which sends Cantor into forcing his “brave persona” on everyone, with coincidental situations getting him the response he’s looking for.
A subplot that makes little sense has Ethel Merman (Cantor’s frequent co-star, she appeared to much better effect with him in Kid Millions (not in this collection)) as a sexy siren (mis-cast) who tries to use her “wiles” to get Cantor to acquiesce to the slot machines. She’s given two musical numbers that are visually interesting but lack much melodic inspiration. In fact, a protege of Busby Berkeley takes the choreography reins, as the Master of overhead dance had moved onto bigger and better things.
All in all, by 1936 Cantor had been an entertainer already for almost 20 years, and the youthful character he was playing feels like a stretch. He still worked for the next 20 years, specifically in radio and television, with less film appearances. But his grand heyday on the silver screen was over.
Performers like Eddie Cantor appear as anomalies today, offering us a glimpse into a country that was economically stuck in a “rut.” Modern conveniences and more forward thinking eventually kicked our progress into high gear, but the Depression forced the general populace to seek out comfort and familiarity; thus out-of-date minstrel performances and vaudeville style humor reined supreme. And Cantor, once a stellar performer loved by millions, a casualty of a bygone era.
Still in all, for those seeking greater context for our early 20th Century sensibilities, the roots for modern American comedy, and an understanding of pure vaudeville schtick, you can do no worse than to seek out “Ol Banjo Eyes.”
Eddie Cantor Goldwyn Collection is available as a MOD 4 DVD collection through WB Shop.com ‘s Warner Archive Collection.