Cantor’s first movie musical was the film adaptation of his Flo Ziegfeld hit Whoopee in 1930. The movie was pretty much just a filming of the Broadway show with little changes. The score was written by Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson, and it featured Cantor introducing such American song classics as “Makin’ Whoopee” and “My Baby Just Cares for Me”. Not only did this movie give birth to Eddie Cantor’s movie career, but it was also the first movie choreographed by legendary director Busby Berkeley.
Cantor followed that major movie debut with Palmy Days in 1931. Busby Berkeley again directed this musical comedy, but unlike Whoopee, there were not too many songs in the movie. Like his character in his debut movie, Eddie was playing a meek and timid little man, who gets the girl amazingly in the end. There are two songs of note in this film, but they are hardly remembered today. Cantor sang “There’s Nothing Too Good for My Baby” (in blackface) and followed it up with “Yes, Yes”. Like many of Cantor’s films it is not available on DVD, but it should be. He was now making movies exclusively for Samuel Goldwyn, and his next two movies were basically the same. The Kid From Spain (1932) featured Eddie as a timid bullfighter alongside a very young Robert Young. The only noteworthy song was “Look What You’ve Done”. Next up was Roman Scandals (1933) seeing Cantor transformed to Roman times. I really like the score for this film, even though it is pretty much forgotten today. Eddie sings an optimistic Great Depression song “Build A Little Home” when a whole neighborhood is evicted, and he sings “Keep Young and Beautiful” in blackface to a room full of Roman slave girls. Torch singer Ruth Etting also was added to the film, but only appears in one number “No More Love”. It was probably the best moment from the film.
Probably Eddie’s crowning achievement among those 1930s musicals was Kid Millions in 1934. It was a pretty lavish musical by Sam Goldwyn standards. Alongside Eddie was George Murphy, Ann Southern, Ethel Merman, and The Nicholas Brothers. Cantor gets to sing another optimistic number called “When My Ship Comes In”, as well as his normal vaudeville style number “Okay Toots”. However, Cantor introduced the great Irving Berlin song “Mandy” in a blackface number with The Nicholas Brothers. It is a shame that Eddie did not get to introduce more numbers like that in film.
Cantor would make one more musical for Samuel Goldwin, but unfortunately it was the 1936 bomb Strike Me Pink with Ethel Merman. The film I believe was one of Cantor’s worst, and he knew it. He made the movie because he owed Goldwyn one movie before his contract was over. By the late 1930s, Eddie was concentrating on his radio career more than movies. He rounded out the decade making two more forgettable movies: Ali Baba Goes to Town (1937) and Forty Little Mothers (1940) before devoted himself to his radio and charity work.
Eddie Cantor would only make three movies in the 1940s, but they are worth mentioning. He starred in the all-star Warner Brother’s war musical Thank Your Lucky Stars in 1943. Even though Eddie was the star of the film, playing two roles, he only sang one song – “Having a Patriotic Time”. The movie was more of a draw to see some non-singers sing like Bette Davis, Ann Sheridan, and John Garfield. It’s a dated movie by today’s standards, but it is a fun movie to watch. Cantor then moved on to RKO for his last two starring musicals. The film Show Business (1944) is semi-based on Cantor’s life. He performs song great songs that he never recorded like “The Curse of an Aching Heart” and “I Want a Girl”; while he performed some of his vintage numbers from his song book like “I Don’t Want To Get Well” and “Dinah”. The movie paired him with comedian Joan Davis, and reteamed him with George Murphy. Cantor’s third movie of the 1940s was If You Knew Susie in 1948. It was based on Eddie’s 1925 song of the same name. He was reteamed with Joan Davis in the film and despite the cute song “My How the Time Goes By”; the film is pretty much forgettable. Eddie looked tired in the film, and it would be his last starring movie role.
Eddie made cameos in movies like Hollywood Canteen (1945), The Story of Will Rogers (1952), and The Eddie Cantor Story (1953), but health issues and the change in the American movie musical prevented Cantor from ever venturing back into a starring role in movies. Even though today Eddie is lumped in with Al Jolson when talking about dated movies, Cantor’s movies are all worth watching. Unlike Jolson, Cantor did not come off like a ham in his movies. He seemed genuine and warm, which was exactly how Eddie Cantor was in real life. Sure, his movies may be dated, but if you watch Eddie introducing “Makin Whoopee” or singing “If You Knew Susie” to his screen wife Joan Davis, you will be transformed to another time in movie history. Eddie Cantor in his films does make your troubles disappear at least for the short 90 minutes of screen time…