Thursday, April 24, 2014

Ma…he’s making eyes at her


One of my favorite old-time radio anecdotes was told by Burns and Allen writer (and later creator of the classic television sitcoms The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction) Paul Henning in my Facebook chum Jordan R. Young’s invaluable book on comedy writing, The Laugh Crafters.  Henning related how being George Burns’ brother—Willy—was not an enviable position at times.

For example, one day George and Willy and I went across the street to the Brown Derby to have lunch.  And Eddie Cantor was sitting in a front booth, and he jumped up and he said, “George!  George, I’m in trouble.  I’ve got to have you and Gracie on my show – please, for me, do it…”  George just hugged Eddie and said, “Sure, Eddie, we’ll be on, you can count on it.”  And they embraced and so forth.  And we walked back, and just out of earshot, he says, “Willy, get me out of it.”

Despite being a firm favorite of stage, radio and movie audiences throughout his lengthy show business career, entertainer Eddie Cantor had two different personas.  On stage, he was the bubbly, effervescent singer-dancer who laid them in the aisles with memorable renditions of Margie and How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?).  But in Young’s book, a few writers—chiefly Bob Weiskopf (who goes on for a few pages on how Eddie was not a particularly nice man to work for), but also Henning and Larry Gelbart—paint an entirely different picture of the beloved performer whose hard work and dedication to his craft extended to charitable and humanitarian activities (Cantor was very influential in creating what would eventually be known as The March of Dimes).  To quote Weiskopf from Laugh Crafters: “Professionally, Eddie Cantor wasn’t that funny.  Offstage, he was very funny, by being a bastard.”

In the 1930s, Eddie Cantor starred in a number of hugely successful movie musical comedies: Whoopee! (1930), The Kid from Spain (1932), Roman Scandals (1933), Kid Millions (1934), etc.  His radio program for Chase & Sanborn (from 1931 to 1934) was also a broadcasting phenom; even though the method for measuring radio ratings at that time could be challenged for accuracy, there was no denying the man attracted an immense following over the ether.  Though his momentum slowed a bit by the 1940s, Cantor was still a radio favorite: he broadcast for Bristol Myers from 1940-46 (in a program entitled Time to Smile) and Pabst Blue Ribbon from 1946-49.  With regards to movies, Eddie appeared in two of Warner Brothers wartime extravaganzas: Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943) and Hollywood Canteen (1944).  (Cantor did appear in a 1940 MGM comedy, Forty Little Mothers, that was a notorious dud at the time; Weiskopf related that his radio writers used the film—much as Jack Benny’s scribes would later do with The Horn Blows at Midnight—as fodder for gags on the program until their boss told them to knock it off.  It seems that Eddie had received a letter from someone who had seen the picture, and she told him it wasn’t that bad.)

On his radio show, Cantor cultivated an image as a devoted family man; his wife Ida and five daughters—Marjorie, Natalie, Edna, Marilyn and Janet—were frequently the subject of stories and jokes on his program, with the Cantor girls almost as popular as the Dionne Quintuplets.  (Gags about the Cantor daughters and how their Pop was angling to marry them off were surefire laugh getters almost on a par with Jack Benny’s cheapness; the kind comedians could tell and Cantor wouldn’t even have to be in the vicinity.)  Being the butt of their father’s radio humor rankled the Cantor girls, radio historian Gerald Nachman notes in Raised on Radio the “five unmarriageable daughters led you to think that his family was his best, perhaps only, gag.”  To add insult to injury (writer Budd Schulberg once described Ida as “long-suffering”), Cantor was a bit of a hound when it came to extramarital dalliances; he had affairs with a number of women, but perhaps his most famous was with comedienne Joan Davis.  The Cantor-Davis coupling was well-known (and talked about) in show business circles, and some speculate it may have played a part in Joanie’s eventual split with her writer hubby Si Wills in 1948.

I bring all this up not to be a scold but to present a little background in the context of Eddie Cantor’s final starring film vehicles, both produced and released by RKO and watched by me within the last couple of days.  Of the musical comedy Show Business (1944), The Third Banana’s Aaron Neathery remarked: “[F]orget about ‘acting’; you can see a real-life affair going on.  Joy is all around.”  Eddie and Joan share top billing with song-and-dance man George Murphy in a tuneful tale of a quartet of entertainers that begins in 1914.  We first meet George Doane (Murphy) as he wows a burlesque audience, and then he’s introduced to Eddie Martin (Cantor), an equally talented performer competing in an “amateur night” contest being held at the burlesque house where George is working.  With encouragement from George, Eddie wins first prize and the two decide to celebrate at a café that caters to clients in the entertainment biz.  It’s there that George and Eddie meet the two members of their later quartet: a sister act featuring Constance Ford (Constance Moore) and Joan Mason (Davis).

George takes an instant shine to Connie, despite the inconvenient truth that her agent, Charlie Lucas (Don Douglas), has also set his cap for his client.  (George has a bit of a reputation as a womanizer, which does not set well with his girlfriend, fellow entertainer Nancy Gaye [Nancy Kelly].)  George takes Eddie into his act and the duo become quite a hit in burlesque…but the two men have ambition to make the step up into vaudeville.  It’s Connie who suggests that they combine the two acts, and the team of Doane, Martin, Ford and Mason proves quite successful.  But the quartet is rebuffed when they ask Charlie about playing the “big time” (in the lingua franca of vaudeville, New York City’s famed The Palace); he tells them that unless their act is really polished and professional they’ve haven’t a chance.  With grit and determination, the team starts to save their pennies so that they can afford improvements (better costumes, songs, chorus line) and the remainder of Show Business details both the comedy and drama of the quartet’s rise to the top.

Show Business is a pleasant if unremarkable little trifle whose main defect is that the plot (Joseph Quillan and Dorothy Bennett receive screenplay credit—but much of the great one-liners should be credited to radio gagster Irving “Izzy” Elinson, who wrote for Cantor’s radio show as did his brother Jack) is a bit too trite; there’s a little melodrama thrown in—George and Connie get married; their first child expires hours after his birth; George hits rock bottom and is reduced to singing for drinks in a dive until Eddie arrives to rescue him (though I did chuckle at this part, with Cantor’s character pretending that he’s the lush and not Murphy)—that blunts the impact of much of the musical material.  (To be honest, the romance of Murphy and Moore kind of made me glance at my watch a couple of times—I’m just not a fan of George Murphy.)  There a lot of great old songs in this one: It Had to Be You, I Want a Girl (Just Like the Girl That Married Dear Old Dad), etc.—Cantor even does one of his signature numbers, Makin’ Whoopee.  There is a “blackface” number (Dinah) that will make modern audiences cringe (sadly, Cantor does blackface routines in many of his films) but if you can get past that, you might be amazed as I was to see how well Joan Davis sings and dances.

My affinity for Joan Davis is one of several reasons why I watched Show Business (well, that and the idea of she and Cantor in flagrante delicto—consider my gabber flasted); I’ve been a fan ever since I watched reruns of I Married Joan on the old Christian Broadcasting Network in the mid-1980s.  (Strangely enough, the show hasn’t retained its appeal for me—I prefer Davis’ work in classic movies now, and I still think Jim Backus’ talents were wasted on that show.)  From her motion picture debut in a 1935 Mack Sennett short, Way Up Thar, Joan Davis was the cinematic epitome of the man-chasing, wisecracking sidekick—appearing as comic relief in many a 20th Century-Fox film (Hold That Co-Ed, Sun Valley Serenade) and, like Cantor, also a radio favorite in the 40s: first on The Sealtest Village Store from 1943 to 1945 (Davis had been a regular on Rudy Vallee’s Sealtest show beginning in 1941 and she inherited it from him when he went into the Coast Guard) and then her own self-titled sitcom from 1945 to 1950 (Joan Davis Time, Leave it to Joan), where she broadcast for the likes of Lever Brothers (Swan Soap) and American Tobacco.

The characters played by Cantor and Davis tie the knot at the end of Show Business, and in If You Knew Susie (1948), you kind of get an idea of what married life is like for the two of them even though they play differently-named characters (Sam and Susie Parker).  The couple retire from show business at the beginning of Susie, choosing to live in a charming little town (Brookford) in a house whose tradition stretches back to Sam’s family.  The Parker clan want to operate a restaurant/nightclub in their establishment, but opening night turns out to be a complete washout—one of Brookford’s esteemed families, the Clintons, (represented by Howard Freeman and Isabel “Abigail Uppington” Randolph) has challenged Sam and Susie’s claims about the historical doings of Sam’s ancestors.

Forced to sell the house and auction off their stuff, the Parkers find a document hidden in a secret panel in a wall signed by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin—it states that one Jonathan Parker went above and beyond the call of duty with regards to the Revolutionary War effort, and when Sam and Susie present this to Clinton, he waves it off as a possible forgery.  So Mr. and Mrs. P head to Washington to see if they can get the missive authenticated…and that’s when they cross paths with a reporter named Mike Garrett (Allyn Joslyn).  Garrett, in hock to some gangsters for a gambling debt, collects rent from Sam and Susie as the two stay in a luxurious apartment that’s owned by Mike’s employer (Charles Dingle)—and is there for the purpose of entertaining dignitaries.  Mike and the Parkers are about to get the heave-ho when they finally get word that their document is legit: furthermore, Jonathan Parker was to be paid £50,000 pounds in expenses…but he was not reimbursed, and so the money (with compounded interest) is now up to 7.5 billion dollars.

If You Knew Susie is just a smidge less entertaining than the earlier Show Business; it’s a satisfying time-killer but truth be told, I laughed a lot more during Business (the one-liners are stronger).  There are sprightly song-and-dance numbers in Susie (including the title tune, another signature Cantor classic)—thankfully, they get the blackface stuff over with early in an opening number, My, How the Time Goes By…and again, I was fascinated with Joanie’s terpsichorean talents—and they even lift a sequence from Business (the “Sextet from Lucia” opera parody Cantor and Davis do with Murphy and Moore).  But Susie has some strengths in that it’s got a more engaging supporting cast, crammed with character greats like Douglas Fowley, Sig Ruman, Claire Carleton and Fritz Feld, plus the highlight of the picture is a hilarious sequence in which Cantor and Davis’ characters are “kidnapped” by hoods Sheldon Leonard and Joe Sawyer.  (I’d recommend the movie on this alone.)

If You Knew Susie would be Eddie Cantor’s last starring feature film (he produced both it and the earlier Show Business); his last big-time network radio show found him as host of the popular quiz show Take It or Leave It from 1949 to 1950, and after that he became one of the medium’s first celebrity disc jockeys.  The “Apostle of Pep” slowly transitioned into TV as one of the rotating hosts of The Colgate Comedy Hour in the 1950s…but all those years of giving his all took a toll on his health; a heart attack in September of 1952 curtailed his work on the Colgate Hour for a bit and he gradually accepted his role as an elder statesman of show business with sporadic TV appearances before succumbing to another fatal heart episode on October 10, 1964.

Again, I don’t want anyone to think that the purpose of this review was to allow me to get the knives out for Eddie Cantor; while his shtick may have little appeal for the audiences of today, I enjoy watching his movies and listening to him on radio (one of my favorite Cantor showcases is an October 3, 1946 appearance on George & Gracie’s program, in which Gracie schemes to marry their bandleader Meredith Willson to Cantor’s daughter Janet).  Even old-time radio writer-curmudgeon Irving Brecher acknowledged Eddie’s undeniable appeal in Laugh Crafters: “His show worked because he sounded like a guy you knew.  He would appeal to the heart.  He had a certain warmth and spirit.  And it worked.”

3 comments:

Steve Winer said...

I used to know producer Joe (Joseph) Cates who worked on the Colgate show. He told me Eddie kept up his womanizing during the Colgate days-- so who knows what caused that heart attack?

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

He told me Eddie kept up his womanizing during the Colgate days-- so who knows what caused that heart attack?

I know I shouldn't have laughed at this...but I couldn't help it.

Hey, I finally bought the Criterion Blu-ray of The Freshman - looking forward to reading your essay, Steve!

Steve Winer said...

Thanks, Ivan. Let me know what you think.