Musical Monday: The Eddie Cantor Story (1953)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 500. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

eddieThis week’s musical:
“Eddie Cantor Story” –Musical #513

Warner Brothers

Alfred E. Green

Keefe Brasselle, Marilyn Erskine, Aline MacMahon, Richard Monda (as young Eddie), Maria Windsor, William Forrest (as Flo Ziegfeld), Jackie Barnett (as Jimmy Durante), Ann Doran, Will Rogers, Jr. (as his father)

Musical biopic of vaudeville star Eddie Cantor, whose career started as a child in 1907 and continued until his wife’s death in 1962. Cantor died in 1964. The film begins with Cantor (Brasselle) being raised by his grandmother (MacMahon) and how he gets into show business and makes good when everyone thought he would end up in jail. Cantor makes it big and ends up in the Ziegfeld Follies. Cantor marries his childhood friend Ida (Erskine) and the two have five daughters, but Ida feels Cantor neglects his family and his health for his career.

Keefe Brasselle as Eddie Cantor and Marilyn Erskine as Ida Cantor

Keefe Brasselle as Eddie Cantor and Marilyn Erskine as Ida Cantor in “The Eddie Cantor Story.”

-The real Eddie Cantor dubbed Keefe Brasselle’s singing. Similarly, Al Jolson’s voice dubbed Larry Parks in “The Jolson Story.”
-“The Cantor Story” was made in response to the success of the Warner Brothers film, “The Jolson Story” about vaudeville star Al Jolson. Critics didn’t care for the movie.
-Son of Will Rogers, Will Rogers, Jr., portrayed him during the Ziegfeld Follie scenes.
-Larry Parks was considered for the role of Eddie Cantor.
-Jimmy Durante was originally slated to play himself but had to bow out.

-The film opens with Eddie Cantor and his wife driving up to Warner Brothers to view the movie. The WB logo and credits begin after Eddie Cantor is seated to watch the film. We see Cantor and his wife Ida again at the close of the film.

Notable Songs:
-“If You Knew Susie”
-“Be My Little Baby Bumble Bee”
-“How ‘Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?)”
-“Yes Sir! That’s My Baby”

An example of Brasselle’s Cantor Caricature:

My Review:
If you are looking for an hour and 55 minute caricature impression of Eddie Cantor, “The Eddie Cantor Story” is your movie.

Keefe Brasselle’s performance of the famed vaudeville and Ziegfeld Follies star is one long impression complete with eyes bugged out, clapping as he skips across the stage and goofy faces. He’s working so hard at the impression it looks like he is having a hard time getting his words out.

Our Musical Mondays have featured many, many musical biopics and several of them I have panned. But when this started film I thought it had potential. I love Aline MacMahon in 1930s films and it was good to see her again as young Cantor’s grandmother.

The real Ida and Eddie Cantor in the 1930s.

The real Ida and Eddie Cantor in the 1930s.

The film only got truly annoying to me when Cantor grew up. We first see Brasselle when he is lowering a towel after washing off his black-face make-up. And there was our first glimpse of our caricature, complete with lips practically puckered and eyes bulging.

“It’s like watching Darren York (or Dick Sergeant), trying to play Eddie Cantor,” Mom said, who was watching the movie with me. “I keep waiting for Samantha to come out and tell him to cut it out.”

At the very end of the film, the audience has a treat of seeing the real Eddie and Ida Cantor. Cantor says, “I never looked better in my life.” He has an incredulous look and the comment could be read as sarcastic; it is almost like a private joke between the real Eddie Cantor and the audience.
“He not only is talented but kind,” said the 1953 New York Times review about this remark.

It was like one big impression act, however, as we see Jackie Barnett playing Jimmie Durante with a big fake nose and his best gravely speaking voice. Will Rogers, Jr. portrayed his daddy but fine. After all, he had played his father in a film before.

Another complaint that the New York Times review, George Burns and Eddie Cantor all had is how much it white-washed his colorful life.
“Although it has been filmed in the pleasing hues of Technicolor and is weighted with the songs and shows he helped make famous, “The Eddie Cantor Story” is slightly less than a colorful illustration of the reasons for its hero’s greatness,” said the New York Times.

Eddie Cantor in the 1930s.

Eddie Cantor in the 1930s.

Eddie Cantor said, “If that was my life, I didn’t live.” In George Burns’ autobiography “All My Best Friends,” said Warner Brothers created a miracle by making Cantor’s life appear boring.

In all honesty, the best acting in the film was by Aline MacMahon, bringing an extra something special to the role.

My biggest complaint about this film was it’s lead. Brasselle’s constant mimicking grated on my nerves. But who else would play him? Ray Bolger who played him in “The Great Ziegfeld”? Maybe Eddie Cantor himself? Larry Parks was originally slated for the role, but I’m not sure that would have been very good, but potentially less annoying.

While the script made Cantor’s life appear rather bland, I do believe this film would have been much more enjoyable with a different Eddie Cantor in the lead.

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