Eddie Cantor at MoMA

One of the forgotten heroes of vaudeville stars in two relatively rare movies screening at the Museum of Modern Art on Saturday, February 18. Both titles try to solve the same problem: how to adapt a hit Broadway play to film. The first showcases Eddie Cantor in what was for 1923 a cutting-edge sound process. The second, a feature-length version of Kid Boots, shows exactly what a big-budget, mainstream comedy film looked like, circa 1926.

Born in 1892, Eddie Cantor, nee Israel Iskowitz, grew up on the Lower East Side. At one point a singing waiter on Coney Island (backed for a time by Jimmy Durante on piano), Cantor worked his way up to vaudeville by 1907. Within a few years he developed a blackface character, and blackface routines would become a staple of his act. But Cantor was predominantly an ethnic comedian who geared his jokes towards New York audiences.

Cantor progressed from vaudeville to Florenz Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolic, and then to the actual Ziegfeld Follies, where he co-starred with Bert Williams, W.C. Fields, Will Rogers, and many others. His first Broadway vehicle was Kid Boots in 1923. After the success of Whoopee! in 1928, he starred in a string of film comedies, including Palmy Days, The Kid from Spain, and Roman Scandals. He also introduced such landmark pop songs as “Makin’ Whoopee,” “If You Knew Susie,” and “There’s Nothing Too Good for My Baby.” With hit records, a top-rated radio show, and several best-selling books, Cantor was one of the most recognizable celebrities of the Depression era, so well known that he was a fixture in cartoon parodies.

Cantor came of age professionally before the invention of electric microphones, and had to develop a singing style that didn’t rely on amplification. In other words, shouting, a technique that worked best with story songs and the blues. Cantor would basically recite lyrics, interpreting them by raising or lowering his volume. He performed love songs sticky with sentimentality, or blues laden with innuendo, in the same declamatory style. He played to the audience, rarely to his fellow performers, in fact often alone on the stage.

Cantor’s persona as an actor mirrored his singing: limited range, lots of volume. Like most silent film comedians, he was short in stature and had large, expressive eyes (in fact, one of his nicknames was “Banjo Eyes”). Avoiding the “baggy pants comic” cliché, Cantor used tight, ill-fitting clothes a size or two too small for him. They make his character even more constrained, the basis of much of his humor.

Many cultural historians mistakenly date the use of sound in movies to The Jazz Singer, a 1927 melodrama that starred Cantor’s friend Al Jolson. But merging film and sound was a goal of many early filmmakers, starting with the Edison studio, which filmed a sound experiment in 1895. The Vitaphone process used by the Warner Brothers for The Jazz Singer was a Rube Goldberg contraption that linked projectors to sixteen-inch shellac platters played on turntables. It was an arrangement prone to disaster. Better was the sound-on-film process developed in part by Lee de Forest. It placed sound within a thin strip on the side of the film, and it remained in use in films until the 1970s, when a stereo process using magnetic strips took over.

A Few Moments With Eddie Cantor, Star of “Kid Boots” was shot on a barren stage with one stationary camera. It’s a seven-minute extract from the play, with Cantor delivering a monologue laced with Jewish humor, singing “The Dumber They Come, the Better I Like ‘Em,” and performing his signature loping dance, in which he accompanied himself with emphatic handclaps. The combination of flat lighting and slow film stock makes the image blurry enough so that it’s hard to make out Cantor’s expressions, and he seems to be playing to his left rather than to the camera. He pauses after punchlines, waiting for laughs that never arrive. Still, it’s impossible to deny his manic energy, and the jokes that do click are as pleasing today as they were eighty years ago.

The feature version of Kid Boots was shot in California for Paramount, under journeyman director Frank Tuttle and with what was for 1926 a pretty strong cast. The idea of performing a Broadway comedy in mime may seem peculiar today, but silent filmmakers tackled everything from Shakespeare to Oscar Wilde, even managing to make a hit out of a silent Merry Widow. The trick was to find visual ways to advance the plot, and to develop characters through sight gags. Cantor was a sight gag to begin with, with his protruding eyes, slicked down hair, slight build, and herky-jerky movements. Joke-filled titles (written by Tom Gibson) introduced the other characters and pointed out major plot twists.

Tuttle had little compunction about discarding whole stretches of the plot, just as directors do today. Which is why Kid Boots ranges from scaled-down bits of stage business in tailor shops and boudoirs to wide-open chases with horses, cliffs, and mountain lions. The plot focuses on Samuel (Kid) Boots, a clerk in a tailor shop who loses his job after infuriating a customer. He latches on to Tom Sterling, a stalwart millionaire who is trying to divorce his golddigging wife in order to marry a hotelier’s daughter. Kid Boots will be Sterling’s witness in divorce proceedings.

The film is as much of a narrative shambles as the play must have been, only without Cantor periodically breaking into song or donning blackface. He does a golf bit, hides in closets, acts a weird skit involving an electric chair, and flirts with two of the film’s three female leads. (Top-billed Billie Dove is reserved for Lawrence Gray, the male romantic lead.) Natalie Kingston vamps it up as the golddigger, but the real attraction in the cast is Clara Bow, who at this point was on the verge of stardom. It takes the filmmakers about five minutes to get her into a bathing suit, and surprisingly she’s called upon to do most of the heavy acting.

Cantor’s greatest successes were still to come. Whoopee!, a smash on stage and as a Technicolor film; Roman Scandals, with Lucille Ball as a naked slave; and The Kid From Spain, directed by Leo McCarey. He even turned losing a fortune in the 1929 stock market crash into a best-selling book. But by the mid-thirties, film audiences had lost their appetite for Cantor’s shrill shtick. Some critics feel that efforts to “de-Semitize” Cantor backfired by alienating his core fans. Like Jolson, he endured a long decline in public. He appeared in increasingly small film roles and returned to Broadway occasionally, but never regained his foothold on the public.

Cantor’s appeal may be hard to understand today. But picture him appearing unamplified on an empty vaudeville stage, a cog in a long bill of magicians, animal acts, and novelty singers. As he noted, “A [performer] in vaudeville is like a salesman who only has fifteen minutes in which to make a sale. You go on the stage knowing that every minute counts. You’ve got to get your audience the instant you appear.”

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