Whoopee! (1930) and Mr. Skitch (1933)
Tonight’s films are examples of two quite different comedies starring two very famous but very different funny men. What the two of them did have in common was that before they became Hollywood stars, they both made it big on Broadway in Ziegfeld’s Follies. Whoopee! is Flo Ziegfeld’s only credited film venture as Co-Producer, along with Sam Goldwyn. In essence, it’s his very successful stage play “Whoopee” (minus the exclamation mark) about a nebbishy hypochondriac preserved on film. And although he made two silent films and two shorts prior to Whoopee!, this is the film that made Eddie Cantor a sensation.
Whoopee! is stocked full of many firsts and the unusual. One of the earliest talkies filmed in two-strip Technicolor it also boasts Buzz Berkeley’s film debut. No one had seen anything like Berkeley’s “dance” sequences before. It’s interesting to read how he came up with his camera technique to film all these lovely, barely clad beauties. And speaking of Hollywood beauties, these lovely maids were given the name Goldwyn Girls. Here we’ll see, at the very beginning of their careers, a 14-year-old Betty Grable—leading many of the lineups, so watch for her face—Virginia Bruce, Claire Dodd—who in my opinion never got enough screen time in any of her films—Paulette Goddard, Jean Howard—who settled down to married life with famous talent agent Charles Feldman and produced a coffee table book in 1989, Jean Howard’s Hollywood—and Ann Sothern. Notice that photography is by Lee Garmes and assisted by Gregg Toland of Citizen Kane fame.
Included in the film is the comic Jewish penchant for Blackface humour; one minority pretending to be another. And just to be inclusive, Native Indians are also featured—but only one of these races or religions is acceptable for intermarriage with Gentiles.
A big question here is: Does Eddie Cantor have sex-appeal? It’s hard to say and even harder to know if he’s supposed to. He is the love-interest for his nurse, Mary Custer, played by stage actress Ethel Shutta who reprised her role for the film. And then there’s the very odd scene between Cantor and Spencer Charters where they are looking down each other’s pants while rolling around on the floor together, supposedly comparing scars.
The humour is slapstick, the jokes are what you imagine you would hear in the Catskills back in the day, there’s singing and dancing and a degree of wackiness. It’s beautiful to look at and I hope you enjoy this comedy from another era.
November 22, 2014
Samuel Goldwyn Company. Produced by Samuel Goldwyn and Florenz Ziegeld. Directed by Thornton Freeland. Based on the play “The Nervous Wreck” by Owen Davis. Screen Adaptation by William M. Conselman. Cinematography by Lee Garmes, Ray Rennahan and Gregg Toland. Film Editing by Stuart Heisler. Dances and Ensembles Staged by Busby Berkeley. Art Direction by Richard Day. Costume Design by John W. Harkrider. Released: October 5, 1930. 93 minutes.
Eddie Cantor…………………………………………………….. Henry Williams
Ethel Shutta…………………………………………………………. Mary Custer
Paul Gregory……………………………………………………………. Wanenis
Eleanor Hunt………………………………………………………. Sally Morgan
Jack Rutherford…………………………………………….. Sheriff Bob Wells
Walter Law…………………………………………………………… Jud Morgan
Spencer Charters…………………………………………. Jerome Underwood
Albert Hackett…………………………………………….. Chester Underwood
Chief Caupolican…………………………………………………… Black Eagle
Dean Jagger………………………………………………………………. Deputy
Marian Marsh………………………………………………. Harriett Underwood
Virginia Bruce, Claire Dodd, Paulette Goddard, Betty Grable, Jean Howard
Ann Sothern………………………………………………………….Goldwyn Girls
Florenz Ziegfeld’s mercurial economic fortunes were temporarily placed on the upswing with the smash hit of the 1928-29 Broadway season. Whoopee! Was boosted by catchy score by Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn, dazzling sets by Joseph Urban, sparkling costumes by John Harkrider (with the usual bevy of beauties to fill them), and a wisecrack-filled libretto by old pro William Anthony McGuire. McGuire based his book on “The Nervous Wreck”, the Owen Davis play about a shy hypochondriac and his encounters with cowboys, Indians, and chorus girls in Arizona. But of all these assets, the greatest was the star: Eddie Cantor, the brightest in Ziegfeld’s populous galaxy of stars. Whoopee! Could have run well beyond its total of 379 New York performances, but when Ziegfeld hit hard times, he had to close the expensive production and sell its rights to the movie people.
Fortunately for posterity’s sake, Ziegfeld allied himself corporately, in the spring of 1929, with one of the few West Coasters who could do his show justice. Samuel Goldwyn, known to fancy himself as “The Ziegfeld of the Pacific,” had been seeking just this kind of extravagant production for his first foray into musicals. As the chiefs of Z and G Corporation, Ziegfeld and Goldwyn would share the producer’s credit for Whoopee! And Kid Boots (which was never filmed as a talkie), although Ziegfeld must have questioned from the first how he would fare in this potential battle of egos. Goldwyn had the deep pockets Ziegfeld needed—and fast, for the latter would be virtually wiped out in the collapse of the stock market. Predictably, the two men argued constantly during the production of Whoopee! Eventually, Ziegfeld was barred from the set, being relegated to little more than a very expensive “adviser” and publicity device.
Most of the Broadway cast came West to make the all-Technicolor film, with the notable exception of Ruth Etting, whose song specialties were independent of the plot anyway. Three of the stage songs were retained—although not Etting’s “Love Me or Leave Me”—and Goldwyn commissioned Donaldson (1893-1947) and Kahn (1886-1941) to write four more, among them “A Girl Friend of a Boy Friend of Mine” and the rousing “My Baby Just Cares for Me.” Ethel Shutta (1897-1976) was brought in to repeat her comedy role as the hypochondriac’s amorous nurse, and the ingénue part was filled, after a lengthy and highly publicized search, by Eleanor Hunt, a chorine in the original show. Cantor (1892-1964) was engaged to reprise his role as the singing-and-joking Henry Williams for $100,000 and 10 percent of the profits. It was a hefty sum for someone whose feature-film career consisted of two silent—Kid Boots (1926), adapted from his stage success, and Special Delivery (1927), both for Paramount—and a specialty number in that studio’s 1929 talkie Glorifying the American Girl. The eye-rolling clown’s penchant for ad-libbed Yiddish jokes, so popular among big-city Jewish theatergoers, raised questions about his salability to the mostly Gentile national movie audience.
Not to worry. Before departing for California, Cantor asked Goldwyn if he would hire Busby Berkeley (1895-1976) as the film’s dance director—a suggestion that would do much to give Whoopee! A place in movie-musical history. Berkeley, born William Enos, was one of Broadway’s leading choreographers, with credits that included Present Arms (in which he also was the lead comic), A Connecticut Yankee, Good Boy and Rainbow. Already, he was playing around with the inventive, kaleidoscopic dance formations that would make him a Hollywood pioneer. Berkeley went West on a train with Cantor and Whoopee!’s adaptor and director, respectively William Counselman and Thornton Freeland. As they endured the five-day trip in the early spring of 1930, they talked about how the stage play could be opened up for the big screen. Recalled Cantor:
“Counselman and Freeland knew so exactly what they were doing that the entire movie was shot in 36 days (actually 43). They explained points of movie technique to me. Certain scenes had to be condensed, the choreography had to be changed completely. Present a line of 32 girls on the stage and you have something highly effective. Present the same line on the screen and the camera has to move so far back the girls become inch-high midgets.”
Goldwyn had some location filming done in Arizona, but that footage appears to be limited to the opening credits and end title. Most of the rest is little more than a filmed play-albeit a very visually attractive one, thanks to the Technicolor and Richard Day’s splashy, Oscar-nominated art direction. The main plot centers on a love triangle that has two men in love with young Sally Morgan (Hunt)—Wanenis (Paul Gregory), a young man of Indian background who has been her sweetheart since childhood, and Bob Wells (John Rutherford), the local sheriff. Wanenis returns from an educational sojourn just as Sally and Bob are about to be married. The pining Wanenis sings “I’ll Still Belong to You” to Sally, who realizes he is her true love. Unwilling to go through with her wedding to Bob, Sally asks the sickly, bespectacled Henry Williams to spirit her away in his broken-down Ford. She hopes to rendezvous with Wanenis, but she leaves behind a note that misleads Bob and his deputies into thinking that Henry is her intended. Henry’s battleaxe nurse, Miss Custer, isn’t too pleased, either, for she’s got a crush on her woman-fearing patient.
Henry and Sally run out of gas in the middle of nowhere, where they encounter the wealthy but perpetually nervous Jerome Underwood (Spencer Charters), whom they “rob” to get the needed petrol. They seek refuge at a nearby ranch, only to discover that it’s Underwood’s, but the owner fails to recognize Henry and delights in comparing surgical scars with his new pal. The deputies arrive, but Henry disguises himself in blackface (a convenient stove explosion alibis Cantor’s trademark appearance) to sing a very spirited “My Baby Just Cares for Me.” Goldwyn biographer A. Scott Berg calls this “one of the most spontaneously joyous moments ever preserved on film, although it helps that Sheriff Bob has a gun to Henry’s stomach, placed there so this so-called stranger can prove his claim that he’s a “singing cook.”
Henry tricks his way out of a primitive lie-detector test devised by Underwood’s college-boy son (Albert Hackett, the future screenwriter), then he escapes with Sally to the local Indian reservation, where he gets sick on the peace pipe offered by Chief Black Eagle (Chief Caupolican). Wanenis, believing that his racial background makes a pairing with Sally impossible, is seriously considering marriage to the chief’s plain-jane daughter. At the climax, an unfortunate nod to social convention, Black Eagle resolves the love plot by announcing that Wanenis isn’t a redskin after all, which send Sally into the young man’s arms and provokes Henry into succumbing to Miss Custer. Cantor reprises “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” then sends everybody home with a spoken “That’s all there is.”
Whoopee! Made Eddie Cantor a movie star, which may baffle modern audiences who can’t cotton to his dated brand of comedy. His Henry has no brains or sex appeal to speak of, yet his energy is absolutely infectious, and audiences were charmed, more or less, by the star’s knowingly incongruous references to his Jewishness. (“An Indian in a Hebrew school?” is Henry’s answer to Wanenis’ statement that he’s been educated “in your schools.”) And besides, Cantor’s way with a song is remarkable. He can explode into something like the up-temp “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” yet treat “Makin’ Whoopee,” the show’s most enduring hit, with the breezy understatement it requires. “One never tires of Mr. Cantor,” wrote The New York Times’ Mordaunt Hall, who did not suffer fools gladly. “Even during those periods of respite, in which the charming showgirls go through their drills and dances, one looks forward to another chance to chuckle and giggle at the ludicrous conduct of the ‘nervous wreck.”
The singing and clowning, and the estimable performers behind them, were mainly what enable Whoopee! To become a critical hit, but it is Berkeley’s multi-angled dance magic that lingers with the modern viewer. Berkeley has been accused of copying many of Ziegfeld’s concepts, and certainly he must have been influenced by the showman’s style. But Berkeley had the added challenge of playing to the camera, and he made the camera take his craft to new heights. He was given free rein by Goldwyn, and his touch is evident right from the opening number, “Cowboys.”
The first note is sung by a very young Betty Grable in her first recognizable appearance in a film. At 16, already having been in the choruses of Fox’s Let’s Go Places, Happy Days and New Movietone Follies of 1930, Grable was found dutifully practicing routines by herself on the set of Whoopee! Here, this cowgirl lassoes an amorous cowhand before the unit forms a dancing triangle—all the easier for the camera to include the whole group—then Berkeley goes overhead for a circular kaleidoscopic effect using the chorus’ members hats. This seems to be the first extended use of the overhead technique, although it was employed briefly and awkwardly in a handful of earlier films, starting with The Cocoanuts. The number is capped by one of those snake-like effects achieved by the well-timed ducking of the dancers’ heads.
The next production number, “Today’s the Day,” is more conventional, although filled with femininity Berkeley so enjoyed, as the soon-to-be-named Goldwyn Girls, adorned in wedding finery, celebrate on the morning of Sally and Bob’s soon-to-be squelched nuptials. “Stetson,” somewhat later, is much more interesting. Shutta kicks off the number with a shimmy-style dance, then Berkeley seeks to bring his faceless choristers some identity. He lines up the Stetsons along a ledge, as the female pop up, one by one, to plop the hats on their heads as the camera pans the row. Then, he places the women in a straight line, dips the hats over their faces, and has them hop toward the camera. Each of them adjusts her hat to reveal her face as the spotlight hits it. The chorus-line close-ups were a musical film first, this only a year and a half after the claustrophobic choreography of On with the Show!
The last dance number, “Song of the Setting Sun,” sung by Caupolican, takes place on the reservation and is right out of the Ziegfeld Follies. The Goldwyn Girls prance around in headdresses and scanty Indian costumes, occasionally gathering for a kaleidoscopic overhead shot. Other dancers show up on horseback from a fashion show-style parade, then the whole group forms an old-fashioned tableau similar to that one seen at the end of Glorifying the American Girl, but it looks better here.
Unlike most filmmakers of the time, Berkeley chose to use a single camera, which prompted a more meticulous planning of his complicated numbers. He explained it like this:
“The art director of Whoopee! Richard Day,…gave me a piece of advice that helped me greatly. ‘Buzz, they try to make a big secret out of that little box, but it’s no mystery at all. All you have to remember is that the camera has only one eye, not two. You can see a lot with two eyes but hold a hand over one and it cuts your area of vision.’ This was very simple advice, but it made all the difference. I started planning my numbers with one eye in mind. …My idea was to plan every shot and edit in the camera.”
The innovations brought Berkeley acclaim, if not immediate work, for musicals were fading despite entries such as Whoopee! Goldwyn spent $1.3 million on the production, but got more than$1.5 million back. He picked up the option on Cantor’s contract, and the star prepared for a second musical, The Kid from Spain. The remaining member of this estimable creative foursome did not fare as well as the others. Florenz Ziegfeld never had another Broadway hit, and financial and health problems continued to dog him. He died, of complications from pleurisy, in 1932. The source material for Whoopee! Was readapted by Goldwyn in 1944 as Up in Arms, which introduced Danny Kaye to the big screen.
Whoopee! survives as a cinematic document of Ziegfeld’s uniquely colorful brand of entertainment, but for a long time after its only re-release (in 1933) it was believed that no prints of it existed. Finally, a print with German subtitles turned up in Czechoslovakia, where it had lingered since the conquering Russians confiscated it from a Berlin archive at the end of World War II. The print was exhibited in New York and Los Angeles in 1971. With interest in the film revived, the Samuel Goldwyn Co. struck a brand-new print from the original negative after two years of restoration. Whoopee! has since found a whole new audience on cable television and in videotape and laserdisc releases.
The First Hollywood Musicals: A Critical Filmography of 171 Features, 1927 Through 1932 by Edwin M. Bradley (1996)
Florenz Ziegfeld’s career had inspired Goldwyn even in his glove days (he was a glove salesman earlier in life). He marveled at the producer’s zeal, how he was always planning his next sow, whether it followed a failure or a success. He admired Ziegfeld’s methods of producing and promoting with dignity—and turning a fancy profit at it.
Ziegfeld closed out the twenties on one of the most impressive rolls in theater history. Besides the annual Follies, his 1927 production of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Show Boat was instantly recognized as a theatrical milestone. He followed that with the hugely successful Gershwin musical Rosalie and Rudolf Friml’s The Three Musketeers. Then he bought Owen Davis’s play The Nervous Wreck, about a hypochondriac who goes west for his health, only to find himself caught up in the confusion brought on by a group of cowgirls, Indians, and an ingénue whose red-skinned lover happily turns out to be a paleface after all. Ziegfeld bought in William Anthony McGuire and tunesmiths Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson to spin it into a musical for his biggest star, Eddie Cantor. The result was Whoopee!
Ziegfeld’s irrepressible flair spilled into his offstage life. His love affairs with the greatest beauties of the day—Olive Thomas, Marilyn Miller, Anna Held—were legendary. The day after meeting Billie Burke, he sent not flowers but an entire shop, including the decorative orange trees that had stood in the window. Budgets were for bookkeepers; he was interested in results. Whoopee!’s dazzling costumes, scenery, showgirls, score, and star made it a smash hit of the 1928-29 season, keeping Ziegfeld on top for another year.
Then the stock market crashed. Ziegfeld had never discussed his investments with his wife, because she did not have a head for money matters. But Billie Burke could not fail to grasp the gravity of their situation that night in late 1929 when he returned extremely late from the theater to their mansion in Hastings-on-Hudson and “sat down heavily on the edge of my bed looking utterly wretched and weary.” There had been setbacks in the past, from which he had always recovered, but she had never seen her husband like this before. Through great struggling sobs, he creid, “I’m through. Nothing can save me.” He had lost more than a million dollars in what Billie Burke later referred to as “the Wall Street unpleasantness.” But he did have some assets he had not yet fully considered.
Whoopee! was precisely the sort of property Sam Goldwyn was looking for. A proven hit on Broadway, it boasted the tasteful extravagance with which he liked to associate himself; and it offered the opportunity to present a new star to the talking screen—the eye-rolling Cantor, who could sell a song as well as a joke.
Ziegfeld was warier of Hollywood than ever. Film producers had already abducted his biggest discoveries: W.C. Fields and Mae West were on the verge of their great fame at Paramount; Will Roger’s popularity was soaring at Fox; Fanny Brice was making musicals for Warners.
Once sound was perfected, “song-and-dance movies” had quickly surfeited the public’s appetite. In 1929, they proliferated so fast that the idea of plotting them was often cast to the winds. Revues, sometimes legitimized by a thin strand of a story, were slapped together. The industry churned out “nightclub musicals” and “Broadway musicals”; the movie capital even turned its cameras on itself and created “Hollywood musicals”—such as MGM’s Hollywood Revue of 1929, in which Buster Keaton, alongside Marion Davies, and a chorus in slickers burst into “Singin’ in the Rain” alongside Joan Crawford. Hollywood’s Roosevelt Hotel, Goldwyn later recalled, “was filled with refugees from Tin Pan Alley.”
Paramount tried to dignify their musicals with strains of European operetta, thereby creating stars out of Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald; MGM hired a baritone from the Metropolitan Opera, Lawrence Tibbett. Hollywood produced two hundred musicals between 1928 and 1930. “The glut of musicals got so bad,” Goldwyn recalled in 1930, “that some theaters were advertising: ‘This picture has no music.’ The Santa Fe Chief was now crowded with songwriters heading back to Tin Pan Alley.”
Goldwyn chose that moment to make Whoopee!—his first musical—with Eddie Cantor and a seven-figure budget. The producer had acquired hit properties in the past, but never one this expensive. Goldwyn himself admitted, “I was told on every side that I was insane,” that the “public is fed up with musicals. You’ll lose your shirt putting that much money into a picture with Eddie Cantor. He was out here in silents, and he didn’t click. They sent him back to Broadway.” Cantor also presented an unspoken ethnic problem. Broadway audiences, a largely Jewish crowd, readily bought Cantor’s act with its throwaway lines in Yiddish; but the movie-going public had not yet embraced so overtly Jewish a performer.
Goldwyn reasoned that Cantor had flopped in his silent pictures at Paramount because, as with Will Rogers, “you have to hear him to appreciate him.” Paramount had already approached Ziegfeld, eager to make Whoopee! with Cantor at their Astoria studio, by the time Goldwyn came to plead for the rights. That day, Ziegfeld called the star to his office, and Cantor remembered Goldwyn’s arguing “that if a picture could be made well in Long Island it could be made ten times better in California, where there was greater experience, top technicians, and the natural scenery (horses and Indians) indispensable to a Western—which ‘Whoopee’ in part was.” Goldwyn said he was even willing to film the picture in Arizona, because “you need Indians and there you can get ‘em right from the reservoir.”
Disregarding the occasional malapropism, Cantor found that Goldwyn “talked with complete confidence and know-how.” The star made up his mind on the spot “that if I was going into talkies, this Goldwyn was for me.”
Ziegfeld had his reservations. He did not want to relinquish the property without maintaining control over the film, and he knew Goldwyn’s history with previous partners. Goldwyn’s doubts ran just as deep, for he had happily produced on his own since 1923. But each of the producers needed to make the deal.
It was a simple swap of cash for cachet. Upon the information of Z & G Productions, one partner quickly emerged as more equal than the other. Goldwyn gave the desperate Ziegfeld the ambiguous title of co-producer and little else. He agreed to relieve hi of considerable financial burden by assuming the contracts of as many Ziegfeld personnel as he could employ. He also paid Ziegfeld for his rights to the play and for his services as producer and he promised him 20 percent of the profits. At that, Ziegfeld would have to take second position as a profit participant—after Eddie Cantor, who was signed to reprise his role as the nervous Henry Williams for $100,000 plus 10 percent of the profits.
While the Ziegfeld orchard was ripe for the picking, Goldwyn caught his new partner’s latest British import, Noel Coward’s Bitter Sweet, and was thoroughly taken with its star, a blue-eyed blonde named Evelyn Laye. Without even having a property in mind for her, he signed her to a contract. To turn the film debut of Britain’s leading musical comedy star into an event, Arthur Hornblow helped Goldwyn get Louis Bromfield—a best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist—to write the story for an operetta. He threw together a trifle in which a flower girl in Budapest masquerades as a cabaret singer, falls in love with a prince, and evades his premarital sexual advances by singing duets with him. Goldwyn’s in-house Pulitzer Prize winner, Sidney Howard, agreed to write the screenplay. Rudolf Friml wrote the music.
With three Ronald Colman productions for the year also in the works, Goldwyn had reached his loan limits at Dr. Giannini’s Bank of America. He asked Joe Schenck for one million dollars, figuring Art Cinema would bankroll Goldwyn’s productions to keep up UA’s supply of product. For half the profits, Art Cinema agreed to fund both musicals. Then Schenck learned that Goldwyn budgets demanded close to two million dollars.
Schenck told Goldwyn he never would have agreed to both pictures had he known their costs would run so high. He asked Goldwyn to excuse him from one of the films. Within two weeks, Sam chose one and arranged for the Bank of America to back the other. The financial plan confirmed that Goldwyn’s primary goal in making Whoopee! was prestige more than proceeds. Even if the film recouped its negative costs, any profits beyond Cantor’s and Ziegfeld’s shares now had to be split with Joseph Schenck.
From day one, Ziegfeld and Goldwyn argued over every detail of the film’s making. One claimed expertise in mounting musicals, the other in making motion pictures. The project became an education for each of them. “Sam listened humbly to the Great Ziegfeld,” writer Alva Johnston noted; “but when decisions were made, the Great Goldwyn made them.” To make matters worse for Ziegfeld, one company executive explained, “Goldwyn is the kind of man who, if he understands what you tell him, thinks he thought of it himself.”
While a small army was being assembled for the production of Whoopee!, Arthur Hornblow sent Goldwyn a detailed memorandum proposing a plan of “elemental military organization,” which “if adhered to by everybody in the organization from the top to the bottom, will not only insure an orderly and prompt disposition of many technical problems, but also insures your being personally kept completely informed and in command of everything.” It called for all aspects of the film to be assigned to one of five divisions—motion picture direction, art direction, dance direction, costume direction, and musical direction, The five division heads would meet every day, passing the notes of their sessions on to the commander in chief. In the three pages of single-spaced strategy, Florenz Ziegfeld’s name was never mentioned.
Only the ampersand in Z & G Productions held the two partners together through the making of Whoopee! The tension of working with Goldwyn and the opening of a new show on Broadway led to Ziegfeld’s being ordered by his doctor to go to Florida for a short rest—“to prevent a complete nervous breakdown.” Even that did not stop the partners from bickering on all five production fronts. Western Union’s wires burned for weeks. The arguments started when Ziegfeld suggested which women might co-star in Whoopee!—all big talents from the New York stage, including Lillian Roth, Adele Astaire, and Ruby Keeler. Goldwyn dismissed them all out of hand, insisting his partner’s ideas were only causing “delays and heartaches.”
“NOW FLO,” Goldwyn wired when Ziegfeld announced he was on his way to Los Angeles, “AS TO YOUR COMING OUT HERE YOU KNOW I HAVE UNLIMITED RESPECT FOR YOUR TALENTS AS A PRODUCER BUT WHETHER YOU REALIZE IT OR NOT YOU ARE ENTIRELY UNFAMILIAR WITH MOTION PICTURE REQUIREMENTS AND PROBLEMS STOP WHAT IS SCARING ME IS THAT WHEN I ANALYZE YOUR SUGGESTIONS I FIND THAT THEY ARE MADE WITHOUT ANY REGARD TO SCREEN REQUIREMENTS.” Turning the casting into a crisis was just a gambit on Goldwyn’s part. Many telegrams later, he revealed his real point: “YOU ARE ACCUSTOMED TO FOLLOW YOUR OWN IDEAS IN PRODUCING AND SINCE I CANNOT ACCEPT DIVIDED AUTHORITY I CANNOT IN ALL FRANKNESS SEE HOW YOUR COMING OUT OFFICIALLY AS A COPRODUCER COULD WORK OUT STOP THERE ARE MY HONEST FEELINGS CONCERNING YOUR PARTICIPATION IN THE MAKING OF WHOOPEE.” Still, Goldwyn said, he would love Flo to make the trip—“NOT AT THE EXPENSE OF THE PRODUCTION BUT AS MY PERSONAL GUEST AND AS AN OBSERVER WITHOUT ANY RESPONSIBILITY ON YOUR PART.” Ziegfeld returned to New York instead.
To mollify his partner and prove he was handling the material properly, Goldwyn arranged for his script writers to meet with the impresario. “I AM READY AND WILLING TO HELP YOU IN ANY WAY THAT I CAN,” Ziegfeld wired Goldwyn on March 5, “BUT WHEN YOU BROUGHT ME THE TWO FELLOWS TO MY OFFICE AND THEY READ ME THEIR CONCEPTION OF WHOOPEE FOR A PICTURE ELIMINATING EVERYTHING IN IT THAT WAS ANY GOOD AND CONVINCING ME WITHOUT ANY QUESTION OF A DOUBT THAT THEY KNEW NOTHING ABOUT A MUSICAL SHOW I KNEW THEN THAT IT WOULD BE HUMANLY IMPOSSIBLE FOR ME TO GET MY CONCEPTION OF WHOOPEE ON THE SCREEN AND PUT IN A CAN THE SENSATION THAT I HAD PRODUCED FOR THE STAGE.”
All the writers seemed to talk about was “motivation”—that every song or dance had to grow organically out of plot or character. All Ziegfeld could see of the screenwriters’ work was that “WHEN THEY GET ALL THROUGH THEY HAVE MOTIVATED EVERYTHING THAT WAS ANY GOOD IN THE SHOW RIGHT OUT OF IT AND ALL THEY HAVE LEFT IS MOVING PICTURE TECHNIQUE.” Of the original sixteen songs from Whoopee!, little more than the title song would make it to the screen. Several new tunes were written, including the infectious Charleston “My Baby Just Cares for Me.” Sung by Cantor in blackface—unmotivated—it stands out as one of the most spontaneously joyous moments ever preserved on film.
When one of the writers pruned some of the stage-tested comedy routines, Goldwyn heard from yet another of the film’s participants. “BELIEVE IT BEST FOR SUCCESS OF PICTURE THAT I HAVE A HAND IN WRITING OF SCRIPT,” wired Eddie Cantor from Chicago, where he was touring in Whoopee! Goldwyn sent the writers to Chicago.
After considerable debate with Ziegfeld, Goldwyn finally agreed to another of Cantor’s sugestions, his choice for the film’s dance director. Thirty-four-year-old William Enos had recently choreographed Earl Carroll’s Vanities and, using the toe-tapping moniker Busby Berkeley, had danced in several Shubert productions. Goldwyn was hesitant to hire Berkeley because of an alleged drinking problem, but he did.
The night Whoopee! closed in Cleveland, Cantor and Berkeley went to Child’s restaurant, where the choreographer sketched designs for the major dance numbers on the back of a menu. The next day, they boarded a train along with Conselman and director Thornton Freeland for Hollywood, where the young dance director was, in Cantor’s words, “to revolutionize the making of musical films.” They talked their way across the country, “for there were many changes to be made in transposing ‘Whoopee’ to the screen.”
…the choreography had to be changed completely. Present a line of thirty-two girls on the stage and you have something highly effective. Present the same line on the screen and the camera has to move so far back the girls become inch-high midgets.
Berkeley already had in mind several techniques that were to become his trademarks, including the use of chorus girls making kaleidoscopic patterns when filmed from overhead. He had also dreamed up an ingeniously simple way of showing off the beauty of his dancing girls in their opening Stetson-hat number: The camera would hold on just one of them in close-up, and she would fall away, revealing another pretty girl, and so on down the line.
Ziegfeld came to Hollywood that April. “For Flo it was a letdown,” observed Eddie Cantor. “Here was a man who was potentate, who had created a domain and ruled it. Now, suddenly, he had little to do. But the advent of talkies had interested him in Hollywood as he had never been interested before—to the extent that he allowed me to call in a friend of mine to act as his agent and help promote a position for Flo in a major studio. Any studio would have engaged him save for one thing—they feared his fabulously expensive tastes.” Ziegfeld realized that his Goldwyn connection was, in fact, the best he could get, even if that required kowtowing. Once Goldwyn realized that Ziegfeld had knuckled under, he assured him in a telegram: “DON’T WORRY I WILL DO EVERYTHING IN MY POWER TO MAKE YOUR TRIP HERE AS PLEASANT AS I KNOW HOW.” The Goldwyns introduced the Ziegfelds to the Hollywood community; but at work, Sam used Flo only for publicity purposes, starting with a big reception at the train station.
The Ziegfelds moved, at first, into a cottage in the Outpost Estates of Hollywood, in the hills above the Goldwyns. But Flo, recalled his wife, “with his sure instinct for the lavish, immediately discarded this” in favor of a house just across the tennis court form Marion Davies’s oceanside mansion. “Daddy and Mr. Goldwyn would talk for hours about show business,” remembered Ziegfeld’s daughter, Patricia, “but they were worlds apart in their outlooks. Mr. Goldwyn had his eye on the penny, Daddy on the effect, and they never managed to agree.”
Ziegfeld did teach Goldwyn a lesson he would carry for the rest of his career, one of the secrets behind the success of the Follies: Women enjoyed looking at beautiful women in beautiful clothes, the glorification of their gender. Goldwyn decided to assemble his own chorus line, which he christened the Goldwyn Girls. He told the press is criteria were beauty, personality, talent, self-confidence, and ambition. “They must have one other characteristic,” Goldwyn later told an interviewer. “I have always insisted that every Goldwyn Girl look as though she had just stepped out of a bathtub. There must be a kind of a radiant scrubbed cleanliness about them which rules out all artificiality.”
Several of the first Goldwyn Girls quickly found their ways out of the chorus—Virginia Bruce, Claire Dodd, and Ernestine Mahoney (who,as Jean Howard, became one of the town’s famous beauties and married a young, handsome agent, Charles Feldman). One other girl, with extremely shapely legs—only sixteen and living with her mother—was picked. Busby Berkeley saw Betty Grable as the first face to appear in the Stetson number. She stood out as a little more determined than the rest, already bent on stardom and compensating for her inexperience with hard work. Young Betty practiced dance routines alone in the rehearsal halls long after the other girls had gone home. “We all had that kind of energy,” Jean Howard said, recalling those early days of the Depression, when Hollywood seemed to be the world’s last oasis of luxury. “And, of course, we were all so grateful just to be working.”
Most of the personnel at the studio at Santa Monica Boulevard and Formosa Avenue was suddenly new. Fresh faces of actors in their twenties had all but replaced the gods of the silent screen. In the three and a half years after the collapse of Wall Street, the four United Artists stars produced a total of six films—Gloria Swanson’s last two, forgettable films for the company; two feeble talkies with Douglas Fairbanks (including his valedictory Private Life of Don Juan); Mary Pickford’s final screen appearance, Secrets, 1933; and Chaplin’s City Lights, in 1931.
There were important changes behind the scenes as well. Goldwyn hired a thirty-five-year-old Canadian-born art director, a captain from the world war who had broken into movies as a set painter, then worked with von Stroheim. His name was Richard Day. His versatility and sharp eye for realistic detail would make him one of the most indispensable members of the Goldwyn production team. He worked on all but one of Goldwyn’s next thirty films, contributing as much as anybody to the understated elegance endemic to Goldwyn pictures. The United Artists music department, under the direction of fifty-one-year-old Hugo Riesenfeld, also needed new blood. A transfusion came from New York in February 1930, which affected every one of Samuel Goldwyn’s films for the next decade and the very nature of music in films for generations to come.
Alfred Newman was born in 1900 in New Haven, Connecticut, the eldest of ten children of two Russian-Jewish immigrants. His father was a produce dealer; his mother, a cantor’s daughter, encouraged her firstborn to study piano. One day, she sold Alfred’s dog to make the weekly payment on the Emerson oak upright.
By the time he was eight, Alfred revealed prodigious talent at the keyboard, and several teachers offered him scholarships. He made his musical debut in 1916 and received auspicious notices. At the time of the birth of their tenth child, Luba and Michael Newman separated, leaving eighteen-year-old Alfred the family’s breadwinner. Concert halls did not offer the quick financial returns of theaters, so Alfred took a job at the Stand, playing piano in brief pop concerts before nightly features and in the pit accompanying the films. At twenty, Newman had become the musical director of George White’s Scandals of 1920. Revues gave way to bigger musicals, and through the twenties, Newman was conducting and arranging musicals by no less tha the Gershwins, Harry Ruby, and Jerome Kern.
In November 1929, Rodgers and Hart’s Heads Up opened, with Newman at the podium. The show was hardly into its run when Joseph Schenck offered him a three-month job as music director on Irving Berlin’s projected new musical for United Artists, Reaching for the Moon. Berlin—who had led the caravan of Broadway composers from New York—was familiar with Newman’s stylish arrangements and had recommended him.
Reaching for the Moon was in complete disarray when Newman arrived in Hollywood. The future of the film in doubt, producer Joseph Schenck offered Newman’s services to Sam Goldwyn, who was looking for his own man to oversee Ziegfeld’s music director.
Goldwyn appreciated music but knew absolutely nothing about it. That Irving Berlin, his gin rummy and backgammon partner from New York, liked Alfred Newman was enough recommendation for Goldwyn to hire him; that Newman had conducted the works of Gershwin made him in Goldwyn’s eyes a genius. Newman agreed to work on Whoopee!, then stayed to work in Hollywood for another forty years.
Whoopee! was ready to film except for the hiring of the two female leads. Goldwyn claimed to be no longer interested in any of Ziegfeld’s opinions, but at the last minute he engaged two actresses from the Broadway production. Ethel Shutta (whom Ziegfeld had proposed from the start) was signed to repeat her role as the comic love interest, and Goldwyn promoted Eleanor Hunt from the Ziegfeld chorus to leading lady. Players from the stage version filled the rest of the picture’s featured roles.
Ziegfeld was present during the prerecording of songs and the filming of Whoopee! in his capacity as “technical adviser,” but Goldwyn never solicited his advice. Even so, the film increasingly reflected Ziegfeld’s taste, as Goldwyn absorbed his thoughts and made them his own. Whoopee!’s cast, costumes, and scenery all revealed the Ziegfeld touch. When the co-producers quarreled again about the importance of color to the production, Goldwyn heeded Ziegfeld and ordered the daring use of two-strip Technicolor, one of the earliest examples of the technique on film.
Although Whoopee!’s budget was an extravagant million dollars more than that of the average musical, it was so well rehearsed that director Thornton Freeland filmed it in forty-three days, $150,000 under budget. As one of the few Broadway musicals of the twenties to be adapted to the screen, Whoopee! remains one of the most telling fossils of that extinct genre—with all its nonsensical convolutions of plot, unexplained comedic star turns, and burstings into song. “’It’s a Ziegfeld production, only better,’ Goldwyn liked to say,” recalled assistant director Lucky Humberstone.
Whoopee! also created a major movie star. Eddie Cantor became one of the few Broadway musical performers ever to attract a following onscreen. In presenting a goodhearted little chap (slightly better off than Chaplin’s tramp) whose innocence leads him into life-threatening scrapes, he instinctively scaled down his performance once he stepped before the camera. His famous eye-rolling and hand-clapping became simple gestures, tossed off with ease. When the hypochondriacal Milquetoast pulled off his spectacles and strutted into the show’s title song, Cantor seemed to pop right off the screen. His contagious optimism and charming self-deprecation suffused him with star power.
It pained Goldwyn to share the credit for Whoopee!’s success with Ziegfeld. The more he spoke of the film, the less frequently he mentioned his partner’s name, until finally it never came up at all.
Whoopee! was a sensation. After two years of play dates, United Artists reported gross rentals on the film in excess of $2.3 million. Z & G Productions received 70 percent of that. After deducting the film’s costs, and Cantor’s and Ziegfeld’s royalties, $216,000 profit remained, half of which went to Art Cinema, which had put up the money in the first place. The remaining half was profit for Goldwyn. That plus his Colman pictures gave Frances Goldwyn good reason to sleep soundly. Her husband had netted another million dollars that year.
Whoopee!, Goldwyn later noted immodestly, “brought the musical film back.” After its success, all the studios renewed their search for musical performers who—like Cantor—could project their stage talents on the screen with effortless energy.
“The Ziegfeld of the Pacific” was a new title conferred on Goldwyn after Whoopee! A year earlier, the sobriquet would have flattered him; now it flustered him. Goldwyn swore to himself never to take on another partner. Except for bookkeeping, Z & G never did business again.
Goldwyn: A Biography by A. Scott Berg (1989)
The Jolson figure escapes ethnic imprisonment in The Jazz Singer. Cantor Rabinowitz, fixed in a traditional identity, sings Kol Nidre as ritual. His grown son, ethnic only in performing the sacred number, can take or leave his ethnicity; in The Singing Fool, he may seem to leave it behind. The feminization of the black man, however, also leaves its mark on Jolson’s singing fool. As if to take back the jazz singer’s triumph, the singing fool (like the protagonist in most Jolson films to follow) remains a supplicant. Jewishness placed a limit on the gentile dreams Jolson could interpret to his mass audience. A liminal figure, he was not permitted full, patriarchal authority. For the Jew to perform his transitional functions in classic Hollywood, linking immigrant to American and man to woman, he had to know his place. That is the message of the comedy that brings together ethnic and sexual cross-dressing, blackface and the myth of the West—Eddie Cantor’s Whoopee!
Whoopee! begins where The King of Jazz ends, with a western production number. Instead of dancing out of a melting pot, here cowgirls join with cowboys to form the spokes of a human wheel. But Busby Berkeley’s wagon wheel explicitly performs the function the melting pot pretends not to do: like drawn-up covered wagons, the wheel excludes those outside its circle. The first outsider is Henry (Eddie Cantor), a hypochondriacal Jewish weakling out of place in the West. The second is Wanenis, the Indian in love with Sally, the white girl whose marriage to Sheriff Bob the wagon wheel number celebrates. Indian and Jew come together, like Asian and Spaniard in Old San Francisco, as those threatened by American progress.
Unlike Old San Francisco, however, Whoopee! dwells on the relationship between the excluded rather than substituting one group for the other. The comic tie between Indian and Jew places Whoopee! in a tradition of Jewish/Indian spoofs, from Yiddish theater and vaudeville to Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles (1974), productions that typically mock the white man’s tragic, noble savage, intermarriage story. The first movie in which Cantor starred, Whoopee! may also derive from Cantor’s friendship with the part-Cherokee “cowboy,” Will Rogers, who wrote the introduction to Cantor’s autobiography. The jazz singer, first successful in San Francisco, exemplifies the Turner thesis, for Jack Robin loses his ethnic particularism on the frontier. When the Jew goes west as vaudeville Jew—as Eddie Cantor—he at once facilitates and subverts the melting pot.
Whoopee! disturbs not just ethnic and racial boundaries but, like The Singing Fool, sexual ones as well. Cantor’s stereotypical Jew is a timid neurasthenic. If the high intermarriage plot brings together white girl and noble savage, the low one makes Henry the target of sexually aggressive (“I like weak men”) Nurse Custer.
Whoopee! makes humor from the outsider status of Indians and Jews. Indian burlesque was a vaudeville standard; Fanny Brice sang “I’m an Indian” in Yiddish, and Cantor’s first job was in a review called “Indian Maidens.” “I’m only a small part Indian,” Wanenis tells Henry. “How small?” “My grandfather married a white girl.” “So did mine,” responds Henry. He is speaking as a white man, but since Jews were “Oriental,” racially stigmatized, and themselves the protagonists of intermarriage plots, the joke has a double edge. Is or is not this “half-breed,” as Henry calls himself, a member of the group into which Wanenis wants to marry? “I’ve gone to your schools,” Wanenis explains to Henry. “An Indian in a Hebrew school?”
Whoopee! also makes fun of the opposite crossover, the Indianization of whites, by making its Dances with Wolves a Jew. After a captivity narrative spoof places Henry and Sally among the Indians, Wanenis’s father (“Old Black Eagle, not old man Siegel,” sings Cantor to the tune of Jerome Kern’s recent Show Boat hit, “Old Man River”) invites Henry to join his tribe. Disguised as an Indian (“Me big chief Izzy Horowitz), Henry adopts a Yiddish accent to haggle over the price of an Indian blanket and doll he is selling to a rich white man. The message is that Jews would have gotten a better price for their land. Ads for Whoopee! show Cantor wearing Indian feathers, but, as in the movie, redface does not disguise but rather calls attention to the Jew under the costume. Claiming to be an Indian fire chief, Henry holds a Pueblo wall scaler and his nose: “Here’s my hook and ladder.”
Degrading physical humor and violations of bodily integrity spread from ethnic jokes to sexual relations. Henry takes pills and receives injections from Nurse Custer. He and the rich white man roll around on the ground examining each other’s operation scars. When the half-naked Wanenis appears in Indian feathers, Henry subjects him to a minute, intimate, physical inspection. These plays with the grotesque body, borrowed from blackface minstrelsy and Cantor’s vaudeville shows, mock genteel romance. But male body contact is made respectable by being mobilized for intermarriage. “Making Whoopee,” the song whose ridiculous pun joins Indian war dances to sexual play, comes down on the side of marriage. Conjugal fidelity disciplines indiscriminate heterosexual pleasure in the song’s lyrics, and polymorphous, homoerotic perversity in the movie’s subtext.
In response to Black Eagle’s invitation to join the tribe, Henry reinstates the intermarriage plot by bringing up Pocahontas. “Pocahontas saved John Smith,” responds Black Eagle. Henry asks, “Why didn’t he do something for his brother Al?” New York governor Al Smith, dubbed by Franklin Roosevelt “the happy warrior,” was Cantor’s boyhood hero—“as if the lady of the Statue of Liberty had sent her own son to receive these poor, bewildered immigrants,” the actor wrote in his autobiography. Before viewers have time to reflect on Henry’s joke—the failure of Pocahontas (and, by extension, the melting pot) to save Al Smith from anti-Catholicism in the 1928 presidential election—Henry goes on: “And I don’t meal Al Jolson.” Cantor, like Jolson, achieved stardom through blackface, so the reference to the two Als brings ethnic prejudice alongside racial masquerade.
Blackface is the fulcrum at the center of Cantor’s multiple cross-dressings. “I brought my negro friend up north,” Cantor wrote of his blackface persona, by “add[ing] an intellectual touch to the old-fashioned darkey of the minstrel shows.” Cantor’s trademark character was “the cultured, pansy-like negro with spectacles”; Cantor and the “whitest black man I ever knew,” the African American blackface vaudevillian Bert Williams, appeared as “Sonny and Papsy.” As a blackface performer Cantor was ambiguously male/female and black/white; he played Salome in drag and moved from man to woman to black eunuch in a slave harem in the movie Roman ScandalsI.
As it facilitates intermarriage in The Jazz Singer, so blackface brings Whoopee!’s Indian and white lovers together. Henry, helping Sally escape her wedding to Sheriff Bob, hides in an oven. When the stove is lit, he explodes out in blackface. Like Whiteman’s lion, Jolson’s mammy, and the prototypical exaggerated blackface mouth, the oven associates blackface with primitive orality. The disguise fools Sheriff Bob and encourages Sally to confess her love for Wanenis. Promoting anarchic violence against the forces of law and order, blackface also facilitates intermarriage in the low plot. Cantor sings “My Baby Just Cares for Me” in blackface, and sings it again sans cork to Nurse Custer to end the film. Transforming Jew from frightened melancholic into violent trickster, blackface shifts the meaning of “cares for” from nursing to sex. When Sheriff Bob tries to wipe Henry clean, he leaves him with what looks like Orthodox Jewish earlocks and beard.
Racial cross-dressing promotes ethnic intermarriage in The Jazz Singer and Old San Francisco; Whoopee! may seem to bless racial intermarriage as well. Indians, to be sure, were not universally the targets of intermarriage taboos. As the John Smith-Pocahontas story attests, Indian-white intermarriage was one way to provide the white presence in the New World with a native ground. Nonetheless, racist hostility certainly extended to Indians. “My one drop of Indian blood makes your people hate me,” Wanenis explains to Sally. Whoopee!’s spoof of the one-drop theories of racial contamination that flourished in the Jazz Age acknowledges the racial prejudice buried in The Jazz Singer and dominant in Old San Francisco and The King of Jazz.
When, parodying the intermarriage melodramas, Black Eagle wants Wanenis to return to the ways of his people, the combination of traditional loyalty and white prejudice seems to doom the romance. But faced with the love between Wanenis and Sally, Black Eagle reveals that Wanenis has not even a drop of Indian blood; a parodic descendant of James Fenimore Cooper’s Oliver Effingham, he is a foundling the chief raised as his own child. Wanenis may not know it, but, like Henry, he has been masquerading as an Indian. As in the plot of Rudolph Valention’s Sheik, the dark object of female desire turns out to be white beneath his mask. Whoopee!, like The Jazz Singer, celebrates racial cross-dressing, not miscegenation. The amalgamation that gives birth to a distinctively American culture substitutes for the mixing of blood.
Nineteenth-century melodramas pitted Indian fathers against those chosen for marriage by their children. These plays, antecendents for The Jazz Singer and Old San Francisco, were transferring legitimacy from descent to consent, in Werner Sollor’s terms—from parental tribalism to the melting pot. That permission giving was done in bad faith, however, since the victors who wrote the dramas were the ones who conferred the Indians’ blessing on those who took their place. Whoopee! spoofed the entire tradition.
Turning Wanenis white is parodic; unlike Old San Francisco or King of Jazz, Whoopee! does not eliminate the racial in favor of the ethnic group. The Indian/Jewish confusion proleptically ridicules Hollywood for eliminating Jewish characters from movies—for Sam Goldwyn explaining, “A Jew can’t play a Jew. It wouldn’t look right on the screen”—such that only Jews in front of the camera at Harry Cohn’s Columbia Pictures were said to be playing Indians. Nor does Whoopee!, like the other movies discussed here, put technological innovation in the service of new identities. Even the dance numbers, Busby Berkeley’s first Hollywood productions, are, like the movie as a whole, self-mocking. Whoopee!, with its blackface and redface masquerades, remains in the technologically more primitive, anti-illusionistic, vaudeville and early silent movie tradition.
Even so, Whoopee! participates in the tradition it ridicules. By making savages noble and confining the Jew to slapstick, Whoopee!’s plot privileges the racial over the ethnic minority, but its method has the opposite effect. Although Cantor’s stereotyping may edge into anti-Semitism, it is the vehicle for Jewish self-expression. Like the vaudeville routines and Vitaphone shorts of Lou Holtz, George Burns, Gregory Ratoff, and George Jessel, Cantor’s performance helped shape a recognizable, authentically Jewish-American milieu. No Indians, by contrast, will recognize themselves in the cardboard straight men and women for Jewish Humor. Wanenis has not a drop of Indian blood, and the other actors playing Indians are palefaces too.
Cantor’s blackface does not even pretend to depict real blacks. Whoopee!’s blackface is Jewish, its redface (Cantor aside) is goyish—to borrow Lenny Bruce’s distinction between mocking, physicalized signifiers and pious, disembodied ones—for the film privileges an urban-minority voice over the racially based, homogenizing, melting-pot myth of the West in The King of Jazz and Old San Francisco. Race is the assimilating vehicle for ethnic disappearance in the other movies; in this one it supports Americanizing ethnic self-assertion.
Cantor gains power over his ethnicity by performing it. Signifying on his Jewishness, however, playing with the stereotype rather than challenging it, is also a sign of the narrow constraints within which he was able to assert his ethnic identity. Jews remain tarred by the masks (Cantor’s comic or Jolson’s tragic) that win them acceptance in the promised land. The sexual cross-dressing implied in Jewish neurasthenia and male horseplay may point either to polyphony or, as in The Singing Fool, to the limits of Jewish liminality. But however one evaluates the transgressions in Whoopee!’s ethnic and sexual carnivalesque, the movie, it is necessary to say, provides no vehicle for non-white self-expression. Bad taste is its virtue, but Whoopee! plays with, mocks, and operates wholly inside the ethnic, sexual, and racial hierarchies of Jazz Age America.
Blackface carried Cantor from the slum to the stars. It had, however, “become an inseparable part of my stage preence,” Cantor wrote in his autobiography, titled My Life Is in Your Hands, “and feared that the day might come when I could never take it off. I would always be Eddie Cantor, the blackface comedian, but if I ever tore the mask off I’d be nobody at all.” Resolving that “I was not going to be a slave to a piece of burnt cork for the rest of my acting days,” Cantor convinced Florenz Ziegfeld to let him appear in whiteface. Unlike African Americans, inadvertently invoked by Cantor’s refusal to be a slave, the white man inn blackface could change the color of his skin. It was the first time I felt revealed to the audience and in personal contact with it,” Cantor confessed. In Cantor’s initial whiteface skit, which stole the show at the 1919 Ziegfeld Follies, a doctor subjected him to an invasive physical exam. The comedian connected that exposure to a later routine, “in essence” the same as the initial one, that turned on his Jewish identity. Cantor’s free association moves him from the stage doctor’s into the audience’s hands. The Jazz Singer escapes his Jewish past in blackface. Cantor, thanks to blackface, can finally reveal himself to the mass audience as a Jew.
Like the jazz singer, however, the urban Jew finds a southern home. Cantor’s autobiography ends with “the slum boy of the tenements” preparing to embark on the stage production of Whoopee! and, “a modern pioneer,” buying a house in Great Neck, Long Island. Cantor’s neighbor is Nathan S. Jonas, “an imposing gentleman with a trace of Southern aristocracy” who has planted a “boxwood garden reminiscent of Southern estates” and developed “one of the most beautiful and exclusive country clubs in America.” “Space and time are the slaves that tremble under the wand of wealth,” writes Cantor, and these modern slaves allow the financier to “return to the simple and primitive” pastoral life. Cantor is incorporated into the family homecoming, for the boy who at the age of two had “floundered in the streets of New York, fatherless and motherless,” writes that he is “now sitting in a flower-laden bower with my parents. Mr. and Mrs. Nathan S. Jonas have become father and mother to me.”
If Cantor’s autobiography lacked the comic courage of Whoopee!”s convictions, the Marx Brothers supplied it. Cantor’s plantation refuge could well have been the Long Island estate the polyglot immigrants invade in Animal Crackers (1930), where the socialite, Roscoe W. Chandler, is really “Abie the peddler,” and where Groucho, taking off on Henry M. Stanley, plays Geoffrey T. Spalding, “the noted explorer returning from Africa.” (“Hurray for Captain Spalding, the African explorer; did someone call me schnorrer?”) “I wish I was back in the jungle, where men are monkeys,” says Groucho. Africa has elephant tusks; “Of course, in Alabama there’s the Tuscaloosa.” Then, in a “program…coming to you from the House of David,” the barbershop quartet of Grouch, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo lament and replace their lost home. They mangle, not the version of “Swanee River” that helped launch the Jazz Age, written by one East European Jew and performed in blackface by another—not Gershwin and Jolson’s “Swanee”—but the original Stephen Foster minstrel ballad, “Old Folks at Home.”
Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot by Michael Rogin (1996)
The Marx Brothers were not the only Jews to succeed once the movies had sound. Ediie Cantor made some one-reelers, such as Getting a Ticket (1929), which is essentially an excuse to film a vaudeville skit about a police officer who wants to give Cantor a ticket unless Cantor can prove he is really Eddie Cantor by singing a song. In Whoopee! (1930), the first of six films he made for Samuel Goldwyn, Cantor sang songs and appeared in blackface. He wore a disguise as a Native American, one who spoke in a Yiddish accent and identified himself by saying “Me Big Chief Izzy Horowitz” in a distinctly Jewish chant. Whoopee! was quite successful in New York, but less so in such places in Chicago, Louisville, and Seattle; Cantor’s reliance on his clearly Jewish character was inhibiting his wider approval. So, like the Marx Brothers, over time Cantor steadily de-emphasized the Jewish aspects of his film personality, a process the social critic Irving Howe called “de-Semitization.” This attempt at assimilation, which producers forced to try to sell pictures to wider audiences, became more and more pronounced.
Whooopee! Dealt with intermarriage The Jewish Cantor character, Henry Williams, is in love with his Gentile nurse, whereas the other white female in in love with Wanensis (whom she believes to be a Native American). The Jewish-Gentile relationship was in fact common in popular entertainment and reflected a widespread belief that in the melting pot that was America, love was more important than ancient religious traditions.
Jewish audiences found this premise troubling. In the 1930s and ‘40s, very few American Jews intermarried. Jewish comedians, on the other hand, frequently married Gentile women (for example, George Burns, George Jessel, Phil Silvers, all the Marx Brothers, and Bert Lahr). Had the American Jewish community known that Jewish comedians were prophetic in their romantic attachment to Gentiles, perhaps the concerns would have been greater, but interfaith marriages did not risse precipitously until the beginning of the 1960s; by 1990, more than half of Jews who were getting married chose a Gentile partner. The comedians did not see themselves as romantic Jewish forerunners. They saw themselves as Ameicans and did not want to endanger their assimilationist success by reverting to a traditional pattern of Jewish life. Not always handsome, Jewish male comedians found themselves able to date and wed beautiful Gentile women. The lures of Gentile America were powerful indeed.
At the end of Whoopee! the white—Native American romance is able to proceed only when Wanensis’s Native American parents reveal that their son is actually white, that he was left as a baby and raised in the tribe. This retreat from confronting a difficult issue takes away from the power of the film, but clearly raises the question of what exactly the melting pot is willing to melt. Whoopee! also contains a scene that, in retrospect, is quite disturbing. At one point Cantor crawls into an oven and comes out in blackface, enabling him to sing. The blackface remains offensive, but the scene of a Jew in an oven is horrifying after the Holocaust. Amazingly, a similar scene is in the later Cantor film Kid Millions (1934). The first time Cantor appears he is hiding in an oven—and he has a brother in the film named Adolf. Cantor also appears in blackface in this film during “Minstrel Night.” The plot, about Eddie’s character inheriting $77 million, is weak. Eddie plays a reluctant groom (“A wedding is a funeral where you smell your own flowers”). At one point, he does say to an Arab sheik, “Let my people go,” but that is about the only Jewish reference.
The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America by Lawrence J. Epstein (2001)
Buzz’s’ agent in New York was William Grady Sr. He worked for the William Morris Agency and Fielded requests for the talented dance director’s services. During rehearsals of The International Revue, Bill Grady rushed into the theater and interrupted Buzz, who was directing from the theater box. Eddie Cantor had contacted William Morris, who had in turn contacted Grady with an incredible opportunity.
“Buzz, how would you like to go to the West Coast—I mean Hollywood,” said Bill.
Buzz, who wasn’t at all impressed with musical pictures in the new era of sound, replied hastily:
“No you can have your Hollywood musicals. They don’t know how to do them out there. They show a lot of girls dancing and then cut to the milkman kissing the maid ‘good morning’ and then cut back to the dance again. That’s no way to do musical sequences.”
Undismayed, Bill shot back, “Would you be interested if I had a good star?”
“Okay, how about Eddie Cantor?”
“Yes, that’s all right. Who are the producers?”
“Ziegfeld and Samuel Goldwyn.”
Buzz bit Bill’s lure: “That’s good…what’s the show?”
Whoopee was the big hit of Broadway’s 1928-1929 season. It was typically Ziegfeldian, with sparkling costumes and spectacular stagings. The luster dulled after the market crash, and the legendary impresario lost more than $1 million. “Ziggy” told his wife, stage star Billie Burke, “I’m through. Nothing can save me.” That’s when Samuel Goldwyn swooped in like an angel. He was looking for a good story to film, and his timing couldn’t have been better. Ziegfeld disdained Hollywood vulgarity and already carried a grudge when some of his biggest stars, such as Will Rogers and Fanny Brice, bolted for Los Angeles. But Ziegfeld’s bargaining power had diminished, and he sold Whoopee to Goldwyn with the guarantee that Eddie Cantor would remain with the show. It was also agreed that Cantor would remain with the road show through March 1930. In one of the many notes that Eddie wired to Goldwyn, he urged the hiring of Busby Berkeley, and shortly thereafter Bill Grady gave Buzz the news.
Bill escorted his client to the William Morris office. A phone call was made to producer and studio founder Samuel Goldwyn in Hollywood. Goldwyn confirmed that he had purchased the rights to film Whoopee and that Eddie Cantor and Florenz Ziegfeld were attached to the project. Buzz thought more money would be in the offing, but Goldwyn promised him nothing beyond his current Broadway salary of a thousand dollars per week, and he let Buzz know that working in Hollywood was a priceless opportunity. Actor, singer, and motion picture star in talking pictures Al Jolson, who had wandered into the area where Buzz, Bill, and Sam Goldwyn were conversing, helped seal the deal. “Go on, Buzz, take the thousand. What do you care? They’ve got golf courses out there five minutes from the studio, the ocean at your back door, beautiful beaches, sunshine every day.” On Jolson’s prodding, Buzz accepted a one-picture deal from Goldwyn. He told Gertrude (his mother) of his plans to work on just this one film and return to New York when he was finished. Esther (his current wife) was thrilled with the news, for she imagined her career trajectory included motion pictures.
She and Buzz were in Cleveland with Eddie Cantor when Whoopee closed, and they went to Childs Restaurant, where, on the back of a menu, Buzz sketched designs for the major dance numbers. The next day they, along with Thornton Freeland, the film’s director, boarded a train for Hollywood. Berkeley would revolutionize the making of musical films, said Eddie. Buzz, Eddie, and Thornton spoke together frequently during the three-day trip about the many changes that would be required to take Whoopee from stage to screen.
The New York Herald Tribune’s theater critic Ray Colman had a notion when he wrote presciently the previous year: “What that boy Buzz Berkeley would do in pictures if they ever give him the reins and holler “Gid-dap!’ He sure would make a few of those boys and girls out there raise plenty of Hollywood dust, or I don’t know that Christmas comes in December.”
Before Buzz arrived in Hollywood, Sam Goldwyn had him privately investigated. He was hesitant to hire him because of an alleged drinking problem. Whoever relayed that information to Goldwyn is a mystery, but Ziegfeld knew Berkeley prior to his involvement with Whoopee! He had wanted Buzz to dance-direct a show a couple of years earlier, but Buzz had been busy with the Earl Carroll Vanities. It’s quite likely that anecdotal accounts of Buzz’s indiscretions were passed between Sam and “Ziggy” in private dinner conversations. Goldwyn overlooked his trepidation and sent a greeting party from his studio and the West Coast office of the William Morris Agency to meet Buzz and Esther at the Los Angeles depot. The couple checked into the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, and later both were driven to the Goldwyn Studios to meet its founder. Goldwyn told Buzz he was glad to have him on board for his (Sam’s) first musical picture. He instructed Buzz to learn the studio ropes, wander about the sets, ask questions, and observe.
Buzz walked on the set and studied the lights and cameras. The picture’s art director, Richard Day, came up to him when he saw the cinema neophyte looking perplexed. “Buzz, they try to make a big secret out of that little box, but it’s no mystery at all. All you have to remember is that the camera has only one eye, not two. You can see a lot with two eyes, but hold a hand over one and it cuts your area of vision.” Buzz thought that, instead of being restricted by the single eye, there were unlimited things you could do with a camera. But Goldwyn hired Buzz to stage the musical sequences, not shoot them. He soon approached the studio chief and made his case for directing his own numbers. Goldwyn balked somewhat before asking Buzz if he thought he could handle it all. “Mr. Goldwyn, I don’t think I can, I know I can,” said Buzz. Same gave him the benefit of the doubt and made Thornton Freeland aware of the personnel change.
On the first day of shooting, Buzz walked onto the set with the same braggadocio he had displayed in A Connecticut Yankee. He saw four cameras in different areas of the set, each manned by its own crew. When he had spoken with Richard Day, he hadn’t thought of four cameras with a single eye. He asked his assistant why so many were needed. He was told that the cutters (editors) would assemble the footage from each camera and splice together the finished product. “That’s not my technique,” announced the braggart. “I only use one camera so let the others go.” Buzz never revealed to the crew that he couldn’t get his mind around four cameras rolling at once. Unrecognized, even to him, was that his “technique” was pure and unencumbered. He envisioned his numbers being captured by the single eye to the point that a cutter needn’t bother with footage from other cameras. Buzz planned to direct in the camera, complete and in sequence. It was a remarkably austere method. Shoot a segment, move the camera, and film another linearly until the number was finished. Surely, Buzz was urged, the four-camera setup could have accomplished the same thing once the editors assembled individual takes, but Buzz didn’t think along those lines. The single camera was his appendage, an extension of his mind’s eye, and the tool that carved the cornerstone of his art.
A brief exterior shot of cowboys on horseback opens Whoopee! and the action moves to an obvious stage set, nicely dressed in warm colors with an artistically rendered sky of deep blue. It isn’t long before a young cowgirl (an unbilled thirteen-year-old named Betty Grable) shows her lasso prowess while belting out “The Cowboy Song,” Buzz’s first filmed dance number. It’s a full-ensemble piece as Grable and the other identically dressed cowgirls maneuver in regimented line formations across a wood floor with alternating brown hues. Joining the girls are the uniformly outfitted cowboys, and as Buzz films them from various angles it’s a thrill to hear and see the dancers’ feet stomping in unison. Buzz’s first top shot shows two concentric circles moving in opposite directions as the girl in the center stares upward toward the lone camera. A new formation has each man holding up a cowgirl, and in a move known on the stage as a “wave,” each girl in quick succession bends downward to the waist and up again, giving the dance line an appearance of a sine wave on an oscilloscope. A second top shot is even more impressive as the circling dancers wave their giant Stetson hats back and forth. A final shot of the men lifting a half-dozen cowgirls is peered through the spread legs of hoisted girls in the foreground. Only four minutes into the film, and camera angles, points of view, blocking, dancing, and other accentuations announced a distinctive cinematic arrival.
And then Whoopee! begins in earnest, and Thornton Freeland’s pedestrian directing brings the opening frenzy to a deflated stop. Eddie Cantor is Henry Williams, a hypochondriac who would always try to best someone complaining of their surgical scars. He accidentally gets between the soon-to-be-wed Sheriff Bob Wells (Jack Rutherford) and Sally Morgan (Eleanor Hunt). Sally really loves the half-Indian Wanenis (Paul Gregory), and runs away with Henry, leading to a series of misplaced assumptions and identity changes, as Henry assumes disguises in Indian garb and blackface.
The writing is witty, and Cantor delivers many sharp jokes, but Feeland’s conception of the action never escapes the tacit boundaries of the stage. Characters enter from stage left, say their lines, and exit stage right. Jokes are told and paused for expected laughter. Only when the ensembles take center stage under Berkeley’s command do the cinema and the cinematic converge.
In Buzz’s second filmed ensemble, the short and lovely “Mission Number,” church bells herald a wedding processional as the Goldwyn Girls in bridesmaids dresses pass before Buzz’s singular eye in pleasing formations. They move in slow, tightly defined, circular groupings tossing flower petals and providing a path for Betty Grable as she leads other dancers past the girls out of camera range. There’s restraint in the staging as Buzz keeps the camera grounded while making the performers’ movements symmetrically interesting.
The “Stetson” number opens as singer/dancer Ethel Shutta performs a few steps with six whoopin’ cowboys. The scene shifts to center stage as Stetsons are placed, one at a time, on a ledge, and then the empty hats pop up, each with a smiling girl underneath it. In single file, they jump, jump, jump down the staircase and assume a new interesting position. With his camera low to the ground and the girls standing, they spread their legs into an archway formation. Buzz’s camera rests passively as the arch of the legs moves in front of and passes the camera in little jump steps. A grid pattern is then formed, and each girl cleverly passes and retrieves her Stetson while tapping to the score. The a simple but profound setup that Buzz claimed to be his singular contribution to the movie musical up to that point unfolds: “I introduced the big close-ups of beautiful girls,” he boasted. “It had never been done before in musicals.” As he was setting up his shot one day, Same Goldwyn came to the set and asked Buzz what he was doing. “Making close-ups of the girls as they come into the camera,” he replied. And the result of that planning is one of Buzz’s immortal cinematic epitaphs. One at a time, in medium close-up, a girl inches toward the camera, a Stetson hiding her face, and in turn each moves the hat to her head, revealing a big smile before the next hidden face is unveiled. This seemingly simple act, a close-up of a succession of faces, somehow was never considered filmable in the stiff and stagy musicals that Buzz had seen and disdained. On a 1930 theater screen, it was a revelation of sorts to view glamorous film dancers desirably up close and almost obtainable.
“The Song of the Setting Sun,” Buzz’s fourth and final number for Whoopee! is a staging of an ersatz Indian ceremonial dance. Another visually dynamo top shot features the girls raising and lowering their feathered headdresses while moving in clockwise formation. Following next is a passing parade of girls, each adorned with elaborate feathers, posing as if they were models in a Native American fashion show. Then girls on horseback enter, led down a fake mountainside, the copious feathers on each head ample enough to threaten a winged species with extinction. (One has her feathers carried by two men like a long bridal train.) For his final shot, Buzz placed the camera in an ideal position to view the spectacle as if seen from the vantage point of a Broadway audience. As the entire ensemble is positioned in every area of the frame, Busby Berkeley established the clearest link between his theater staging and the newfound freedom that only the camera can define and celluloid can capture.
As filming progressed, it was Buzz who often gave Sam Goldwyn advice. He instructed his boss on ways to save money on wardrobe and accessories (avoiding real materials like leather whenever possible). Buzz and other studio employees found Sam an irresistible target for practical jokes. In a reply to Mr. Goldwyn on why shooting hadn’t begun for a particular scene, Buzz said the wardrobe hadn’t sent down the leotards for the horses. Sam didn’t question the inanity of Buzz’s reason. He immediately phoned the wardrobe department and demanded the horse leotards. Befuddlement surely struck the recipient of Sam’s frantic call.
Even as Buzz was finishing Whoopee!, on June 12 it was announced that he was to sign a year’s contract with options for Paramount Pictures. Reportedly, Buzz would move to the Paramount lot after staging dances for Irving Berlin’s Reaching for the Moon at United Artists, starring Bebe Daniels and Douglas Fairbanks.
The Technicolor Whoopee! Completed filming in late June, seven days behind schedule, and was previewed in San Diego in July. Apart from the invigorating contributions of a nascent motion-picture dance director with a funny name, the title’s appended exclamation point is about the only thing that changed from stage to screen. Flo Ziegfeld went with Eddie Cantor to the preview and urged him to give up Hollywood for another stab at Broadway. “Wait till we see the picture, Flo,” said Cantor; “If I squeeze your hand, we’ll talk about another show.” There was no squeeze. The Berkeley numbers sold the film. Cantor’s original contract with Goldwyn stipulated one additional picture if Whoopee! was successful. On July 19, he received a new contract for three films. “There is much for the eyes to feast on in the various scenes,” wrote Mordaunt Hall in the New York Times. Audiences enjoyed the unusual perspectives in Buzz’s numbers. His top shots were exciting and unique, with interesting, eye-appealing formations in the best use of the effect to date.
Buzz left Sam Goldwyn’s employ on good terms. He let Goldwyn know of his new job at Paramount, and at the time of his departure there was no talk of a future association with the studio or Eddie Cantor. Though Whoopee! was regarded as a success upon its release, musical films in general were suffering a steep decline in interest. Buzz went to Paramount, got introduced all around, and spent his first two weeks on salary in a quiet office twiddling his thumbs waiting for something to do.
Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley by Jeffrey Spivak (2011)
So excellent is the fun furnished by Eddie Cantor in the Ziegfeld-Goldwyn Technicolor screen adaptation of “Whoopee,” which was presented last night at the Rivoli before a smart audience, that those who had been compelled to fight their way through the throng on entering the theatre soon forgot their annoying experiences once the picture was under way. In this production Mr. Cantor’s clowning transcends even Mr. Ziegfeld’s shining beauties, the clever direction and the tuneful melodies. And this is saying a great deal, for there is much for the eyes to feast on in the various scenes.
Messrs. Ziegfeld and Goldwyn have had the wisdom to permit humor to hold sway and this results in this film being a swift and wonderfully entertaining offering, a feature that should prove to motion picture chieftains that such attractions are well worth all the trouble taken in production, despite the subordinating of the popular romantic theme.
The narrative which serves Mr. Cantor so well is a version of Owen Davis’s play, “The Nervous Wreck,” and possibly the episode that elicited most laughter was that in which Mr. Cantor, as Henry Williams, a hypochondriac, ventures to mix the batter for waffles. The ingredients that Williams tossed into a large bowl aroused shrieks of merriment from the female spectators, who were at first highly delighted at his mere breaking of eggs with a nut-cracker and then throwing them into the bowl, shells and all. But the further additions to this mélange convulsed the audience, and it seemed fortunate that a moment of serious relief finally was afforded.
It is a picture in which one never tires of Mr. Cantor. Even during those periods of respite, in which the charming showgirls go through their drills and dances, one looks forward to another chance to chuckle and giggle at the ludicrous conduct of the “nervous wreck.” Henry Williams does not content himself with threatening giant cowboys with pistols and running away with the Sheriff’s bride-to-be, but he also airs his injured or worried soul with periodical outbursts of song.
This may be but a prismatic picture of one of Mr. Ziegfeld’s ambitious stage productions, but it is none the less effective, particularly as it has been directed with an eye for photographic angles and values.
The locality where this bountiful supply of hilarity occurs is on an Arizona ranch, which gives the producers the opportunity of showing colorful groups of Indians and be-chapped and quart-hatted cowpunchers, besides the importation of gorgeously gowned, smiling girls. It matters not where the characters are, if they feel inclined to hazard a song there is an unseen orchestra that accompanies them, which the spectator is apt to think fortunate for all concerned.
Henry Williams believes he has virtually every ailment under the sun, but he goes on as vigorously as anybody in the list of characters, now and again remembering that it is high time that he take some potion or other. His nurse rather resents his leaving abruptly, but Henry Williams dares a great deal to save Sally Morgan from being wed to the domineering Sheriff Bob Wells.
At one juncture Henry Williams senses that it is high time that he made himself scarce from the invaders. So he hides in the oven, forgetting that he had turned on all the gas jets. Some silly cowboy comes along and lights the gas and just as Sheriff Wells is thundering that no white man must be permitted to cross such and such a path, Henry Williams emerges from the oven, with his face as black as the ace of spades, but accomplished as neatly as the make-up of any minstrel man.
The Technicolor work is of the best, there being only a few scenes in which the images are apparently out of focus. This prismatic feature contributes a great deal in depicting the regalia of the Redskins as well as in enhancing the attractiveness of the costumes of the girls. There are fascinating groups of dancers, photographed from directly above, that are remarkably effective and, even when sections of Arizona look a little stagey, the color pleases the eye, even though it does not always help the illusion.
Paul Gregory renders several songs as Wanenis, the hero with Indian blood in his veins. Eleanor Hunt is pleasing as Sally. John Rutherford is vehement as Sheriff Bob Wells. Chief Caupolican is amusing as the Chief Black Eagle and Ethel Shutta makes the most of Mary Custer, Henry Williams’s nurse.
The New York Times Review by Mordaunt Hall., October 1, 1930
Blogs written by other film enthusiasts:
A Classic Movie Blog by KC on June 14, 2010:
Pre-Code.Com: Celebrating Pre-Code Hollywood Cinema, 1930 to 34 by Danny on March 4, 2012:
Once upon a screen: a classic film blog by Aurora on October 27, 2014:
MR. SKITCH (1933)
Now that you’ve seen Eddie Cantor’s contribution to comedy near the beginning of his film career, it’s time to look at a Will Rogers’ film closer to the end of his, as his life ended in 1935 in a plane crash.
Will Rogers was a world-famous American humorist, political pundit and movie star. He was born in Oologah, Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) on November 4th, 1879. He was a quarter Cherokee and considered himself Indian as most mixed-bloods did. His father was wealthy, owning 60,000 acres of land but which ended in 1902 when the Cherokee senate had agreed to accept the end of tribal government and of the communal land system. Will started roping before he was seven, practicing endlessly on an oak stump in his backyard and eventually his father let him help rope calves for branding. This skill was how Will broke into show business, first with cowboy shows and eventually trying his luck in New York where he became a success. It wasn’t just his roping act that made him a Broadway star, it was also his personality, his witticisms and his humility. It was also a dichotomy that he was considered a Cowboy when in fact, he truly was an Indian.
In Mr. Skitch, Will Rogers leads an interesting cast. The wonderful Zasu Pitts, of the fluttery hands, plays his wife. Florence Desmond, someone I had never heard of or knowingly seen before, was an English stage actress who was a wonderful mimic. You will get to enjoy her imitations of some famous people in this film! Harry Green was also a comedian who usually played a funny Jewish character. As in tonight’s first film, there’s also an inter-religious romance happening here as well. Last, there’s Eugene Pallette to round out the funny men in the cast.
Then there’s the young love interests, Rochelle Hudson and Charles Starrett. In 1933, Hudson was only 17 when she played Emily Skitch and had mostly been the voice of Honey in the animated Bosko shorts up until then. Starrett, 13 years her senior, began working in Hollywood in 1930, and in 1936, signed with Columbia, making 115 westerns over the next 16 years. In 1945, he became The Durango Kid which lasted until he retired from film in late 1952.
This was Glorea and Cleora Robb’s, who played the twins Winnie and Minnie, only film. I think you will see why!
There is one similarity in tonight’s films. Each has a scene where both cars are travelling through mountains on a twisting trail where they encounter a second vehicle. Not viewing the films so close together, it looked like they were both stopped at the same place; maybe even the same set?
Again, I hope you are entertained by this seldom-watched film.
Fox Film Corporation. Directed by James Cruze. Based on the story “Green Dice” by Anne Cameron. Screenplay by Sonya Levien and Ralph Spence. Cinematography by John F. Seitz. Costume Design by Rita Kaufman. Set Design by William S. Darling. Released: December 22, 1933. 70 minutes.
Will Rogers…………………………………………………………. Mr. Ira Skitch
Rochelle Hudson………………………………………………….. Emily Skitch
Zasu Pitts………………………………………………….. Mrs. Maddie Skitch
Florence Desmond……………………………………………………………. Flo
Harry Green………………………………………………………….. Sam Cohen
Charles Starrett………………………………………………….. Harvey Denby
Eugene Pallette……………………………………………… Cliff Merriweather
As for his human companions, they were at least entertaining. The Follies cast in 1916-1918 included the great singer Fanny Brice; the black performer Bert Williams, who in his early vaudeville days had helped start the coon song and cakewalk crazes, and who Gene Buck thought was the greatest comedian he had ever seen; and Ed Wynn, a scene-stealing buffoon known as “The Perfect Fool.” Will’s principal cohorts were two other Follies comedians, Eddie Cantor and W.C. Fields. Although Cantor later claimed that the trio was so close that Ziegfeld dubbed them “the three musketeers,” that they “were ready to lay down their laughs for one another,” this is certainly a piece of after-the-fact mythologizing: Cantor was a prodigious sentimentalist.
Which is not to say that he and Will weren’t friends. They had first met on the Orpheum circuit in 1912, when Cantor, a banjo-eyed, loose-limbed native of the Lower East Side (real name: Isidore Itzkowitz) was part of Gus Edwards’s “Kid Kabaret.” (George Jessel was in the troupe, too.) Cantor joined the Follies as a featured comic five years later, and on opening night his number “That’s the Kind of a Baby for Me” stopped the show. Will came by his dressing room to offer congratulations and found Cantor sobbing on his dressing table: His beloved grandmother, who had raised him, had died a few months before, and he was devastated that she hadn’t been there to see his triumph. Will’s response, according to Cantor, was to say, “Now Eddie, what makes you think she didn’t see you? And from a very good seat?” As far as Cantor was concerned, that clinched it; from then on, he idolized Will.
Their performing styles were diametrically opposed–where Will’s shtick was limited to the head scratch and the grin, Cantor would do anything to sell a song or a routine: wear blackface, make effeminate gestures, take pratfalls, roll his eyes, mug, do accents–but in matters of living, he later wrote, “Rogers was my grammar school, high school and college. He taught me that the world doesn’t end at the stage door and that politics are every man’s business, actors not excluded. He kept on giving me an education as long as he lived.” He also introduced Cantor to the pleasures of chili (just a Cantor introduced him to kosher cooking), but the main courses of instruction were in the importance of family–Cantor would eventually have five daughters, to whom he was very and publicly devoted–and charity. In his early Follies days, Will began what would be a lifetime habit of contributing heavily, in both benefit performances and anonymous donations, In this respect Cantor would, if anything, outstrip the master.
Will Rogers: A Biography by Ben Yagoda (1993)
Although Will Rogers was famous (or notorious) for being director-proof and for using his scripts only as a rough guide, translating dialogue and comedy business into his own particular idiom, he still needed good directors and solid scripts even if their presence was often hidden. It’s no coincidence that his best films were the three he made with John Ford—or that his worst were four or the five that he made in the last year of his life (1935) when the formula was wearing thin, and when Fox were content to hand him routine scripts and average directors on the theory that he’d pull off a salvage operation and come up with an acceptable and pre-marketed commodity. In 1935 he did hold his own via sheer weight of personality in such dull films as In Old Kentucky, The Country Chairman, Doubting Thomas and Life Begins at 40 and was helped tremendously by Ford’s Steamboat Round the Bend, one of his—and Ford’s—best pictures. But the magic was evaporating; his tragic death renders futile any conjecture about what his career might have become, although a co-starring vehicle with Shirley Temple would seem to have been a certainty. In 1933 at any rate, he was still riding high, his pictures offering both variety and quality. Mr. Skitch, directed by silent veteran James Cruze (The Covered Wagon), who also directed another well-liked Rogers talkie, David Harum, is amiably uneventful but often charming and very funny, due no little to the better-than-average comedy material given to Zasu Pitts and the balancing comedy of Florence Desmond, the brilliant British comedienne whose imitations of well-known personalities (including Zasu Pitts!) are strikingly accurate yet free of malice. If there is a complaint we can level against the film today it is the annoying use of back-projection and studio-work for a story dealing with a cross-country automobile trip. But bear in mind that the NY-California auto vacation had been a growing fad ever since the mass production of the auto and the improvement of roads. Silent films had been full of such jaunts as a basic plot-line, from 2-reel Sennett comedies like Hoboken to Hollywood to regular features like Rubber Tires. By the early 30’s, even though the depression had added dramatic values to the purely comic ones, the plot was basically useful only as background motivation for Rogers, as here, or for W.C. Fields in It’s A Gift. There was no novelty value in location shooting, so for economical reasons it was kept to a workable minimum. If not absolutely top Rogers, Mr. Skitch is well up in the second echelon, and a good example of Rogers’ skill in making accurate comments on the current social climate without in any way losing sight of the fact that he was an entertainer. Mr. Skitch is valuable both as a film holding up a mirror to a social problem (some seven years ahead of The Grapes of Wrath) and as a thoroughly representative Rogers vehicle.
The New School Notes by William K. Everson (November 5, 1971 and July 20, 1977)
A number of twins were submitted to Will Rogers for parts as two of his children in the 1933 movie “Mr. Skitch.” But he knew right away he wanted the Robb sisters — Glorea and Cleora.
A news release from that time states after several submissions, Will said, “I want little girls that look like little girls.” The search ended with 11- year-old Glorea Jean and Cleora Joan getting the parts.
The 88-year-old twins will be Grand Marshals of the Will Rogers Days Parade Saturday Nov. 6. Their younger sister, Louanne, 78, will accompany them. She played in “The Will Rogers Story,” which starred Will Rogers Jr.
They will be special guest s for “Night at the Museum,” a ticketed event for Friends of Will Rogers on Friday night (“Mr. Skitch” will be playing throughout the evening) and for a public reception Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon at the Will Rogers Memorial Museum. The parade down Will Rogers Boulevard will begin at 4 p.m.
“Mr. Skitch,” a screen comedy, starring Will Rogers with Zasu Pitts, is the story of Mr. Skitch, head of a family of six. He embarks on an automobile tour in hopes of regaining the family fortune lost in a bank failure. He gets a casino job and parlays the first dollar he earns into $3,000 — which his wife promptly loses in an auto camp.
Penniless, he takes his brood and heads for Hollywood where he will become the manager of a movie star impersonator. He finally digs out of his financial difficulties in Hollywood.
The twins were special guests in August when the Will Rogers Ranch Foundation, Pacific Palisades, Calif., hosted events in tribute to Will Rogers on the 75th anniversary of his death in an Alaskan plane crash. They attended a showing of “Mr. Skitch” at the ranch, where Will lived at the time of his death. It coincided also with the opening of the Will Rogers Historical Park Visitors Center and a fund-raising polo event on Aug. 15.
“Mr. Skitch” plays Oct. 6 and Oct. 26, in the Claremore Will Rogers Memorial Mini-Theatre, where a different movie plays every day.
“Mr. Sketch” is available in the Memorial Museum Store as a single or in a four-box set.
For additional information about the Will Rogers Memorial Museum or Birthplace Ranch at Olga, visit the website www.willrogers.com, or call 341-0719.
http://willrogersmemorial.blogspot.ca/ posted by Rick Mobley
William Penn Adair “Will” Rogers (November 4, 1879 – August 15, 1935) was an American cowboy, vaudeville performer, humorist, social commentator and motion picture actor. He was one of the world’s best-known celebrities in the 1920s and 1930s.
Known as “Oklahoma’s Favorite Son,” Rogers was born to a prominent Cherokee Nation family in Indian Territory (now part of Oklahoma). He traveled around the world three times, made 71 movies (50 silent films and 21 “talkies”), wrote more than 4,000 nationally syndicated newspaper columns, and became a world-famous figure. By the mid-1930s, the American people adored Rogers. He was the leading political wit of the Progressive Era, and was the top-paid Hollywood movie star at the time. Rogers died in 1935 with aviator Wiley Post, when their small airplane crashed in Alaska.
Rogers’ vaudeville rope act led to success in the Ziegfeld Follies, which in turn led to the first of his many movie contracts. His 1920s syndicated newspaper column and his radio appearances increased his visibility and popularity. Rogers crusaded for aviation expansion, and provided Americans with first-hand accounts of his world travels. His earthy anecdotes and folksy style allowed him to poke fun at gangsters, prohibition, politicians, government programs, and a host of other controversial topics in a way that was appreciated by a national audience, with no one offended. His aphorisms, couched in humorous terms, were widely quoted: “I am not a member of an organized political party. I am a Democrat.” Another widely quoted Will Rogers comment was “I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.”
Rogers even provided an epigram on his most famous epigram:
When I die, my epitaph, or whatever you call those signs on gravestones, is going to read: “I joked about every prominent man of my time, but I never met a man I dident [sic] like.” I am so proud of that, I can hardly wait to die so it can be carved.
Wikipedia (to read more about Will Rogers, click on link)
Eliza Susan Pitts was born in Parsons, Kansas to Rulandus and Nelly (née Shay) Pitts; she was the third of four children. Her father, who had lost a leg while serving in the 76th New York Infantry Regiment in the Civil War, had settled the family in Kansas by the time ZaSu was born.
The names of her father’s sisters, Eliza and Susan, were purportedly the basis for the nickname “ZaSu”, i.e. to satisfy competing family interests. She later adopted the nickname professionally and legally. It has been (incorrectly) spelled as Zazu Pitts in some film credits and news articles. Although the name is commonly mispronounced /ˈzæzuː/ ZAZ-oo or /ˈzeɪsuː/ ZAY-soo, or /ˈzeɪzuː/ ZAY-zoo, in her 1963 book Candy Hits (p. 15), Pitts herself gives the correct pronunciation as “Say Zoo” /ˈseɪzuː/, recounting that Mary Pickford had predicted, “[M]any will mispronounce it”, and adding, “How right [she] was.” In 1903, when she was nine years old, her family moved to Santa Cruz, California, to seek a warmer climate and better job opportunities. Her childhood home at 208 Lincoln Street still stands. She attended Santa Cruz High School, where she participated in school theatricals.[
Pitts made her stage debut in 1914–15 doing school and local community theater in Santa Cruz. Going to Los Angeles in 1916, at the age of twenty-two, she spent many months seeking work as a film extra. Finally she was discovered for substantive roles in films by screenwriter Frances Marion. Marion cast Pitts as an orphaned slavey (child of work) in the silent film, The Little Princess (1917), starring Pickford. Years later, she was the leading lady in Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924). Based on her performance, von Stroheim labeled Pitts “the greatest dramatic actress”. He also featured her in his films The Honeymoon (1928), The Wedding March (1928), War Nurse (1930) and Walking Down Broadway, which was re-edited by Alfred L. Werker and released as Hello, Sister! (1933).
David Butler and Zasu Pitts look lovingly at each other while Jack McDonald glares in a scene still for the 1919 silent drama “Better Times.”
Pitts’ popularity grew following a series of Universal one-reeler comedies and earned her first feature-length lead in King Vidor’s Better Times (1919). The following year she married her first husband, Tom Gallery, with whom she was paired in several films, including Bright Eyes (1921), Heart of Twenty (1920), Patsy (1921) and A Daughter of Luxury (1922). In 1924, the actress, now a reputable comedy farceuse, was given the greatest tragic role of her career in Erich von Stroheim’s 9½ hour epic Greed (1924). The surprise casting initially shocked Hollywood, but showed that Pitts could draw tears with her doleful demeanor as well as laughs. Having been extensively edited prior to release—the final theatrical cut ran just over two hours—the movie failed initially at the box office, but has since been restored to over four hours and is considered one of the greatest films ever made.
Pitts enjoyed her greatest fame in the 1930s, often starring in B movies and comedy shorts, teamed with Thelma Todd. She played secondary parts in many films. Her stock persona (a fretful, flustered, worrisome spinster) made her instantly recognizable and was often imitated in cartoons and other films. She starred in a number of Hal Roach shorts and features, and co-starred in a series of feature-length comedies with Slim Summerville. Switching between comedy shorts and features, by the advent of sound, she was relegated to comedy roles. A bitter disappointment was when she was replaced in the classic war drama All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) by Beryl Mercer after her initial appearance in previews drew unintentional laughs, despite her intense performance. She had viewers rolling in the aisles in Finn and Hattie (1931), The Guardsman (1931), Blondie of the Follies (1932), Sing and Like It (1934) and Ruggles of Red Gap (1935). In the 1940s, she found work in vaudeville and on radio, trading banter with Bing Crosby, Al Jolson, and Rudy Vallee, among others. She appeared several times on the earliest Fibber McGee and Molly show, playing a dizzy dame constantly looking for a husband. Her brief stint in the Hildegarde Withers mystery series, succeeding Edna May Oliver, was unsuccessful, however.
In 1944, Pitts tackled Broadway, making her debut in the mystery, Ramshackle Inn. The play, written expressly for her, fared well, and she took the show on the road in later years. Post-war films continued to give Pitts the chance to play comic snoops and flighty relatives in such fare as Life with Father (1947), but in the 1950s she started focusing on television. This culminated in her best known series role, playing second banana to Gale Storm on CBS’s The Gale Storm Show (1956) (also known as Oh, Susannah) in the role of Elvira Nugent (“Nugie”), the shipboard beautician. In 1961, Pitts was cast opposite Earle Hodgins in the episode “Lonesome’s Gal” on the ABC sitcom, Guestward, Ho!, set on a dude ranch in New Mexico. In 1962, Pitts appeared in an episode of CBS’s Perry Mason, “The Case of the Absent Artist”. Her last role was a switchboard operator in the madcap Stanley Kramer comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).
Pitts was married to Thomas Sarsfield Gallery from 1920 to 1933. Gallery, an actor, became a well-known Los Angeles boxing promoter and later a TV executive. The couple had two children: Ann Gallery (born 1922) and Donald Michael “Sonny” Gallery (né Marvin Carville La Marr), whom they adopted and renamed after the 1926 death of his mother and Pitts’ friend, silent film actress Barbara La Marr. In 1933, she married John Edward “Eddie” Woodall, with whom she remained until her death.
Declining health dominated Pitts’ later years, particularly after she was diagnosed with cancer in the mid-1950s. However, she continued to work until the very end – making brief appearances in The Thrill of It All (1963) with Doris Day and James Garner, and as a cameo switchboard operator in the “Santa Rosita Police Department” ‘s office in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. She died June 7, 1963, aged 69, in Hollywood and was interred at Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City. Pitts wrote a book of candy recipes, Candy Hits by ZaSu Pitts, which was published posthumously in 1963.
Zasu Pitts was inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame on February 8, 1960. Her star can be found on the south side of the 6500 block of Hollywood Boulevard. In 1994 her place in the pantheon on silent film stars was affirmed when she was honored with her image on a United States postage stamp along with luminaries Rudolph Valentino, Clara Bow, Charlie Chaplin, Lon Chaney, John Gilbert, Harold Lloyd, the Keystone Cops, Theda Bara, and Buster Keaton as part of The Silent Screen Stars stamp set as designed by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. In Parsons, Kansas, there is a star tile at the entrance to the Parsons Theatre to commemorate her.
Actress Mae Questel, who performed character voices in Max Fleischer’s Popeye the Sailor cartoons, reportedly based the fluttering utterances of Olive Oyl on Zasu Pitts, but added her own touches.
Florence Desmond was born on May 31, 2015 and died on January 16, 1993. She began her stage career at the age of ten. Upon leaving school in 1920, she embarked on a long and successful career in the theatre, especially as an impersonator of famous stars. She appeared extensively in radio, theatre and occasionally in the cinema.
Click here to hear her impersonations of Tallulah Bankhead and Marlene Dietrich: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-knjb6yBr1w
Complied by Caren’s Classic Cinema
A former lawyer, Harry Green took to the vaudeville stage as a comedian and magician in the years following WW I. When talking pictures came in, Green found himself at Paramount, playing mildly stereotypical Jewish characters in such films as The Kibitzer (1929) and Close Harmony (1931). Highlights of Green’s Hollywood output include his plaintive rendition of “Isadore the Toreador” in Paramount on Parade (1930) and his portrayal of one Jose Pedro Alesandro Lopez Rubinstein in Fox’s She Learned About Sailors (1934). Harry Green spent his last decade in England, essaying character roles in films like Joe MacBeth (1956) and Chaplin’s A King in New York (1957).
By Hal Erikson, Rovi
Although Will Rogers’s latest vehicle, “Mr. Skitch,” which is now occupying the Roxy screen, is never particularly dramatic, it possesses that human quality that may make the spectator glad or sad, according to what happens to the likable but sometimes foolish Mr. Skitch (Mr. Rogers).
The film was directed by James Cruze, who is best remembered by his “Covered Wagon” and “The Pony Express.” That veteran of the wisecracking subtitle, Ralph Spence, is partly responsible for the script, an adaptation of Ann Cameron’s novel “Green Dice.”
Mr. Skitch, his wife (played by the groaning but humorous Zasu Pitts), their three daughters and small son find they have to abandon their home, and so one has the opportunity of seeing this family’s experiences en route from a Missouri town to California in an open car. There is Yellowstone Park, with flashes of the brown bears, Old Faithful and various other sights. The Grand Canyon also receives a good deal of attention, and likewise other inspiring wonders of nature. The romantic angle of the story is unimportant, but as it serves to show the effect it has upon Mr. Skitch, it helps the film. Emily Skitch, the oldest daughter in the family, has her disappointing love affair before she meets the worthy Harvey Denby, who happens to have a generous supply of currency.
During their travels Mr. Skitch free-wheels down a winding mountain road, and the perils he encounters atone for some of the weaknesses in dramatic value. One knows that Mr. Rogers will not fall over a precipice, but nevertheless he is in the car, which seems to be bowling along at a reckless speed. Finally, however, they reach the safe road.
They meet an actress named Flo, who is always ready to give an imitation of Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn and several other Hollywood celebrities. Then there is the funny Harry Green, who plays a good-natured soul named Cohen. One feels rather elated when Skitch at one stage of the proceedings wins $3,000 at roulette, and then, thinking that he needs another $500, he goes back to the gambling casino, and, just as every one expects, loses every penny.
Mr. Rogers is just as natural and pleasing as he was in “Dr. Bull.” Miss Pitts adds to the general interest, and Rochelle Hudson and Charles Starrett appear as the pair of Cupid’s victims. Eugene Pallette’s deep voice furnishes some humor, and Mr. Green does well as Cohen, the man who owns a “house on wheels.”
The New York Times Review by Mordaunt Hall., December 23, 1933
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