Eddie Cantor was a huge star of vaudeville and Broadway known for snappy songs, suggestive jokes, rolling his “banjo eyes” (a nickname), hopping about and slapping his hands together. He even conquered radio, even though the audience couldn’t see him. He was briefly and less successfully a movie star, especially in the early talkie vogue for splashy soundstage musicals. Two titles now on-demand from Warner Archives show the genre’s transition from stagey to filmey stories.
Produced by Florenz Ziegfeld and Samuel Goldwyn, Whoopee! stands perfectly at the crossroads of Broadway and Hollywood. Based on Cantor’s Broadway hit of the same name, it opens with a spectacular image of horse-riders racing in formation across the Arizona desert. They supposedly arrive at the huge soundstage where the rest of the movie takes place, occasionally shifting the backdrops to change scenes yet clearly always on the same “proscenium”.
On this stage, cowboys and chorines (including a lasso-throwing Betty Grable) perform a routine choreographed by Busby Berkeley in his film debut, already using his cinematic overhead geometries. His contributions feel more important than those of director Thornton Freeland, although you can find some of the same infectious craziness in Freeland’s Flying Down to Rio. Oh, by the way, the whole movie is in lovely two-color Technicolor, not an unusual device for the heady days of 1930—just as this kind of expensive farrago was taking a dive after glutting the market.
Cantor plays a hypochondriac staying at a western ranch for his health, where he finds occasion to sing “Making Whoopee” (rolling his eyes in woo-woo fashion at every iteration of the W-word), “My Baby Just Cares for Me” and “She Was a Girlfriend of a Boyfriend of Mine”. The near-plotless excuse for a plot spoofs what was already a standard story (e.g., The Squaw Man, The Vanishing American): an Indian man’s love for a white woman is forbidden by racial prejudice. Paul Gregory (with a good singing voice) and Eleanor Hunt play the bland young romancers.
If the sudden resolution hardly strikes a blow for tolerance and miscegenation, it should also be seen as part of the parody, in this case of melodramatic switched-at-birth solutions of the type also spoofed by Gilbert & Sullivan. If you really want to examine this nonsense deeply, the “happy ending” isn’t arguing that people should love despite their differences, but that these perceived differences don’t really exist and are merely a function of perception and imagination, that identities are fluid rather than fixed. In other words, the solution could be read as either reinforcing the prejudice by accomodating it, or subverting it by obliterating its basis.
Cantor has no real place in this story. He’s just the star. Narratively, he functions as a trickster capable of changing his race, ethnicity and even gender at a moment’s notice and just as easily as he diverts the narrative into new eddies. When the Indian laments that he’s learned the white man’s ways and “gone to your schools”, Cantor says with delight, “An Indian in a Hebrew school?!” This is part of a dialogue in which Cantor dismisses the man’s assertion that his great-grandfather married a white woman (“So did mine”) and then claims to be a half-breed (“I breed through one side of my nose”).
These are parodic and sarcastic remarks, an undermining of clichés of otherness, and also an insistence on and linkage of different schools of otherness. (He might as well start singing “I’m an Indian Too”, although it’s a couple of decades too early.) Later he returns the favor by becoming a Jewish Indian haggling over the price of blankets in a feathered head-dress, a combination of “How!” and “Oy!” His humor trades in stereotypes, both exaggerated and punctured, and the broader the better.
This is the kindest way to view his ten minutes in blackface in the middle of the picture, when he sings “My Baby Just Cares for Me” long before Nina Simone. Although it tends to make today’s viewers uncomfortable, the subtext is that these are all masks and he can masquerade at will. If we insist on thinking about it seriously as a plot function (and let’s), he’s being chased by half the state and nobody recognizes him because they explicitly define the search in terms of looking for a white man. This underlines “race” as an absurd social construction that blinds people to the realities of identity. It’s probably harder today to get past political correctness in order to perceive any sense of critique in all this stereotyping, but who knows? Maybe it’s easier.
As for gender, Cantor doesn’t actually get up in drag, although his female nurse (Ethel Shutta) does, but Cantor essays surprising moments of ambiguous sexual orientation, most astoundingly a physical duet that involves showing off surgery scars. After that scene, his ogling of the half-naked Indian almost seems tame, but he’s sure enjoying the view of this male cutie, up and down and front and back. “Heap much,” adds Chief Black Eagle (played by Chief Caupolican).
Since we’ve raised the topic, one of the (usually) unspoken elements in blackface is the white performer’s (and audience’s) desire to be black, to have something the “Other” is perceived as having—if only in a grotesque cartoon version that implicitly limits the field of desire. One doesn’t want to be subjected to Jim Crow laws and lynchings, but one wants the “rhythm” and “humor” attributed to the oppressed.
The Other is perceived as holding the key to some secret forged in their travail. They are even perceived in some sense as intrinsically “American”, which is the key to understanding why the Jewish cantor’s son in The Jazz Singer (a film role Cantor turned down, ironically) conflates wanting to assimilate and be “American” with not only singing “jazz” but actually slapping polish on his face; he’s retreating as far into the heart of the American masquerade as he can.
Eddie Cantor and the Goldwyn Girls in Kid Millions (1934)
With this in mind, let’s approach the blackface sequence in the next film, Kid Millions. This shipboard performance purports to be a nostalgic recreation of an old-time minstrel show, yet it clearly isn’t. Cantor is the only person in blackface. The emcee remains white, and the panel of other performers are all women. In fact, they’re the Goldwyn Girls, and you can look for Lucille Ball.
Most incredibly, and something that could never have occurred in a real old-time minstrel show because of the racial laws that prevented integrated stage performances and actually led to the creation of the minstrel tradition (in both black and white incarnations), is that two actual African-American performers are present, and what performers. It’s the Nicholas Brothers, Fayard and Harold, performing “I Want to Be a Minstrel Man” and, as usual, absolutely stealing the show with their jaw-dropping razzle-dazzle. The whole point of their interaction with Cantor is that he’s far out of their league and can only step aside.
This interlude interrupts a film with more of a coherent story, a signal that Goldwyn’s musicals had found a more filmic footing by 1934. Old pro Roy Del Ruth directs a streamlined, less cumbersome vehicle. Near the start of his film career, writer Nunnally Johnson presumably provided the sturdy plot framework that was decorated by Marx Brothers gagmen Nat Perrin and Arthur Sheekman.
Cantor is the presumed heir to $77 million in Egyptian treasure that several other parties also wish to claim, including gold-digging Ethel Merman and sweeter Ann Sothern, niece of a Southern-fried colonel and charlatan (Berton Churchill). Merman’s claim, in this film just at the edge of the Hays Office crackdown on immoral behavior, is that she’s the common-law wife of Cantor’s late daddy, and this leads to much frantic innuendo between “mother” and “son”. Cantor was sure a twitchy figure. Lots of humor involves attempts on Cantor’s life from Merman’s “manager” (Warren Hymer).
The last acts takes place in Egypt where a sheik (Paul Harvey) vows to kill all the infidels who would steal his treasure, although his daughter (Eve Sully) is hot for Cantor. Adding to the Orientalist confusion, the sheik’s aide for some reason is dressed to resemble Gandhi. Daddy’s a buffoon who must be outwitted, of course, but the justice of his claim is an interesting element in the plot, as the film is essentially arguing that Cantor’s “inheritance” is indeed an example of colonial plunder.
This film is in reasonable black and white, as befits a bedraggled Cantor living on a houseboat with a multiracial group of orphans (including kids from Our Gang) and singing “When My Ship Comes In”. But wait—the final sequence bursts into Technicolor for a surreal fantasy about kids and ice cream. It’s as much a piece of Depression-ers wish-fulfillment as “We’re in the Money” in 42nd Street.
Clearly, these entertainments are very much of their time and tend to look more like anthropological time capsules today, albeit ones with moments of free-wheeling giddiness that still burst through the constraint of their social fabrics.