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'Eddie Cantor Four Film Collection' Moves In and (Thankfully) Out of Blackface

Beneath the grotesque surface, white performers tried to tap a secret power of blackness in the '30s. This Eddie Cantor four film collection is one such document of that time.


Strike Me Pink

Director: Edward Sutherland, Leo McCarey, Frank Tuttle, Norman Taurog
Cast: Eddie Cantor
Year: 1931-36
Distibutor: Warner Archive
US DVD release date: 2015-06-02

In one package, and for the first time on disc, are four Eddie Cantor vehicles produced by Samuel Goldwyn in the middle of the Depression. None of them count as essential classics; the Cantors that come closest to that are Whoopee, Million Dollar Legs and Thank Your Lucky Stars, all available separately from Warner Archive. These films are marked by silliness, creaky humor, pretty girls, and the inevitable blackface interludes, and as long as you know what you're letting yourself in for, they deliver.

Let's address the blackface songs, which are the most immediate turn-off for today's viewers because we see them -- as they invite us to -- on the surface. Ironically, that appearance triggers a knee-jerk response in us akin to racial prejudice, although we're positive about our right-thinking motives (as are racists). The deeper we dig into the minstrel tradition, the more we learn of its paradoxical resonances.

On one level, it signifies a desire by white performers to be "black" (if a grotesque version of same), to tap a perceived power the performers can claim. (In the movie The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson, this quality is "real" American-ness.) On a deeper lever, it becomes a weird counter-imitation of "whiteness", because the minstrel tradition is born of such plantation phenomena as the cakewalk, a parody of white affectations. While blackface might be read with justice as mocking black people as much or more than "saluting" them, it also places "race" in quotation marks as a supposedly fixed category.

Both black and white artists performed minstrel acts, usually to different audiences, but the great Bert Williams broke the color barrier by bringing the first black musical to Broadway and headlining on the same stage with white acts, most notable the Ziegfeld Follies, where he served as mentor and friend to young Cantor, who played his smart-mouthed son in comedy skits. If you keep this awareness in mind, Cantor's blackface numbers carry a rich freight of history and social and psychological meaning. That's a lot of context to approach something that most white audiences just laughed at thoughtlessly, but we haven't the luxury of being so thoughtless.

The single blackface number in each of the first three movies takes up less time than the Busby Berkeley dance numbers with the Goldwyn Girls, which serve as the main spectacle in these musical entertainments. Actually, the girls usually show up in those routines as well, and when Cantor pretends to be a Nubian doctor in women's spa in Roman Scandals, Berkeley for the first time incorporates an equal number of black chorus girls (including a recognizable Theresa Harris) who alternate with the white ones (including Lucille Ball) in the elaborate routine called "Keep Young and Beautiful". In the most bizarre gag, they shrink Cantor to a black dwarf (Billy Barty).

Let's not get ahead. Palmy Days, the oldest and creakiest vehicle, sees Eddie (Cantor always plays a guy called Eddie) lucking into a job as efficiency expert at a bread factory that only employs beautiful girls as bakers. Tall and gangly Charlotte Greenwood plays an exercise coach who sets her cap for Eddie, who mistakenly thinks the boss' daughter (Barbara Weeks) loves him, but first there's some nonsense about exposing a phony fortune-teller (Charles Middleton, with George Raft as his henchman). Spencer Charters plays the muddle-headed boss.

As with all these Goldwyn projects, money was spent on a handsome production, here photographed by Gregg Toland. Director Eddie Sutherland's successful comedy career included working with Wallace Beery, W.C. Fields, Mae West, Bing Crosby, and Abbott & Costello. He basically just keeps the pace and points the camera at Cantor. Jokes include nods to Cantor's previous movies, Glorifying the American Girl and Whoopee. Never mind the blackface song; Cantor spends his longest routine in drag in a very saucy pre-Code sequence with lots of implied nudity, and the first dialogue has a "pansy" punchline.

The Kid from Spain opens with an even saucier number in a girls' college dorm, as they wink at the gliding peek-a-boo camera and drop double-entendres about homework. At one point, we see them changing out of their pajamas as silhouettes until they run screaming with towels when the camera rushes behind the screens. Berkeley's really feeling his oats, and you can see why he was on his way to making a splash at Warner Brothers with 42nd Street.

Eddie's a student who, caught in the dorm as a prank, gets expelled along with his roommate (Robert Young with moustache), a Mexican citizen. Eddie goes to Mexico and masquerades as a Spanish matador while he and his buddy romance two lovelies (Lydia Roberti, Ruth Hall) while avoiding bad guys (John Miljan, J. Carrol Naish) and an angry father (Noah Beery). With book and songs by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, this is almost a seriously plotted entry, and Leo McCarey keeps it cogently directed. Betty Grable is one of the dancers.

That brings us to the last pre-Code romp, Roman Scandals, which touches on politics as Eddie leads a populist street rebellion against the town's corrupt alliance between the mayor, police chief, and capitalist fatcat, but he spends most of the movie having a dream in which he's in Ancient Rome and the same kind of scheme is going on with the Emperor (Edward Arnold). Ruth Etting, Gloria Stuart, and Verree Teasdale are respectively a concubine, an enslaved princess, and the murderous Empress who keep Eddie (redubbed Oedipus) running from pillar to Doric column.

We've already referred to this movie's blackface number, which is the last in this series. That kind of thing was seeming old-fashioned, and indeed Cantor himself was starting to seem that way -- a tag that plays into Cantor's self-mockery in the wartime production Thank Your Lucky Stars. Blackface would see a surprising and unwelcome renaissance in MGM's Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland movies, where it was explicitly handled as nostalgia.

Director Frank Tuttle had helmed Cantor's first feature, the silent Kid Boots (1926) with Clara Bow, based on Cantor's Broadway hit of the same name. He also directed Bing Crosby pictures and had a line in crime films, including several of William Powell's Philo Vance movies and This Gun for Hire. In these Cantor films, the direction remains straightforward until the Berkeley dances take over the screen, because Berkeley took charge of those segments. He and Cantor provide consistency.

Cantor's final Goldwyn production, Strike Me Pink, has no blackface, no Berkeley, and no pre-Code humor. What it's got is the most straightforward plot, based on a novel by Clarence Budington Kelland, and a director in Norman Taurog who feels free to decorate it with fantastical bits of surrealism, even in dance numbers. Eddie impresses a smart heroine (Sally Eilers) by defending an amusement park against a slot-machine racket run by baddies (Brian Donlevy, William Frawley, Lash LaRue).

Ethel Merman did her career no favors with her small unsympathetic role, but she sings a pretentious nightclub number with frenzied editing. Harry Einstein (father of Albert Brooks), a comedian billed as his character's name Parkyakarkus (a funny Greek), was a star on Cantor's radio show. Sidney Fields pretends to be a ghost, Edward Brophy has a hilarious bit as a dancing gangster, and the over-the-top climax piles one effects stunt on another from a rollercoaster to a balloon to acrobatics. It hearkens back to Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, and forward to Lou Costello and Jerry Lewis; it's all-around well done.

All the prints in this on-demand set from Warner Archive look very good, and carry no extras.

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