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Finally back on home video are a pair of Sam Goldwyn's Eddie Cantor musicals from the early 1930s, delightful entertainments that kept pace with the more cinematic Busby Berkeley extravaganzas. Packed with talented performers, funny jokes and plenty of Broadway glitz, 1934's Kid Millions is one of Cantor's best.
"Banjo Eyes" Cantor first joined Ziegfeld's Follies in 1917. When the talkies came about his movie musicals were some of the first to break through an initial wave of dull operettas. Cantor's hyper-nervous personality translated well to the big screen, and audiences appreciated seeing the oversized personality they already knew from radio. Millions that never dreamed of seeing the comedian live in New York could discover him on film. Cantor had made only a couple of silent pictures. He balanced his stage and radio work with occasional films for Sam Goldwyn, who enlisted all the new technological advances in support of his star. Whoopee! was filmed entirely in 2-strip Technicolor. The final fantasy musical number in Kid Millions utilizes the still-experimental 3-strip Technicolor process.
Kid Millions comes across like a Broadway adaptation but is actually a screen original. Half the fun nowadays is enjoying the talented co-stars Ethel Merman and the Nicholas Brothers, Harold & Fayard. The specialty singing and dancing act defied the barriers against blacks in film. The duo is now considered a showbiz legend.
The farcical story begins with a mad scramble of schemers to grab $77 million dollars inherited by Eddie Wilson Jr. (Eddie Cantor), the son of an eccentric Egyptologist. The executors find Eddie living on a river barge and being abused by his roughneck relatives (Stanley Fields, Edgar & Jack Kennedy). They immediately change their tune when they learn that his ship has come in (which is the title of a Donaldson-Kahn song). Eddie sets sail for Egypt, pursued by venal treasure hunters. Scalawag Colonel Harrison Larrabee (Berton Churchill of Stagecoach) withdrew his promised support for Eddie's father's expedition, yet still insists that the $77 mil is his; friction on this issue threatens the romance between the Colonel's daughter Joan (Ann Sothern) and the handsome, principled Jerry Lane (George Murphy). Even more larcenous is the crooked team of record store crooner Dot Clark (Ethel Merman) and the illiterate thug known as Louie the Lug (Warren Hymer). Louie thinks that Eee-gipt is a place that can be reached by train. Dot tries to grab the loot by claiming to be the deceased man's wife. She tells the gullible Eddie that she's his mother, even though he's 25 and she's 19.
In Egypt Eddie tangles with Princess Fanya (Eva Sully), who takes one look at him and falls madly in love. Dating the daughter of a Sheik is a risky business -- Eddie keeps running afoul of Arab traditions, most of which require that he atone for his offenses by being boiled in oil!
Kid Millions begins with a montage of New York neon and an artsy 'flutter cut' into Ethel Merman's first musical number. The dialogue scenes are lively encounters between broadly sketched characters, played to the hilt. Already 41 years old, Eddie Cantor can still pretend to be a silly kid, but a major part of the show's appeal is seeing his supporting cast in such youthful circumstances. Many of us first 'met up' with these greats long after their heyday, appearing on TV talk shows.
Most everyone now knows Ethel Merman as the battleaxe mother-in-law in Stanley Kramer's It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. Some kind of mental switch clicks when we see her as a peppy 25 year-old, with enough energy and vocal power to blow out the walls of the theater. Merman's nervy personality is already in place, and she looks good too. Those that know Ann Sothern and George Murphy are perhaps more acquainted with them from '40s films and '50s TV appearances. Ann Sothern is just a more slender and gorgeous version of her later self, while Murphy comes across as a guy who made his fortune looking relaxed and pleasant while keeping out of the way of the big talent around him (I realize he's an accomplished dancer as well).
The now relatively obscure comic Eva Sully is a riot, playing her ditzy Arab princess somewhere between Fanny Brice and Gracie Allen. She feeds great laugh lines to Eddie Cantor's "Eddie-Bay". He waved a yapping dog away from her, but Princess Fanya claims that he rescued her from a ferocious lion. "Somebody's really lyin'!" wails Eddie. The ethnic stereotypes are too silly to be taken seriously... Egyptians = nomadic Arabs, that sort of thing. To convince the Sheik not to deep-fry Eddie, cast members hide themselves in Sarcophagi (Sarcopahgusses?) and sing an altered verse of Go Down Moses / Let my People Go! Maybe that one needs to be seen to be appreciated.
A couple of earlier Goldwyn / Cantor musicals had stopped dead for the musical numbers, simply showing New York stage chorines doing their stuff in long shots, like a Marine drill team dressed in lingerie. Now billed as "The Goldwyn Girls of 1934", we get a better directed Meat Parade 1 with indeed at least thirty beautiful women. They're better matched than the white horses pulling Charlton Heston's chariot. Some big names passed through Goldwyn's screen harem, and anybody watching the faces will probably spot Lucille Ball, as I did. I didn't catch Paulette Goddard, who is rumored to be there as well. Ball looks devastating, to say the very least. She reportedly had to be a tough competitor to get into the Goldwyn lineup. Later on, she had to play an even tougher starlet game to get herself out of the chorus and into acting roles.
Cantor, Merman and Southern & Murphy sing some memorable tunes, arrayed as in a Broadway show. Lane and Adamson's Your Head on My Shoulder expresses the romance between the young lovers, while Cantor gets the personality numbers (Okay Toots!) and Merman the powerhouse songs (An Earful of Music). The big mid-show number brings together most of the cast along with the Goldwyn Girls. Cantor sings in blackface. He contributes a cringe-worthy joke, telling his black valet that he has it a lot easier, not having to put on and take off the shoe polish-like makeup. The song I Want To Be a Minstrel Man segues into a great rendition of Irving Berlin's showstopper Mandy. Everybody comes off well, but the number is then literally hijacked by Fayard and Harold Nicholas, the Nicholas Brothers. Fayard is only 19. Harold is 12 or 13, but looks like he could be eight! They're already incredible dancers and singers, and terrific performers interacting with Eddie Cantor. It makes no difference that Harold is introduced as the ship's page boy, delivering a telegram with a huge smile... seeing such talented, audience pleasing performers allowed entrance into the movies seems a very good thing in itself.
Another big production number finishes the show. Eddie uses his inheritance to build a colossal Ice Cream Factory, a fantastic confectionary creation that might have inspired Roald Dahl. Sixty kids or so (reportedly including a number of Our Gang veterans) stampede into the phantasmagorical factory. The accompanying song enlists Cantor and Merman as singers, and Doris Davenport and Warren Hymer (who shoots cherries onto sundaes with a machine-gun like apparatus).
As a Depression-era fantasy this is pretty potent stuff; the kicker is that this last half-reel is all in experimental 3-strip Technicolor! Using giant sets, strange costumes, mattes and miniatures, the sequence is quite an accomplishment. Colors are as bright as if the screen had been colorized with magic markers, primary colors only. The factory looks like a more garish version of the Emerald City scene in The Wizard of Oz. The hues are grossly inaccurate but certainly effective; this must have gotten a real Wow from audiences in 1934. I also imagine that Goldwyn paid a pretty penny to get it done. Art director Willy Pogany reportedly directed the sequence.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Kid Millions is in great shape, audio and sound. I rush to mention that the Technicolor scene looks sharper than it did on old VHS tapes. After more or less languishing untouched while being distributed by MGM Home Video, the Goldwyn Library is now with Warners, which is beginning to properly exploit it. Eight years ago we surely would have seen an Eddie Cantor DVD boxed set, but we'll take what we can get. The WAC is simultaneously releasing the two-strip Cantor-Goldwyn musical Whoopee!.
As much as I love the stylized cover artwork with the grossly exaggerated Eddie Cantor face, I must admit that as a small child it would have scared me to death. Cantor looks more threatening than a bug-eyed monster from outer space.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Kid Millions rates:
1. I've been called out for using this phrase more than once. I'm not aiming at an obscene association. I read "Meat Parade" in an English critic's analysis of Nicholas Ray's Party Girl, which shows Chicago showgirls being objectified on stage and hired as sex toys for gangland parties. The Ziegfeld-like pageants' purpose is simply to show off their bodies, as flesh on the market. And all I get invited to are receptions for independent documentaries.
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T'was Ever Thus.