Sunday, January 18, 2015


After the life stories of Al Jolson and George M. Cohan were turned into successful movies in the 1940s, Hollywood was trying to find their next subject. The life of Eddie Cantor had everything that would make a good movie, and it is one of those movies you really want to like. While the real life Eddie Cantor is seen going into a screening room at Warner Brothers to watch this movie with his beloved wife Ida, you sort of have to wonder what he really thought about it. The story and songs are there, but it is really an imitation of his life with a poorly cast Keefe Brasselle (1923-1981) in the title role. He's sort of creepy for the most part with enlarged eyes that seem to parody Cantor rather than portray him, and even without the eyes, he really doesn't resemble Cantor, with a speaking voice too shrill to match Cantor's real voice for those of us familiar with the real deal.

What starts off as "The Bowery Boys Meet Banjo Eyes" turns into "Cantor Sings Again", covering his discovery by Gus Edwards as a child (after being used by some street gang members to distract audience members from their pick-pocketing), his struggles to get into the "Ziegfeld Follies", and then his moving on to light-hearted book musicals like "Kid Boots" and "Whoopee!". Dramatically, it also tells of his childhood romance with Ida, their issues with his constantly being away, and finally some health issues which threaten to curtail his career for good.

There is also of course, his use of blackface, but it never really goes into detail of why he chose that route since he had been popular as himself. Certainly, that aspect of his entertainment personality is dated now and quite offensive, but it is a part of our history that we can't change and certainly shouldn't repeat. Of course, there's going to be comparisons to "The Jolson Story", and the one good thing which can be said is that Cantor didn't have Jolson's massive ego, and mentions of him in Broadway and Hollywood memoirs describe him as a very giving performer. What is interesting is Larry Parks was supposed to recreate his role as Al Jolson for this Cantor film, but Parks was blacklisted during the Red Scare and was dropped from the film.

Cantor's marriage to Ida (Marilyn Erskine) wasn't nearly as troubled as Jolson's to Ruby Keeler, but the real love of his life seems to have been his delightfully spry grandmother (lovingly played by Aline MacMahon). One very touching moment in the film is Cantor's Follies debut where he looks out into the audience and sees only her.

As Cantor does get to do all his own singing, there are all those great numbers, and Brasselle, at least in the black face, does capture his glove hand clapping and prancing routines downpacked. The various Ziegfeld production numbers, however, seem more 50's in style than 20's and 30's. When the movie came out, it was not successful and many people blamed Brasselle himself. It is not entirely his fault, because it is virtually impossible for anyone else to capture the real Eddie Cantor. (On HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” Stephen DeRosa portrays Eddie very convincingly though).

The soundtrack to the movie is the big draw, and even as Eddie’s health was beginning to suffer in 1953, he still could sing his songs. The movie is not good, but it is worth watching. Eddie Cantor’s personality was so much more than this movie managed to capture. His movies, his recordings, and his generosity to charities and social issues really make one think that Eddie Cantor was the true greatest entertainer of all time...


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