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EDDIE CANTOR 4-FILM COLLECTION (WB Archives)

By • Jul 9th, 2015 •

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I had been looking, without an ounce of hope, and really without much energy, to discover an Eddie Cantor film that I liked. A vaudeville crossover into film with the coming of sound, Cantor overacted, rotating his large fried-egg eyes, clapping his hands rapidly, singing and dancing energetically, and, apparently by popular demand, saving his signature blackface routines for late in the films so that his fans, knowing the number was coming eventually, would be primed with anticipation. The black-face routines I could find a way to forgive – a sign of the times, a footnote of historical interest, etc. But the overacting, the limited thespian skills, the screenplays with their light-weight jokes that all seemed like Marx Bros rejects. Those I couldn’t forgive.

These four films were produced by the Samuel Goldwyn company, and there must have been an understanding with Cantor about the nature of his participation, because a) he’s not nearly as hard to take, and b) they’ve got some wonderful back up for him, including directors (Leo McCarey, Busby Berkeley, Edward Sutherland), screenwriters (George S. Kaufman, Arthur Sheekman, Bert Kalmar), and adorable leading actresses who really understood comic timing (Charlotte Greenwood, Lyda Roberti, even Ethel Merman). You end up with a lot to take away even if Cantor isn’t your cup of entertainment.

Busby Berkeley kicks off PALMY DAYS (’31) with choreographic hijinks in a doughnut factory populated by his inimitable knockout blondes and brunettes. The long introductory sequence starts very quietly as the girls go about their work, walking rather than dancing, and we learn how doughnuts are made. Slowly it slides into gear, accelerating into prime Berkeley surrealism, set to a particularly fetching score.

After seven minutes of that, we then find Cantor playing his usual nervous, semi-inefficient, timid self as a phony psychic’s assistant. Charles Middleton (Flash Gordon’s arch enemy, Ming the Merciless) is the corrupt psychic, and he’s quite funny, an effect achieved by playing it straight. This sequence, and all the others in the film, adhere to a comedy principal I strongly believe in – don’t abandon a set or a gag until you’ve wrung it dry. The séance sequence goes on a long time and is completely rewarding. A later scene in a gym, with Cantor getting a massage from overbearing self-appointed paramour Greenwood, crosses over into S&M and is equally extended to great comic effect. None of the other three films handles their set pieces quite this way.

The last third of the film loses some steam, but it’s still fun, and the film has another quality the other three do not – a calculated passion for pure physical inventiveness. Bodies and limbs are constantly in motion, barraging us with nuance. And there are other not unimpressive talents in this production – Greg (CITIZEN KANE) Toland on camera, Morrie (ANIMAL CRACKERS) Ryskind as one of the script’s contributors, and even Coco Chanel (uncredited) on gowns.

Distant relatives of duck noises are big in this film. Seems at first like a really low-brow gag, but the more they return to it, and the more other people join in, the funnier it gets.

THE KID FROM SPAIN is directed by the widely acknowledged comedy master of the 30’s – Leo McCarey. What he brings to this film which the others do not have is a more subdued Cantor, and the actor’s performance immediately feels more grounded. It’s a treat to see what he was capable of when he wasn’t being let loose. Highlights of TKFS are a duet with Lyda Roberti (who sadly died within a few years), and a comic bullfight which third-acts the fun. All four films have bang-up endings, as did many of the other cinema comedians’ films.

ROMAN SCANDALS is the most outrageous of the four. Canter, in a delirium, goes back to ancient Rome where he is sold as a slave. The slave auction sequence, directed by Berkeley, is extraordinarily racy. The women were asked to do one scene in the nude, and they all agreed, on the condition that the studio was emptied of crew members. Lucille Ball was one of the girls in this scene. In her biography there is a full nude shot of her, so I guess I can accept that she was willing to do it for art…

The film ends with a rousing chariot race parodying BEN-HUR, and it is impressive in its own right. The one disturbingly odd thing in the film – and I’m guessing someone was pulling strings to get it included – is a mournful blues number, completely out of tone with everything else, performed by Ruth Etting (whose quasi-biographical film was LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME). Good number, but what th…?

And then there’s STRIKE ME PINK, the only one of the quartet to be made after the censorship board was in effect. This one is just as nutty as Canter’s others, but perhaps feels a bit more like a ‘standard’ comedy. It’s still fun, still making intentionally wacky and illogical narrative transitions, and Canter has more than his share of shining moments. Appearing as a running gag throughout the film is an actor known as Parkyarkarkus (Harry Parke), whose shtick reminded me of an Eastern European Chico Marx without the piano.

The condition of the DVD images are good but display some wear. It doesn’t get in the way of the fun however.

Never thought I’d be saying this about Eddie Canter’s work, but this is a terrific collection.

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