Sunday, May 28, 2006

Funny Faces on the Films No.3

by Geoff Collins

It's time for another trawl through the good, the bad, and the adequate in our third look at Funny Faces on the Films, or Priceless Pusses on the Pictures. Actually this is part 3a, as one of our subjects deserves an article to himself. Cantor's too important to share one-fifth of an article with some supporting comics, so I've let him take over. He'd have done that anyway!

Regular readers, not to mention constipated ones, will recall the four-page picture feature in Film Fun Annual 1939 that generated my lifelong interest in long-buried movie comedians. In Robert Woolsey's case this was literally true: when the book was published in late '38 he was already gone, and he can be seen in the cover artwork giving a wistful glance at "1939", as if somehow knowing he'd never get there.

By 1963, when I bought the book (let me also remind you I was seven) many of Woolsey's contemporaries were also amongst the choir invisible. For some reason I had the impression that Eddie Cantor was the little pop-eyed Second Banana on the Dick Van Dyke Show. Nobody told me otherwise, and it came as a shock to see "his" obituary in the paper a little while later. Having established that Cantor-lookalike Morey Amsterdam was alive and well, I was then subjected to further confusion. Thank Your Lucky Stars was shown on TV, and there are two Eddie Cantors in it - or, in that great trick shot near the end, about eight of 'em as he plays the entire orchestra.

Eddie's main character is his usual eager, good-natured innocent, in this case a hapless little guy who can't get a showbiz job because he looks too much like Cantor; and he also plays himself as Cantor the egotistical, pushy entertainer. This baffled me: which was the real Cantor? Gradually his other movies also began to appear on British TV and I experienced the joy of those flashy Goldwyn musicals, especially Roman Scandals (and clearly our Film Fun photo is a still from it). Every Third Banana deserves a movie as good as this.

It disappointed me to find that Eddie's autobiography Take My Life, in which he endeavours to come across as a philanthropic family man, is dishonest on a minor point: he writes of the personal danger involved in filming the bullfight sequence in The Kid From Spain. This is all bull; the whole thing's done with process work and back projection. Cantor and the bull are never in the same shot. They probably never even met. We can also be a tiny bit cynical about his justifiable praise for the lovely lady Third Banana Joan Davis, now that we know she provided him with a bit more than comedy relief. He writes of Jolson's many flaws as a person but much of this could also be applied to himself. Herbert Goldman's biography Banjo Eyes exposes Cantor as being just as contradictory a man as Chaplin: generous yet grasping; kind but mean-spirited and nasty; helpful to other performers yet jealous of the laughs they got; and a man of integrity who could be dishonest on his own terms.

To his credit, in Thank Your Lucky Stars he had the courage to put all this on display, knowing, naturally, that his public would think "Awww, Eddie's not like that!" But his writers knew their man and the script sparkles with put-downs and disgusted reactions to Cantor's many failings. It's the only big-studio wartime flagwaver that's enjoyable for the whole two hours.

Yet there's still another Cantor we haven't discussed. When the long-lost 1930 movie version of Whoopee was recovered in about 1980 the world could at last see Eddie in his pre-Goldwyn guise, before the Production Code pulled Hollywood's teeth out. Here we have Cantor the Broadway Star. He's like Woody Allen on speed, a neurotic New Yorker with more than a hint of sexual ambiguity - although one of the chorus girls in the "Makin' Whoopee" number gets a particularly warm smile from him. Despite being "Henry Williams", he floods the movie with Yiddish bits. It's hardly surprising that when the Production Code came in, Whoopee vanished for fifty years. Where could they show it?

New York-Jewish Eddie is also very much to the fore in the early talkie bits and pieces he made for Paramount at the Astoria studio, such as Insurance and the "Belt-in-the-Back" tailor sketch from Glorifying the American Girl. Twenty years afterwards, as we've seen from an earlier article, he was willing to sacrifice his friendship with Lew Hearn in order to claim ownership of this sketch legally. Not Very Good, Eddie. More like Knife-in-the-Back.

Did we mention yet another Eddie Cantor, the silent film comedian? Necessarily deprived of his song-and-dance routines, he's an astonishingly subtle and adept pantomimist. It's all in That Face, and when Paramount/Universal/Whoever make Kid Boots and Special Delivery available, we'll discuss them further. They both exist; why can't we see 'em?

Eddie Cantor is easily one of the most fascinating characters in Third Banana Land. He can be very annoying; his sentimentality can make you cringe. But when he sings and dances and claps his hands and skips about, he is magical. You don't believe me? Watch him race through "Okay Toots" in Kid Millions; and then watch it again. It really is that good. And have we spoken about Cantor on radio? Or on television? Or records?

This is one of the paradoxes of Funny Faces on the Films: what is Eddie Cantor doing on the same page as Mundin, Buchanan, Edwards and Karns? Characteristically he's used up all their space! Complaints should be addressed to Mundin, Buchanan, Edwards and Karns, Attorneys and Commissioners for Oaths. I rest my case. It's a bit heavy anyway.

A voice from somewhere in the back of my head (with ukulele accompaniment) suggests that I may have been a bit unfair to Mr. Edwards.

To be continued....

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Blogger East Side said...

While for me a little Eddie goes a long way, you're on target regarding "Thank Your Lucky Stars." Hilarious all the way through with great musical numbers. And I might have mentioned this before -- Regarding "Whoopee!", don't you think it unnerving that Cantor, a Jewish comic, at one point hides in a gas oven?

12:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In a PBS special on Sam Goldwyn, the narrator said that "Other producers wouldn't sign Cantor because they were afraid of his ethnic Jewish humor"[Paraphrased].But that was hogwash.Paramount also wanted Cantor, and there is so much ethnic humor in early sound films that it's absurd to think studios wouldn't touch such comedy then.

10:00 PM  

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