Jul 13, 2015

On DVD: Eddie Cantor 4-Film Collection

In a new collection from Warner Archive, four Eddie Cantor films produced by Samuel Goldwyn offer a glimpse into some of the popular comedian's best cinematic offerings. Palmy Days (1931), The Kid From Spain (1932), Roman Scandals (1933) and Strike Me Pink (1936) were an extension of the star's already phenomenal success on Broadway and the radio.

Though there was a time when he was beloved by millions, the appeal of Eddie Cantor has not translated to modern times as well as that of his peers. While the regular inclusion of blackface in his act can make latter day audiences squirm, I've always felt that the main issue is that his humor was particularly suited to his times. The more evergreen elements of his shtick are often physical--and in that area he amuses with a wide-eyed panic unlike any other star.

While Cantor's image was that of an innocent stunned by the sensuality of beautiful women, the camera in the three earlier films is not nearly so shy. Goldwyn packed these productions with scantily dressed Goldwyn Girls (including Paulette Godard, Betty Grable and Toby Wing) who would shimmy and shake in braless abandon. Strike Me Pink is notably more modest, relying more on costar Ethel Merman's astonishing pipes to draw attention.

As a set, the films helped me to better understand the Cantor appeal. While he didn't completely captivate me, I did appreciate how many facets there were to his talent. He really did know how to sell a song; it's easy to see how Depression era audiences could have felt encouraged by his energetic prancing and confident delivery. When he sings, he gives the impression of being out on a brisk walk. Cantor also had an unusual way with physical comedy, where he sometimes seemed simultaneously out of control and possessed with superhuman strength in a way that reminded me of Buster Keaton.

It is often the bits of patter that date Cantor. The rhythm of the comedy seems more suited to the vaudeville stage than film. Here he is at his best when he embraces absurdity, like the way he randomly makes duck noises in Palmy Days and somehow inspires other people to join him.

Palmy Days was Cantor's second film for Goldwyn, after the dreamy two-strip Technicolor Whoopee! (1930), a co-production with the comedian's former boss Florenz Ziegfeld. Though only filmed a year later, it's a markedly more assured production technically.

It takes a while for Cantor to appear. The opening number focuses on a most unusual bakery, where the bakers all look like showgirls. They dress in revealing halters, and in a most bizarre twist, break in the middle of the day to work out in the bakery's expansive gym and strip down for cold plunges in the indoor pool.

Cantor comes to the bakery undercover as an efficiency expert. He's really the abused employee of a fake psychic, and has been sent there to fulfill the man's prophecy that supervisor Charlotte Greenwood will meet her true love the day after their session together.

This was one of Busby Berkeley's early turns as dance director, and you can already see his talent for kaleidoscopic dancer formations, though on a more modest scale than he would achieve in later years. 

While I most admired the racy musical numbers and spotless Art Deco sets, I did enjoy the chemistry between Greenwood and Cantor. They're especially funny together in the closing scenes as they scramble to escape the evil psychic, doing everything wrong in the most oddly graceful way.

I found The Kid From Spain the weakest film in the set, partly because I could not accept Robert Taylor as a Mexican. As the college friend of Cantor in this Mexican-set comedy romance, he is handsome, but bland and just got in the way.

Though for the most part I felt the film lacked the peppy pace of the other titles in the set, it has some of the best standout moments as well. Most of these happen in the bullfighting climax, which is both funny and scary.

Of the four films, Roman Scandals dips the deepest into fantasy and has some of the best music. It is the story of a humble resident (Cantor) of the small town of West Rome, who uncovers a corrupt plan to evict several townspeople to build a jail the town doesn't need. Before he can blow the whistle, he finds himself transported back to ancient Rome.

There he has the good fortune to meet Ruth Etting, a torch singer whose appeal has similarly failed to bridge time with a widespread audience. He is also beguiled by Gloria Stuart, who plays a kidnapped princess. David Manners is typically bland as the hero and love interest, but his legs look pretty darn good in a toga. Character actor Edward Arnold has just the right girth and point to his nose to play the evil emperor.

Among the most memorable songs are the jaunty, earworm opening number Build a Little Home and Etting's devastating rendition of No More Love. You can just see the end of the pre-code era coming as Berkeley's numbers unfold to that last tune. They are among the most lurid of the period, depicting a highly eroticized slave auction with nude girls covered by their long platinum hair and leering buyers clearly imagining what they will do with their purchases. Those showgirls really were naked from the waist up too; Berkeley paid them extra to come in after hours and film their scenes with a skeleton crew.

Overall the production is better written too, with funnier gags and better verbal humor than in Cantor's earlier films. It is almost as if the comedian is finally translating his humor from the stage to the screen. The physical humor, the best of which can be seen in the riotous chariot race finale is also more polished, inspiring both thrills and laughs.

Strike Me Pink is more reliant on laughs, as the enforcement of the Code meant those Goldwyn Girls had to put on some clothes. Ethel Merman makes up for the end of the sexy fun by showing some serious pipes in this early film role. She is a nightclub singer with mob connections, who is also idolized by meek dry cleaner Eddie Pink (Cantor).

When Pink is hired to manage an amusement park, he finds he must leap out of his comfort zone to protect his employer's investment against mobsters who want their dirty slot machines in the park. The best of the humor arises from the way Pink tricks the mobsters into thinking he is a force to be reckoned with.

It's a well-paced flick, with a screwball approach that makes it feel a bit more timeless than Cantor's earlier films. 

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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