by Allan Fish
(USA 1933 93m) DVD2 (Spain only)
p Samuel Goldwyn d Frank Tuttle w George Oppenheimer, William Anthony McGuire, Arthur Sheekman, Nat Perrin story George S.Kaufman, Robert E.Sherwood ph Gregg Toland chariot sequ. Ralph Cedar ed Stuart Heisler m Alfred Newman ch Busby Berkeley m/ly Harry Warren, Al Dubin, L.Wolfe Gilbert art Richard Day cos John Harkrider
Eddie Cantor (Eddie/Oedipus), Verree Teasdale (Empress Agrippa), Edward Arnold (Valerius Caesar), David Manners (Josephus), Ruth Etting (Olga), Gloria Stuart (Princess Sylvia), Alan Mowbray (Majordomo), Willard Robertson (Warren Finlay Cooper), Stanley Fields (slave trader), Clarence Wilson (Boggs, the museum keeper), Lucille Ball,
Nearly eighty years on, the star vehicles of Eddie Cantor now seem to belong to another era, rather like the Danny Kaye vehicles a decade later. The comparison is not idly invoked as both were the flagship comedic talents of Samuel Goldwyn in their respective eras. And there’s even a link from Kaye back to Cantor by way of homage which seems to have been missed by most reviewers. Cantor’s star reign was from around 1930-1935, like many other comedians he lost his lustre with the killjoy enforcement of the hays Code. He would make a comeback in the likes of Thank Your Lucky Stars and Show Business, the latter the first of a successful partnership with Joan Davis, but they’re diluted, almost self-mocking Cantor. Despite the incidental pleasures of Whoopee (in which he sang ‘Making Whoopee’ as only he could), The Kid from Spain and Kid Millions, there’s only one of his films that comes close to the level of classic.
Eddie plays Eddie, living in West Rome, a small American town with corrupt politicians trying to put up prisons and museums of Roman artefacts and evicting the local poor in the process. Eddie stands up for them and gets himself marched to the city limits and told to keep walking. This he does, but a mile or so outside town he imagines himself back in Ancient Rome (after one assumes a bang on the head). Sold to friend of the people Josephus in a slave auction, he quickly finds himself in trouble with the tyrannical emperor Valerius. After a flirtation with the lions and then with torture, he finds himself food taster at the Imperial Court, a position so precarious it amounts to being an ‘Official Sacrifice’. Throw in an English princess blackmailed into being the emperor’s concubine and an empress trying desperately to poison her husband.
The flashback idea was hardly a new one, and the present day book-ends are less interesting than the Roman portions, and though they are capped by a magnificently edited chariot race sequence by Ralph Cedar, the plot of the lovers and the Imperial intrigue is left in the balance and unresolved. Not that any of this matters, for it’s the individual ingredients that make it so memorable. There’s choice dialogue aplenty, not least in the slave auction bidding wars (“I can cook a little, I can take care of the children, and if there are no children I can take care of that…PAUSE…by being a son to you”), and the musical numbers are something to behold with choreography from Busby Berkeley in his last film prior to achieving immortality at Warners. Notable are a torch song from Ruth Etting, in a rare film appearance, in which Goldwyn girls, naked but for Rapunzel wigs, are tied up on a giant podium while other slave girls gyrate and dance around to such an extent one has to pinch oneself into not thinking it a musical number directed by C.B.de Mille. And then topping even that there’s the song for which Scandals would be famous, ‘Keep Young and Beautiful’, performed by Cantor in a now un-PC blackface moving between a harem of scantily – if at all – clad young ladies (Lucille Ball can briefly be spotted amongst them), references to flesh and skin stretching to a line about Cantor’s immigrant ancestry when observing “look at my skin, it’s imported all the way from Russia.” A joke that could just as easily apply to Kaye, whose The Court Jester borrowed the thrust of its most famous poison sketch from this Cantor vehicle, only here it’s food not drink; “the one without the parsley is the one without the poison.”
How Roman Scandals made the Elite 70:
Sam Juliano’s No. 21 choice
Allan Fish’s No. 26 choice