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Monday, September 27, 2021

Cantor and Color Make Whoopee

 When Apostles of Pep Were Among Us

Parts of Whoopee! are really funny, as is creaky underpinning and whole show that is Eddie Cantor, 20’s conception of what clicked in comedy derived from stages, this his overall best, with two-color Technicolor poured over dance numbers by early applier Busby Berkeley. I read Richard Barrios' expert coverage in A Song in the Dark and was guided to thirteen-year-old (!) Betty Grable (Didn't they check birth certificates at Goldwyn Girl round-up?) as chorine to give voice for an opener that will transport us close as anything to Broadway as it was in 1928-29 when Whoopee! did 407 performances at the New Amsterdam on Broadway, 12/28 to 11/29. Ticket sales averaged $40K a week, stellar for legit if smaller spud beside what movies by then could realize, especially with new-arrived talkies speeding up turnstiles (The Cock-Eyed World at the Roxy drew $173,391 for its opening frame). Whatever the comparisons, Whoopee was Broadway’s top earning musical during 1928-29, so clearly there was more than just Marx Bros. getting live laughs in those days, Cantor more-so a favorite for headlining the Ziegfeld Follies. Whoopee! on disc has strongest whiff of “live” performing from vanished epoch, my “creaky” applied only in filmic sense, but even at that, Whoopee! vaults ahead of much that came out during 1930. Warner Archive's DVD seems juiced at times, unless two-color Technicolor really was able to capture blues, which I always understood it could not. A still OK disc, if not an altogether accurate one. There must be overpowering temptation to "fix" old movies where easily done so at modern transfer desks.

Cantor Cavorts as The Kid From Spain

was meeting of minds between Samuel Goldwyn and Florenz Ziegfeld, the latter eased aside by stronger will of the former. The musical-comedy was transposed more-less as was, though songs we’d like are missing, Love Me Or Leave Me less comedic than others of the score, omissions including also I Faw Down and Go Boom, while Eddie’s signature tune, Makin’ Whoopee, stayed evermore in his repertoire, as familiar perhaps to 50’s TV viewers as it had been for showgoers in 1928-29, Eddie inevitably reviving it anytime, anywhere, he was invited to perform. Part of ongoing Cantor charm was his association with silly songs, a balm to fans looking back from the 50’s to times that were simpler, and many thought, better. He truly was the “Apostle of Pep.” Colgate’s Comedy Hour used Cantor, would have continued doing so, but for health collapse that foreclosed strenuous comedy, which Eddie’s always had been. Still, the old routines could be managed so long as he stood relatively still, not the Eddie his public had known, but necessity that had to be met. He had been among first to do “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” kept on right to a point where he no longer could. There was comfort in Cantor taking a tune most saw as weird artifact (look at Bananas treatment by Sabrina), but embraced anyway, just because no one pretended it to be anything other than absurd, and besides, hadn’t the fifties given us “How Much Is That Doggy In the Window”?

A Tab Version of Whoopee Goes On Tour, "Supervised" By An Absent Eddie

Spending was demonic, a cool million when most features got done for a quarter or less of that, but Whoopee! plus Eddie Cantor was considered a surest thing around, which it was, provided you knew vaudeville and Cantor's domination of it. But 1930 was before Eddie got firm hold of radio millions (as in listeners), so his public was an urban one, as was approach to humor recognized less by hix/stix that Goldwyn/UA had to serve. Eddie sings his ribald songs, the title one lyrically tamed for tenderer stub-holding sensibilities. Reviewer of the play Robert E. Sherwood, for Life, pointed out verse as in “It’s not the chorus girl’s voice that gets her the big Rolls Royce --- It’s making whoopee!” This and spray of verbal naughties were pared, bow to provincial crowds not accustomed to Cantor’s freewheeling. Latter was among secrets of his live-performer success, for no two renditions of Whoopee were the same, Eddie following own dictates as to what to say or do on a given night. His stage commenting even on events that may have happened that very afternoon made jibes play like a late edition just on streets outside the New Amsterdam. You could, and many did, go see Whoopee multiple times to hear what was on Cantor's mind, a technique others, like Will Rogers, famously used, but Eddie’s was all the funnier by breaking often free of “book” portions, him nonconformist in addition to being funny. Outsiders got the flavor of New York and certainly Broadway from ultimate insider that was Cantor. He had been raised in Gotham (Lower East Side), took the town for his own, reflected it better than virtually anyone on any stage. If his act was at times “clubby,” well that was OK too, for Eddie was exotic in his ethnic displays, and to heck with pleasing, or even being understood by, everybody, though fortunately he was magnetic enough to pull all beneath his big tent.

Broadway was principally about parading its uniqueness, artists like Cantor not inclined to overlap with anyone else’s approach. Look at singularity of him, Will Rogers, Jolson, W.C. Fields, Fanny Brice, Ed Wynn --- you’d not confuse a particle of these with the others, or anybody, question being how specialness might translate someday to movies, where please-all-and-sundry was steadfastly the rule, Broadway as one’s own playpen suddenly a place to confine rather than bask in. Cantor had to be smoothed out for widest consumption, an account well given by Henry Jenkins in his book, What Made Pistachio Nuts?. Eddie could cut loose at the Follies or Roof Garden, ad-libbing near the knuckle of permissive talk, but movies were not of mind to let him perform fully his way, a devil's bargain he recognized and resigned to. There was screen awareness of him from shorts done in a last year and released by Paramount, one reel at most of Cantor plus patter, best sampling a piece called Midnight Frolic, set at one of his Roof Garden shows, albeit Astoria-reconstructed, still close enough to seem authentic. We look at the grey image and wonder if this was as good as Eddie got, hardly a fair comparison to him doing routines when they were freshest, and before live crowds. Midnight Frolic first-ran in tandem (3/29) with The Letter, starring Jeanne Eagels, a heavy dose for which Cantor was welcome relief. To that point, film use of Cantor was a matter of tries to encourage (Kid Boots), but later to fail (Special Delivery). Both were silent features, neither made his job simpler. Eddie headlined one of the early DeForest reels where we hear him speak, also sing, stage-derived material, but how many saw this experimental bit, shown as it was in but few venues, and hardly noticed by a mainstream?

Prolific Eddie Cantor and Family

Eddie had a cameo as himself in Glorifying The American Girl, in fact an extended routine, but the feature came late in a musicals cycle and drew less attention than if it arrived sooner. A lot no doubt assumed Whoopee! was Cantor’s debut on film 
(note the movie’s exclamation point as opposed to the play which went without the !), and for extraordinary effort applied here, it might as well have been. Whoopee!'s value beyond entertaining, which it still does, is giving us Broadway in something like the flesh, pink as piglets per two-color with charm of its narrow range. Eddie Cantor would go merry way of clowning for Goldwyn, a plushest fun-maker of any lead comic during the 30's. You could wish others of the era had half so much money behind their vehicles, and besides, Eddie kept a pretty high standard by his measure, even if viewers find him today as inaccessible as, say, Joe E. Brown, but Brown was enormously popular too for a lengthy vogue, so again, maybe 30’s folk knew something we don’t. Goldwyn was generous to his star hire, a five-year pact from 1930-31, $100K per vehicle with ten percent of profits for sweetener, at rate of one feature per year. If you like Eddie, each serves fine. I looked at Palmy Days and Roman Scandals recently and laughed. Kid Millions has a wrap reel in newly christened Three-Color Technicolor that made 16mm prints a collector grail at one time … Eddie and Our Gang kids loose in a massive deco Ice Cream factory, pure Classic Era pleasure.

Cantor seems to have mastered all mediums --- recording when it was primitive, and then more developed, a radio program to go the distance, received warmly on television as that newest of forms gave 
even oldest hands from vaudeville new relevance. You could say Eddie was too “hot” for the mellow tube, though circumstances softened his act by the 50’s to incorporate as much nostalgia for his and others’ past peak, recreating hoke with troupers still babies or unborn when he started out (Eddie continued “discovering” young talent, Eddie Fisher among these). Slowdown was made necessary by heart ailment that plagued Cantor from the early 50's to the end that was 1964. This gave him time to regroup and perhaps reflect, as evidenced by another memoir, Take My Life, through spirited dictation of which his stenographer and ghost assist could barely keep up. Energy was slowed, but not Eddie’s enthusiasm, still immense and particularly so when he took account of glory days and personalities he shared them with. He had a room where walls displayed them all. Mention Bill Fields or Will Rogers and he could talk a staccato blue streak. I don’t know of anyone in show business who so appreciated other people’s talent as Cantor did. He never went a scorched earth route, but would spell out friend oddities which, coming from Eddie, sounded like expression of endearment. A for-instance: pal Fred Allen could never click on television because he simply disliked people, said Cantor matter of fact. Well, maybe Fred himself wouldn’t have denied that.

Had he lived longer, Eddie would undoubtedly have been a willing and enthusiastic resource for show-era researchers. Apart from entertaining, he was revered the while (a long while, virtually his entertainer lifetime) for charity work, known well for length/breadth, the March of Dimes his creation. Eddie took that idea straight to Roosevelt’s office, door of which was always open to him. Family members (grandchildren) keep Eddie alive with DVD releases (“Lost Performances”), made up of rare stuff. Admirable effort, if a steep climb to maintain visibility. You Tube is full of him, including Colgate shows, his Person To Person with Ed Murrow, much more. Warner Archive did a nice box of the Goldwyn comedies, save Whoopee! and Kid Millions, which were offered separately. Beyond Goldwyns, the Archive has Show Business, Thank Your Lucky Stars, others, while Fox on Demand offers Ali Baba Goes To Town (but check reviews, several there say it is a lousy transfer).


Blogger Kevin K. said...

I'll always admire Cantor for being the first (and for a long time only) celebrity to speak out against Nazis and fascism, even at the risk of losing sponsors and alleged fans. He doesn't get enough credit for being anti-Hitler from the get-go, which is why his sight gag involving hiding in a gas oven in "Whoopee!" kind of made me uneasy. (There's no way anybody could have foreseen the implications in 1929, of course.)

My favorite Cantor performance is in "Thank Your Lucky Stars", where his self-parody as a controlling egomaniac is hilarious. Even his butler and cooks hate him!

But for all his popularity with the masses, Cantor was said to be a terror with his radio writers, demanding punchlines that had been intended for his guest stars and just being an all-around pain.

8:51 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

The live tab-show version of WHOOPEE (pictured in the SHE DONE HIM WRONG ad) stars Buddy Doyle, then the premier Eddie Cantor impersonator.

Cantor fans might try FORTY LITTLE MOTHERS (1940), a light comedy with Cantor as a once-promising college genius who is now down and out. Several scenes are played straight by Cantor, offering an excellent sample of his dramatic abilities. I also recommend SHOW BUSINESS, which is the real Eddie Cantor story, showing the performer's rise from amateur night to vaudeville headliner.

10:09 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Griff recalls previous airings of WHOOPEE!, plus other Eddie Cantor sightings:

Dear John:

Many will remember that WHOOPEE suddenly resurfaced in the late 'seventies on HBO in an amazingly colorful transfer -- seemingly embracing ALL aspects of the spectrum. Where'd that third color come from? What exactly did the Goldwyn restorers do here?

The restoration was perhaps questionable in terms of color accuracy -- it must be said, though, it was way ahead of MCA's pallid 1983 initial shot at restoring KING OF JAZZ -- but the movie did look pretty good on Trinitrons of the day, and the sound was adequate and fairly clear. By 1979, there were fewer and fewer 1930 movies circulating on television (and some extant prints of these seemed in marginal condition) -- this was a fascinating curio.

I was impressed by that color Ward Leonard Electric ad using an image of the Broadway production of "Whoopee," because it really does evoke the western-themed background colors used by Richard Day in his later production design for the feature film.

I don't know whether this influenced Goldwyn's plans to restore and recirculate "Whoopee" back in the day, but the Goodspeed Opera House revived the musical play in 1978 and its production moved to Broadway in early '79; the show was well received and ran for six months. Charles Repole won praise for what some considered a "sweetly agreeable" impression of Cantor and his hypochondriac character. The revival not only featured almost all the Kahn/Donaldson songs from the original production (the Goldwyn movie eliminated a number of songs from the play's score), it also added the composers' great "My Baby Just Cares For Me" (written for the film score) and their classic "Yes, Sir, That's My Baby."

ALI BABA GOES TO TOWN is my favorite Eddie Cantor movie. There's no accounting for that, I guess. It was the first Cantor picture I ever saw, and its overflow of wild comedy, fantasy, screwy New Deal-related humor and numerous crazy production numbers just completely charmed me. Roland Young is terrific in this as an ancient sultan tempted to adopt Cantor's Roosevelt-era reforms, and John Carradine, Douglass Dumbrille, Louise Hovick (Gypsy Rose Lee!), June Lang and Virginia Field make good impressions. Lavish "Arabian" sets, hundreds of extras, elaborate flying carpet special effects, great Gordon/Revel songs, a big, star-filled Hollywood premiere... plus Tony Martin, the Peters Sisters, the Pearl Twins and Raymond Scott and his Quintet!

The Fox Cinema Archives DVD isn't very good -- and the sort of beat-up material used for the transfer is a little splicy and worn -- but it's better than nothing. [There are so many now politically incorrect aspects of the movie, it's amazing that Fox pressed it in the first place.] Prints for this were initially released in an elaborate "Three-Tone Tinting" process concocted by Fox, with different color hues used to enhance day and night scenes, but the Cinema Archives print is merely b&w.

-- Griff

10:52 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Cantor was one of those celebrities late boomer kids knew from old cartoons. There were caricatures of him rolling his eyes and clapping his hands, and jokes about him wanting a son after siring a houseful of girls. Also faintly recall seeing a biopic, which was framed with the real Cantor arriving at a studio to view it in a projection room.

With the possible exceptions of Jack Benny and Sid Caesar, were any comedians beloved by their writers? It was easy to make Benny laughed, and he embraced the idea of all his costars getting to make jokes about him. As for Caesar, he wasn't always easy to take but many of his writers wrote fondly about him and wrote parts for him.

8:12 PM  
Blogger Ken said...

More or less off topic, but the name of glamorous 30’s screen conniver Claire Dodd came up in one of your recent pieces. Prompting some admiring comment from readers attuned to the lady’s allure, myself included. In connection with your current post, though, I will note that Dodd made her screen debut as a Goldwyn Girl in Eddie Cantor’s “Whoopee”). Anyway, was delighted to see that some intrepid (and equally entranced) programmer at TCM scheduled an unofficial Dodd marathon yesterday. Quietly displaying ten of her films (from 1932 to 1935) back to back. They were even shown in more or less chronological order. Giving viewers a golden opportunity to watch La Dodd work her wiles, making chumps of a wide cross section of Warner Brothers regulars from Cagney to Kibbee. Glad to note TCM included her well-loved appearance (as Vivian Rich, rhymes with you know what) in the marvelous “Footlight Parade’.
The Dodd-fest roared to a finish with her best (and biggest part) in 1935’s “The Payoff”. Here she’s a restless wife coveting diamond bracelets humble newshound hubby (James Dunn) simply can’t supply. Claire Dodd specialized in supporting stints. But this assignment emerged as the lady’s unsung Scarlett O’Hara role. With her character’s own “payoff” in the picture (memorable, albeit offscreen) serving as a kind of cumulative retribution for all those years of double-dealing enticement.

1:23 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

I seem to remember reading that Cantor was the sole Ralph Edwards guest to be told in advance he would be honored on 50's THIS IS YOUR LIFE.
Edwards feared the shock of it all would be too much for Eddie's weak heart.

7:54 AM  
Blogger Neely Ohara said...

To Mike Cline: If Cantor was informed in advance, that actually makes him one of two — Lillian Roth had to be told in advance to get her permission to tell the story of her alcoholism on national TV.

11:37 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Add the lobotomized Frances Farmer to the list of celebs who got the heads-up by Ralph Edwards before she appeared on "This is Your Life". It's one of the more cringe-worthy episodes of that problematic series.

As for Sid Caesar's writers... they respected, perhaps worshiped him as a performer. But outside of Neil Simon's "Little Me' and a couple of small parts in Mel Brooks' movies, they all avoided working with him once he left "Caesar's Hour". Not an easy boss to work for, from what I've read.

11:52 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Sincerely hoping this one gets the fully-on UCLA type restoration a la "Mystery of the Wax Museum" but that may be too much to ask. Odd trivia: the heroine of "Whoopee"! (so hard to know how to arrange that punctuation) Eleanor Hunt went on to marry would-be mogul George Hirliman, namesake of the Hirlicolor process. Which I believe was just Multicolor or one of the two-color processes of the time.

10:21 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

I had seen Cantor pictures for years on KTLA, but they never really registered. Reasonably entertaining, yes, but no more than, say, late-40s/early-50s Bob Hope.

I finally saw "Kid Millions" at either the Vagabond or LACMA, and the Technicolor finale was intriguing enough to encourage me to reconsider.

When I finally saw "Whoopee!" (at either the Vagabond or the Encore -- my theatres of choice), I finally got him and saw what he must have been like on stage. I still run hot and cold on him -- if I watch "Thank Your Lucky Stars," it's mainly for Carson and Hale, McDaniel, and Lupino, DeHavilland, and Tobias -- but it's more on the "hot" side and less on the "cold."

As for Claire Dodd, I love her, and always feel bad that she almost always had to play The Other Woman. I especially enjoy her in the Perry Mason pictures, where I get the sense that Della and Perry are up to almost as much no-good as they are in the books.

11:47 PM  
Blogger antoniod said...

One really offensive scene in WHOOPEE is where Cantor in blackface runs to the heroine, says "Joan", and the heroine says "How dare you speak to me like that!" You'd never get such obvious racism from the heroine in a post-Code movie, especially not from a character you're supposed to like.

1:04 PM  
Blogger Barry Rivadue said...

I think she actually said "How dare you speak to me!", which is even worse!

I'm glad though to see this article. Cantor was a very impressive entertainer.

6:45 PM  

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