Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Inside Radio Stars, part III: Who the Hell is Keefe Brasselle??

Radio Stars, May, 1933. This puff piece, the first of a series on Eddie Cantor's life, is more or less the "official" version of Eddie's story that would become the foundation of that most legendary of schlocky showbiz biopics, The Eddie Cantor Story (1953). The passage about how Eddie's "Grandma Esther" Kantrowitz missed out on "the one thrill of her poor, drab faithful life" by dying before seeing Eddie in the Follies of 1917 is among several none-too subtly dramatized in the movie. For the real story, please, please read Herbert G. Goldman's invaluable Banjo Eyes: Eddie Cantor and the Birth of Modern Stardom, one of the finest biographies of any classic comedian I've ever read.

The Eddie Cantor Story simply must be seen to be believed. At its core, it's simply a comically inept Technicolor imitation of The Jolson Story, but it's Keefe Brasselle's terrifying performance as Cantor that turns this mediocre heap into a thing of grotesque wonder. Pop-eyed and wispy-voiced, his ears forced out from the sides of his head with putty, Keefe prances and flails his way through the picture, reducing every scene he's in to low farce (it's not a long drop, though). To be completely fair, an over the top, cartoonish impression was apparently precisely what was demanded of Brasselle, case in point being composer Jackie Barnett's equally cartoonish appearance as Jimmy Durante. Cantor himself initially endorsed Brasselle's performance, although the novelty quickly wore off after the critics eviscerated the picture.

All of which begs the question: who the hell is Keefe Brasselle? How did he, a third-string nightclub singer, end up cast as the lead in a major studio biopic despite his bearing not the slightest resemblance to the man he was to be portraying? Why did Warner Brothers even bother casting a singer as all of the musical numbers were to be overdubbed by Cantor anyway? Who was this man who started his film career in 1942 with USS VD: Ship of Shame and ended it in 1975 with X-rated sex comedy If You Don't Stop It... You'll Go Blind!!!, while in between becoming the star of The Keefe Brasselle Show and producing an additional untested three programs (with disastrous results) for CBS thanks to his shadowy friendship with infamous programming chief James Aubrey? Who was this man who, in Madrid, cruelly (for both parties) set up a pre-Batman Adam West with a singing hermaphrodite scuba instructor (as recounted in chapter seven of West's Back to the Batcave) and whose 1968 novelized network expose'/tantrum The CanniBalS attempts to take down not only his former friend Aubrey but Jack Benny as well? What about that mysterious incident in Vegas involving Tobacco Road author Erskine Caldwell that reportedly helped get him his own show? What about that 1971 assault with a deadly weapon charge? Why on earth is there not a biography of this man??

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Blogger East Side said...

Wow! I had no idea the Keefer was in "USS VD: Ship of Shame." I saw that at a revival house on a quadruple bill along with "Lash of the Penitentes," "Glen or Glenda" and a 1950s high school health-class short called "How to Ask for a Date," directed by Ed Wood. Good times...

6:48 AM  

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