Saturday, January 18, 2014

Ol' Banjo Eyes

In writing about Eddie Cantor yesterday I mentioned that both Fox and Warner’s have started trickling his movies onto DVD (and it’s about danged time), albeit as part of their print-on-demand, DVD-R “Archive Collection” lines. 

As soon as I saw this, you know that I ordered up a couple of Cantor’s pictures, and in the coming weeks I’ll scarf up the rest. I want to do everything in my power to encourage these two studios to issue them all!

The DVDs themselves are, by their very nature, bare-bones releases, and not bargain priced, of course. They have no extra features, which is OK by me… I’m there to watch the movie, not a bunch of filler stuff (I can’t listen to audio commentaries anyway: I get confused and end up not being able to understand either the commentators or the sound track). It also means that the studio doesn’t spent a lot of money on graphic design, usually just slapping the original movie poster on the front of the case. This is OK by me, too… I love old movie posters. Sometimes they’re better than the movie. 

My first two Cantors arrived yesterday, and I wasted no time slotting Kid Millions into the player. This was the first Cantor I ever saw, and I still consider it the best. I’ve watched it many times, on broadcast TV, VHS and now DVD, and it has never looked better. In tone and structure, every one of his pictures is exactly the same: light, character-based comedy, laced with an even lighter brand of either melodrama or mystery, with the humble but All-American Eddie getting into one scrape after another. There are clearly delineated Good Guys and Bad Guys (although the Bad Guys are rarely all that bad); inevitably there’s some kind of mix-up with a Girl, while Eddie fights manfully to make his way in a world he never made. It’s all amply peppered with up-tempo musical numbers, and always climaxes with a big set piece of some kind: in Strike Me Pink (which I wrote about yesterday) this is a wild chase through an Amusement Park on bumper cars, roller-coasters and a hot-air balloon. In Kid Millions, it’s a glorious Technicolor finale in which Eddie finally makes good on a promise he made (in song) to a gang of local street urchins at the beginning of the picture.

This movie made an enormous impression on me when I first saw it more than thirty-five years ago. It was a heavy influence on my comic strip Tinsel*Town. The pivotal character, Eddie Fox, takes his name from Cantor and the references don’t stop there. In my fictional Hollywood, all of Eddie Fox’s movies follow a specific formula and tone: these were swiped directly from the movies of Eddie Cantor.

Cantor has been given a raw deal by history, and as I pointed out yesterday, I strongly believe this is due to modern White Guilt about the way other races were portrayed by Hollywood all across the board — not just in Cantor’s movies. We’re right to cringe a bit inwardly when Eddie dons his blackface, among the many other race-related things that happen in his movies. But we don’t do anyone any favors by burying the past. It doesn’t alleviate the hurt that was done, after all, and it’s just another way of pretending that bigotry never existed.

In the case of Cantor, it has also deprived history of one of its most talented and engaging performers. Instead of damning him for one aspect of his movies, isn’t it better to appreciate the good… while acknowledging that we’ve come a long way, baby?

— Freder

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