Sunday, June 15, 2008

Very Good Eddie : Belt in the Back Revisited

by Geoff Collins

It's about time we took another look at little "Banjo Eyes" Eddie Cantor. Like him or not, he just won't go away - and if he does go away, he'll be right back. Actually he wasn't that little - probably about five feet eight - but like Chaplin he surrounded himself with taller people in order to play, in Gilbert Seldes' phrase, "the lamb led to the slaughter", the hapless victim pursued and pummelled by gangsters, psychopaths and osteopaths.

Verbally, Eddie was no victim. Although somewhat prone to overstating his ailments to anyone within earshot, Eddie's neurotic, edgy New Yorker persona was always ready with a perfectly-timed one-liner, usually followed by "that look": open-faced, eye-rolling innocence thinly veiling the secret joy of his own native wit. A bit like this:

Eddie would fit comfortably into many of Woody Allen's movies. Imagine him - if he'd lived long enough - as Woody's grandfather; and I'm convinced that Kermit the Frog owes a lot to "master of ceremonies Eddie" of the 'fifties.

Twenty years earlier, "Jewish Broadway star Eddie" was a huge success in the early-talkie version of Whoopee. His five subsequent Goldwyn extravaganzas are still the most frequently shown Cantor movies. During this period he gradually became "less Jewish" as a performer - and consequently less effective, a bit watered-down - but the increasing blandness of his on-screen character gave him a wider appeal; he was a box-office name for a much longer period than his contemporaries such as Ed Wynn and Benny Rubin. Let's not forget that he was also very Cantor-minded, a ferocious self-publicist. Commendably he played "himself" as an unpleasantly pushy egotist in Thank Your Lucky Stars, to such an extent that the WB shield at the beginning of this picture could stand for Whiny Bitch; but his relentless drive paid off. In 1933 he was the top comedy star in the entire world. He was the hottest thing on radio and it's no exaggeration to say that Roman Scandals is absolutely breathtaking in every way. (What a pity that it's still circulating in dreary washed-out prints with inappropriate "reissue" title cards.) Yet despite his astonishing fame at the time, he's never been much more than a footnote whenever "classic comedy" is covered in those glossy coffee-table books. Chaplin, Keaton, Fields, the Marxes, Stan and Ollie, all the usual suspects are always there... but Eddie Cantor? Posterity's pushed him aside.

What was Eddie Cantor really like, deep down inside? Again, like Chaplin, he was incredibly complex, and for similar reasons. Orphaned during infancy, his energetic performing style can easily be seen as a cry for affection. In his autobiography Take My Life he portays himself - at inordinate length - as a loving husband and father; but there was usually a girlfriend in the background. For most of the 'forties his secret squeeze was the lanky and oddly appealing Joan Davis. If you watch Eddie and Joan in Show Business, forget about "acting"; you can see a real-life affair going on. Joy is all around.

Eddie also yaps on about the dangers of filming the bullfight sequence in The Kid From Spain, bull being the appropriate word. Eddie and the bull are never in the same shot; I don't think they were ever introduced. [You'll hear this line again later!] With this in mind, we must be wary of his claim for authorship of the "Jewish tailor" routine "Belt in the Back". Oh no, not that again. Yes I know we mentioned it before (it's in our Archive for January 2006) but this time we've got the movie clip, so please be patient!

An article in Variety, May 11, 1949, reveals Eddie as ruthless enough to use litigation to prove that he alone was the author of this ancient skit, the ultimate cost being the loss of his friendship with fellow vaudevillian Lew Hearn. Gilbert Seldes' The Seven Lively Arts (1924) supports Cantor's assertion that the sketch was first used in one of the Shuberts' shows - actually the touring version of The Midnight Rounders.

We'll probably never know who wrote this - I suspect it's a joint effort that "grew" gradually - but the recovery of the film clip lets us see "1920 vaudeville Eddie", ebullient, unstoppable and very Jewish, before the Production Code put the lid on him. Thirty-seven years old when this was shot in 1929, he's at the top of his form, undoubtedly overjoyed to be getting $20,000 for a twelve-minute guest appearance that was filmed in.... well, twelve minutes, in a continuous take with three or four cameras. It finishes very abruptly; I suspect the film ran out!

We apologise for the flaw about halfway through this; typically the rest of our copy of Glorifying the American Girl, an hour-and-three-quarters of relentless misery, is blip-free. Louis Sorin is Eddie's assistant, but who's the browbeaten little man who plays the customer? (As Eddie's not the Victim here, he can work with a smaller actor.) The answer's in The Inspector General, three or four minutes in. Lew Hearn and his brother Sam ("Schlepperman" from the Jack Benny show) play twin postmen Izzick and Gizzick. They are frustratingly alike (the joy of seeing the Hearn brothers together, in Technicolor, nearly makes this Kaye-fest worthwhile) but my money's on Lew. He was the older brother, 47 at the time - and he looks it - and he'd been in the routine from the beginning. The Variety article also states that Eddie dipped into his twenty grand to pay Lew $1,500. Most generous. Eddie's tireless work for many charities was well-publicized (he made sure of that!) but as we've discussed, he was a complex human being: nasty and nice, mean and generous, hot and cold - a bit like all of us. As an entertainer, though, he was one of a kind.

Eddie Cantor's still not as well-appreciated as he should be, but at least most people have heard of him. So I'd like to dedicate this article to LEW HEARN, 1882-1965, vaudeville comedian, author (possibly of this sketch!), the original singer, in London, of "Hitchy-Koo"; and a definite candidate for Third Bananadom. Eddie's the star of "Belt in the Back"; but it wouldn't be as good without Lou and Lew.

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Blogger East Side said...

According to one bio, one of Cantor's other girlfriends was a young Jacqueline Susann, author of "Valley of the Dolls." That's as odd a pairing as it gets.

If you haven't seen it yet, you should track down Eddie Cantor's 1924 Lee DeForest talkie short. It looks like one of his vaudeville monologues along with a song or two. Gives you a good idea of what he was like onstage.

6:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A recent PBS documentary on Goldwyn said that Cantor was unwanted in Hollywood because of his "Jewish" schtick, but Paramount also wanted Cantor(he'd worked for them in silents),and Goldwyn outbid them.And there was so much Yiddish and other ethnic humor in the early talkies that you wonder where PBS was coming from.And of course Cantor edited most of the ethnic stuff out as early as 1931 in "Palmy Days".

12:48 PM  

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