Friday, July 22, 2011

Cantor Can (and Did!)

What's hot today can be practically forgotten tomorrow. We, now more than ever, seem to live in a disposable world in which the next big thing constantly threatens to take the place of what is current. Not everyone can be like me and cling to the people and product of the past and I know that, but the thing is, I just happen to find it really rewarding, my love of things from previous decades. Anything I can do to raise awareness of movies, TV and their stars that are (ostensibly) no longer relevant, I attempt to do. (And most of my “real life” friends care not the slightest! I'm consistently amazed when I meet people through here that share my viewpoint and/or affection for these things.)

A select few artists live on forever (you know, the ones you see in those awful composite paintings that have Bogie, Elvis, James Dean and Marilyn playing pool together, etc...), but so many more fall by the wayside, regardless of their talent. Just as the odd Joe on the street might have no clue in the world who Dewey Martin, Jean Peters or Ray Danton were, I sometimes come upon performers whose name I may have heard, but who I knew practically nothing about, they and their work were just that foreign to me. Such was the case with Eddie Cantor. Cantor was once every bit the star that better known contemporaries such as Jack Benny, Bob Hope and George Burns were. His considerable legacy is nearly faded now.

I'd heard (or read) his name, but, apart from that, nothing registered at all. One day, while rifling through movies on one of my infamous bargain bin video excavations, I found two factory-sealed VHS copies of films of his for a buck apiece. Certainly, Eddie himself didn't appeal to me (I think you know my type of guy by now!), but I was intrigued because one film (Roman Scandals) had Titanic's Gloria Stuart in it and the other (Kid Millions) had Ann Sothern and Ethel Merman in it. How rough a decision could it be for a dollar to check these ladies out back in their early days?

Well, both films were thoroughly delightful and, despite being (at that time) about 70 years old (!), there was a remarkable freshness and lightness to them that shocked me. There's a reason why these movies are rarely, if ever, shown on television and why they are not promoted, much less admired, and I will eventually cover that, but I was truly surprised at what I was watching and that I found these movies to be fun and amusing.

To start at the beginning, though, Edward Israel Iskowitz was born on January 31st, 1892 in New York City. His parents were Russian-Jewish immigrants, part of the great “melting pot.” Sadly, his mother died in childbirth when he was one and his father died of pneumonia when he was but two years of age. He was sent to live with his grandmother, who he dearly loved and whose last name was Kantrowitz. This was erroneously believed to be his own last name when he attended school and was then Anglicized to the simpler “Kanter” by an admittance clerk! (I guess they just called you what they wanted to back then!)

Already a ham growing up, with an appreciative audience in his grandmother, the big-eyed, dark-haired boy eventually entered talent competitions and started winning. He then became a singing waiter at Coney Island where none other than a young Jimmy Durante played piano! This being the era of Vaudeville, he debuted on stage there in 1907 at age eighteen. As a performer who would build a career out of portraying childlike naivete, he was already playing in a show called Kid Kabaret in 1912, despite being twenty years old! In 1914, he married Ida Tobias, a young lady he'd known for eleven years prior and who would remain with him for the rest of her life.

Here we come to the big controversy of Eddie Cantor (the name he adopted as a stage performer.) During his days with Kid Kabaret and continuing when he was picked by the great Florenz Ziegfeld to appear in Ziegfeld Follies of 1917, he, like many other performers of his day, appeared in blackface. There are very few entertainment topics as “hot button” as blackface and there is no way that I am about to condone, endorse or otherwise approve of it. I'm simply going to say that at the time that Cantor was a performer, it was an accepted way of presenting certain songs. The practice (of white singers and dancers using burnt cork or something similar to make their faces, all except their lips, dark) had begun in the 1830s and was a widespread, phenomenally successful type of entertainment for well over a hundred years afterwards.

Probably the most famous blackface artist was Al Jolson, who delivered numbers with a flourish all his own that he felt no one else could duplicate, and he was a sensation. (He and Cantor were close pals in their personal lives, but considerabel rivals professionally.) It became the fashion for certain types of numbers, namely minstrel songs, to be done this way and, despite the fact that the presentation is almost unquestionably offensive to most people now, the delivery was often spellbinding and the musicianship excellent. Of course, today, the tendency is one of knee-jerk reactionism; writing off and suppressing such material through editing or censorship instead of viewing the work as what it is, an example of what was considered entertaining in its day. There's a feeling of resentment towards and a tendency to demonize many of the performers who utilized blackface, even if those performers, believe it or not, had no malice in mind, but were merely unenlightened about the detrimental qualities of it. Those who want to rid the world of Jolson and Cantor had also be prepared to stamp out Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland and even little Shirley Temple because each of them participated in it as well. Even Bugs Bunny was depicted in blackface as late as 1953!

I go on about this because Cantor is sometimes viewed today as racist and hurtful and I don't feel that it's fair. I do not believe that his intent with this method of presentation was to wound anyone. I think that, for better or for worse, he somehow found his niche here and rode it for long while, never meaning to deliberately degrade an entire race of people. Insensitive? More than likely. Deliberately evil? No. I will revisit this aspect of his life again later in the post.

Okay, on we go with Cantor in The Ziegfeld Follies. He performed in that legendary show for some of its greatest years, from 1917 to 1927. During this period, he also had a comedy act with a man named Bert Williams in which Cantor played his son. Williams was a premier black performer who, yes, also did his routine in blackface as well (some people don't realize that there were also many black performers who donned blackface themselves.) Interestingly, though, note the way this 1947 print "whitewashes" his career with Ziegfeld Follies by changing his face from its original makeup scheme as shown above.

Cantor performed on the radio and made recordings of his most popular songs and routines. He was a top performer in his day and made millions of dollars, when a dollar went very far. In order to stand up for what he believed in, however, he risked his livelihood to go on strike in 1919 when Actor's Equity was formed. He'd only been with Follies for two years and could easily have been kicked to the curb afterwards, but was not. Nicknamed “Banjo Eyes” for his saucer-like orbs, he perfected a distinctive persona that was somehow simultaneously innocent and knowing.

When the stock market crash of 1929 came, Cantor, like so many others, was practically wiped out financially. In an effort to regain his footing and crawl out of debt, he penned several books featuring anecdotes, cartoons and humor that were highly successful. A little known fact is that Cantor was also a songwriter and actually composed the ditty “Merrily We Roll Along,” which became the legendary Merrie Melodies theme music for all those Warner Brothers cartoons. He was also the sole artist who would give one certain new song a chance after it had been refused by many other performers who deemed it “silly” and “childish.” The day after he presented “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” on the radio, 100,000 copies of the sheet music were sold, such was his impact on listeners.

Cantor had begun to appear in short films as early as 1913, but his primary screen career began in 1926 when he appeared in Kid Boots, a silent film adaptation of his successful stage comedy in which he played a shifty golf caddie and introduced the now-classic song “Dinah” (“Dinah... is there anyone fine-ah?”) He also starred in 1927's Special Delivery, which was directed by wrongly-dethroned comic actor Fatty Arbuckle under the name William Goodrich.

In 1929, Glorifying the American Girl was released in sound (and partly in color, though no original color prints remain in existence now), all about a young lady becoming one of the prized Ziefeld girls in one of the famed tableaus his show was famous for. Cantor had a cameo, along with several other big Vaudeville stars of the day, as a hyperactive Jewish tailor, his contribution reportedly a highlight and remaining funny even now. This shot from the film shows young and fit Johnny Weissmuller as an example of male perfection in one of the sequences (you know I have to slip the beefcake in whenever possible!)

He finally came into his own as a feature film lead with 1930's Whoopee!, based on his Ziegfeld-produced stage hit of the same name. The story of a hypochondriac who goes west for his health and who runs amok amidst cowboys, Indians and other assorted types was a smash hit. The Pre-Code color film was produced by Samuel Goldwyn and Mr. Ziegfeld with Busby Berkeley choreography. Amazingly, tickets for this motion picture cost $5.00 a seat, an amazing price for that time! Another incredible fact is that Cantor was paid $100,000 plus 10% of the profits during this despondent time.

In what would become a standard feature of Cantor's 1930s films, there is indeed a blackface number. There's also a quite good-looking straight man by the name of Paul Gregory. Another feature that would become part and parcel of most 1930s Cantor films is the presence of The Goldwyn Girls, a gaggle of chorines contractually belonging to Samuel Goldwyn who provided back-up singing, dancing and whatever else was necessitated by the storyline. Some of these ladies would proceed to significant careers of their own. In Whoopee!, the Goldwyn Girls included Virginia Bruce, Ann Sothern and Betty Grable, for example! The now-legendary song “Makin' Whoopee” came from this show.

Cantor continued his strong working relationship with producer Goldwyn when he wrote and starred in Palmy Days. The Busby Berkeley choreography was present again as were The Goldwyn Girls, this time with Betty Grable, Paulette Goddard and Virginia Grey among them. Following a glut of musicals at the box office, they'd fallen completely out of favor, so this one only had a couple of numbers in it. Cantor's costar was long and limber-limbed Charlotte Greenwood (of Oklahoma! fame.) In what was a carefully cultivated formula, Cantor played another dim, but affable, guy thrust into manic, zany situations (so many of yesterday and today's comedians owe their careers to him and don't even realize it!) Here, he was a worker in a doughnut factory who winds up accidentally running the place. In one scene, he's forced to go undercover as a female and finds himself in a girl's locker room, being asked to strip down for a shower.

The fish-out-of-water plot lines continued with The Kid from Spain in which Eddie starred as an expelled college student who, through the usual convoluted plot contrivances, impersonates a famous matador and winds up in the ring with a bull. Again, Berkeley outdid himself in the choreography department with a sizeable budget. The film was a roaring success, leading to more of the same.

1933 brought Roman Scandals. Here, Cantor kept the same successful formula of a very ordinary man caught in extraordinary circumstances, but instead of taking place in reality, the story involved an extended dream sequence. This allowed for even more outrageous hijinks and no need to stay rooted in the actual world of The Great Depression.

He played a loveable dope who becomes something of a hero to a neighborhood of tenants faced with eviction. In a delightful opening, he encourages them to simply live in the street, which they do, singing and making impromptu living arrangements in an endearingly creative way. Goldwyn Girl Lucille Ball, in her film debut, is seen here as well as later in the picture. After running for his life, he enters the dream world of ancient Rome where he's sold as a slave and becomes the food-taster for an unpopular emperor. Young lovers David Manners and Gloria Stuart costar and the famous torch singer Ruth Ettig (whose story was told in the Doris Day film Love Me or Leave Me) shows up to do one serious number amid a bevy of barely covered chorus girls in chains and long wigs.

The budgets for these films was considerable, thus the settings impress viewers even now. Still Pre-Code, there is a beauty salon sequence (with the song “Keep Young and Beautiful”) that features ladies in various stages of undress. Cantor seems to bound from one spot to the next, creating havoc at every turn. These slapstick, fanciful frolics were geared towards lifting the spirits of financially strapped Americans caught in The Great Depression. The material is corny and much of it has been cribbed and duplicated over the years since, but often these films are still funny nonetheless. In other words, they entertain in spite of themselves!

Kid Millions, in 1934, trod similar ground as Cantor portrayed a hapless young man who finds out he's due to inherit $77 million from a long lost archeologist father! He isn't the only one who feels entitled to the loot, however, and, on the boat to Egypt, he is accosted by Ethel Merman and her lunkheaded boyfriend Warren Hymer. Though Merman is sixteen years Cantor's junior in real life (six years in the script), she manages to convince him that she is his MOTHER! She then instructs his “uncle” Hymer to kiss her newfound son and, quite surprisingly, this occurs on the lips!

George Murphy and Ann Sothern (looking beautiful) play another couple involved. Also cast in the film was a Vaudeville husband and wife duo by the name of Block and Sully. Eve Sully has a featured role as a way-Jewish princess and practically every single thing that she does is riotously funny thanks to her giggly, bizarre personality. Her husband Jesse Block has a less showy role. It is their sole cinematic foray and it, at least for her part, is a must see.

There are actually several must see aspects to the film. Another is the performance of the song “Mandy.” Yes, once again Cantor is in blackface and the entire cast (there's Lucy to the right of Cantor!) appears in sequined coats and hats while doing intricate Busby Berkeley moves, but what really makes it is the addition of The Nicholas Brothers. The extraordinary tap dancing pair have a ball during the number and are most impressive. Fayard Nicholas was about twenty here, but Harold was only thirteen! He is particularly impressive. Incidentally, he also enthusiastically sings “I Want to Be a Minstrel Man” and viewers familiar with Joan Crawford's Torch Song will instantly recognize this as the music she dances to in rehearsal for her big show (which she ultimately does in “tropical makeup,” a latter-day form of blackface!)

One of the reasons I hate to see Eddie Cantor's films kept out of circulation due to the potential offensiveness to viewers is that, often, there are wondrously talented black performers doing their thing within the same movies; this from a time when it was rare for a black actor to portray anything other than a maid, butler, driver or some other subservient role. These performances deserve to be seen and, in my own opinion, usually outweigh through their own zestfulness and high entertainment value, the negativity of the presence of charcoal on the leading man's face. (I have to admit, though, that I do generally find the appearance of blackface unsettling, myself. I think it comes from being scared of it as a child, seeing it on some old program or movie.)

Another unforgettable sequence occurs at the end, when Cantor uses the inheritance money to build an elaborate, eye-popping ice cream factory. While multitudinous children chant “We want ice cream! We want ice cream!,” the screen erupts in vivid, dazzling Technicolor and one of the most amazing set pieces imaginable takes the spotlight. Dutch milkmaids tend to gigantic cows, ladies traipse up stairs with vanilla, chocolate bars and huge strawberries, skating chorines push the arm of a gigantic ice cream churn while scores of children line up to dine on the frosty Neapolitan dessert. The kids stuff themselves on ice cream floats. Hymer uses a makeshift tommy gun to deliver the cherries on top! The entire segment is astonishing (Incidentally, this sequence has been accused of featuring racial segregation amongst the children - and there is a clump of black kids in one spot, in the front row of tables - but keen eyes will see that there are also mixtures of children throughout and I do believe at least one Asian boy is present, too.)

Cantor re-teamed with Ethel Merman for 1936's Strike Me Pink, this time playing a dry cleaner who somehow winds up running an amusement park and trying to evade a couple of gangsters (one of which was played by I Love Lucy's William Frawley.) By now, his sometimes suggestive humor had been tempered by the Hayes Code. It's a rare example of an Eddie Cantor movie in which his costar (Merman) seems to come out better than he did. The Merm, whose film career was only marginally successful, has a couple of strikingly delivered songs. This wasn't among his own better efforts in the end.
The following year, Cantor attempted to revisit his proven formula of a wide-eyed schnook caught up in events beyond his control. Ali Baba Goes to Town featured him as a movie star-loving hobo who stumbles onto a movie set and winds up as an extra in an Arabian adventure picture. He overdoses on some medicine and proceeds to have a dream sequence that places him in the middle of old Baghdad! Like most of his previous efforts, the budget was sizeable, the antics were manic, he did one number in blackface and was cast alongside other performers who went on to have decent careers. This time Tony Martin and none other than Gypsy Rose Lee were with him.

For the blackface number, the illustrious Cab Calloway ran the “orchestra” while a hefty trio of black singers called The Peters Sister took the stage. There was also a terrific, frenetic, black dancer named Jeni Le Gon doing her thing. Again, I have to state that these were unusual opportunities to see these folks, sometimes in the only film appearance they ever made.

Ali Baba was recently unearthed on TCM as part of their month-long series about the depiction of Arabs on screen. In the preceding interview Robert Osborne did with their “expert” guest, the man bemoaned the treatment of Arabs at the hands of Hollywood filmmakers and stated that in the film, when the Muslims began to pray, Cantor rolled his eyes. In his desperate attempt to find fault with the project, he neglected to mention that what ACTUALLY happens in the film is that Cantor's character is reading a pronouncement and says something about the audience's glorious faces and, just then, they happen to have turned around to pray at the appointed time in the appointed direction and all of their asses are staring him in the face. It's certainly not a reverent joke, but it was a joke, not a deliberately cruel attack on their religion, nor a dismissive write-off of it. He didn't even roll his eyes, but just expressed surprise. The desire to be offended by something makes it very easy to become offended.

In spite of Ali Baba's budget, the movie was not a success and it signaled the end of Cantor's run on the big screen. When Cantor made another movie, three years later in 1940, it was of a completely different sort. Forty Little Mothers was a tender-hearted, sentimental tale of an out-of-work professor who takes in an adorable, abandoned baby just as he's finally been hired at an all girls school (run by an imposing Judith Anderson!) The girls resent him for replacing a teacher they all found handsome and try to get him fired; the fact that he has a baby being against the rules of employment. The touching, sweet film was a major departure from the manic, bug-eyed antics he'd previously employed, but the movie is all but forgotten today. Cantor was the real life father of five daughters and he frequently poked fun at them and their alleged “unmarriagability.” His obvious affection for the little one here, played by Baby Quintanilla, betrayed his true feelings towards his girls.

It was 1944 before he did another movie. This one was called Show Business and focused on four performers, Cantor, George Murphy, Joan Davis and Constance Moore as they make their way through the ups and downs of Vaudeville. Nancy Kelly also starred. In the course of the film, many old standards were dusted off including “I Want a Girl (Just like the Girl Who Married Dear Old Dad),” “Makin' Whoopee” and “It Had to Be You.” As it revisited the glory days of Vaudeville, it also featured a blackface number (“Dinah.”) It was RKO's top-grossing film of the year.

Cantor was off screen again for a time until 1948 when he joined Joan Davis again for another comedic romp, this one called If You Knew Susie. Davis was a highly popular, rubber-faced comedienne of her time, but not too many people know of her now (perhaps because she died of a heart attack at only fifty-three in 1961.) She later had her own TV series called I Married Joan. Susie was the last film to star Eddie Cantor and is virtually his swan song, though he did play himself in The Story of Will Rogers in 1952.

During the down time between movies, Cantor was certainly not idle. Since the early '30s, he'd been a presence on radio and this continued heavily through the the late-'40s and even into the early-'50s. As host of his own program, he helped to discover and promote new singers, a few of which were Deanna Durbin, Eddie Fisher and Miss Dinah Shore (that's her on the right in this copy of some sheet music from his radio program Time to Smile.) At one time, in the '30s, he was the highest paid personality in radio.

He hit a snag in 1939 when he publically denounced the rabidly anti-Semitic (but extraordinarily popular) Father Charles Coughlin, a radio personality and priest who delivered impassioned diatribes on the airwaves that were tinged with support for the policies and beliefs of such humanitarians as Hitler and Mussolini! Cantor's remarks against the man led his sponsor to drop him, leading to more than a year off the radio until Jack Benny strove to have his program reinstated.

He had already been a pioneer in the rights of actors, having gone on strike in order to help form Actor's Equity. When it came to the cinema, he joined other top-level stars in forming United Artists, a film company with emphasis on the rights of the creators and actors that resisted giving in to the monopoly that existed in some movie houses. He's shown here amidst such names as Al Jolson, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Ronald Coleman, Charlie Chaplin and Miss Gloria Swanson.

Cantor had begun his film career prior to the Production Code and, thus, some of his earlier material was a bit suggestive (virginal by today's standards, of course!) When he appeared on TV in 1944 to sing “We're Havin' a Baby, My Baby and Me,” his number was interrupted with on-air silence and blurred picture in the earliest known example of TV censorship.

An instance of his sense of equality and fairplay towards black performers (despite the later backlash his earlier work would incur) is the time when he, as host of The Colgate Comedy Hour in the 1950s, welcomed Sammy Davis Jr. to the show. After his performance, Cantor embraced him and used his own handkerchief to dab the sweat from Davis' brow. The sponsors and the network (NBC) threatened to cancel the show over this, but Cantor stood firm, inviting Davis back for the next two episodes!

Cantor also was heavily involved in charitable organizations. One of the most notable was the national Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. When he hosted a a drive to send in money, asking people to send a dime to the nation's then most prominent polio victim, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, he coined the phrase “The March of Dimes,”which is, of course, still in use today. When The March of Dimes instituted a parade to mark the annual drive in 1950, Cantor was selected as Grand Marshal.

In 1953, the film The Eddie Cantor Story was released, starring (considerably taller) Keefe Brasselle as the by-then legendary funny man. Cantor's own voice was used in the many musical numbers, with Brasselle re-enacting them amid a gaggle of showgirls, chorines and so on. Character actress Aline MacMahon portrayed his grandmother while Marilyn Erskine was his beloved wife Ida.

Cantor, during his career, had had a running gag of appearing as himself and remarking on the sight of his character doing whatever it was he was doing. Here, Cantor appeared as himself (with the real Ida, too) in a prologue and epilogue for the film. The story, as told in this rendition, was hardly remarkable and, in fact, after seeing the finished work for himself, Cantor reportedly said, “If that was my life, I didn't live.”

That same year, Eddie suffered a heart attack. Due to this, he is the sole person ever profiled by Ralph Edwards on This is Your Life, to be notified of the event beforehand. Edwards was known to cancel the surprise shows if he found out that the celebrity had caught wind of his plans (Ann Sheridan is one whose show was canceled due to this.) Because it was feared that a shock wouldn't be good for Cantor's heart, he was let in on the surprise.

He continued to make occasional TV appearances and work for various charitable organizations, but now over sixty, he was slowing down considerably. In 1962, Ida passed away after close to fifty years of marriage. A little over two years later, Cantor suffered a fatal heart attack and passed away at the age of seventy-two.

Though he was a phenomenally successful star, one who rubbed elbows with some of the greatest comedians and people of note of his time and who worked tirelessly to guide, promote and aid others, he is practically unknown now. The overtly PC climate of today precludes most of his film work from being casually aired on television unless it's specifically done to highlight some aspect of it. It's a shame because his 1930s films are almost universally delightful and showcase the work of many wonderful performers (not to mention scenic, costume and choreographic artisans) who in some cases are not well known now.


Pantheon Zeus said...

Amazing how people like Eddie Cantor, Joan Davis and others can be forgotten...Great info -- you seldom hear about his contributions to actor's equity, united artists, merrie melodies and the career of Sammy Davis Jr

Cantor's granddaughter Amanda Abel (actress/cabaret singer) now has her own granddaughter.

Poseidon3 said...

Pantheon Zeus, thanks very much for leaving a comment. My GOD, how much Amanda resembles her grandfather! I appreciate you posting that link a lot. neat that she was named after his song "Mandy."

Lisa said...

I have loved Eddie Cantor since I first saw him; such a talent and his early movies are especially hilarious! So great to see this wonderful appreciation of this tremendous comic! I also LOVE Joan Davis, of course!

Such a great blog!!

Poseidon3 said...

Lisa, welcome to The Underworld and thanks for your comments here and elsewhere. I hope you have fun swimming through the various posts! (And I do see your comments on the older posts, too, via an e-mail update.) Best wishes!

Anonymous said...

Great article. I recently read Cantor's memoir "My Life is in Your Hands" - he speaks warmly of working with Bert Williams (fwiw) and generally gives the impression of being a sharp, warm-hearted guy.