A Tribute to Eddie Cantor
It is unlikely that modern audiences would appreciate Eddie Cantor’s singing, dancing, acting, or humor (although his jokes about the stock market still ring true today), and they would definitely recoil from the blackface routines which were a part of almost all his films. That’s because they would not be aware of the fact that minstrelsy was at one point one of the most popular forms of entertainment in America, and that Cantor was simply following an established tradition. They would probably also not be aware of the fact that Eddie Cantor was lauded on numerous occasions for his service to cause of human rights. For today’s audiences, as we celebrate the 110th anniversary of his birth, Eddie Cantor is just a somewhat familiar name from the past.
But Eddie Cantor was as popular for his time, in the 1920s and 30s, as Elvis was in his or Frank Sinatra in his. Moreover, his appeal was to a much broader range of ages and tastes. He could sing, dance, act, and tell jokes, and he did it on stage, in the movies, in the recording studio, on the radio, and even on TV, over a period of fifty years — attaining number one status in each of those areas at one point or another in his career.
A contemporary of Al Jolson and Fannie Brice, Cantor arose from similar beginnings in Vaudeville, New York’s Jewish theater, and Flo Ziegfeld’s follies. He was born as Israel Iskowitz on Manhattan’s Lower East Side on January 31, 1892. His parents died before he was three, and he was raised by his maternal grandmother, Esther Kantrowitz (his last name is a shortened version of hers). He showed talent as an entertainer at an early age, performing in the streets and later working as a singing waiter, and was eventually discovered by Ziegfeld, becoming a fixture in his Follies of 1917, 1918, and 1919, and later 1927. Known as “the Apostle of Pep,” Cantor wowed audiences with his energetic style, rolling eyes, and distinctive vocals. The 1928 Ziegfield production of “Whoopee” made him a superstar and gave him his signature tune, “Making Whoopie.”
Like many others, he lost almost everything in the crash of 1929, briefly considered quitting, but quickly climbed back with a book and continued film and live performances. He made a number of successful films with Samuel Goldwyn, had several popular radio shows, then jumped into early television, where he was equally popular with his fans. He died in 1964, after a series of heart attacks beginning in 1952 forced him to cut back on his activities.
Eddie Cantor was never known for ducking a fight or shirking responsibilities. He was active in the early days of the Actor’s Equity Association, incurring Ziegeld’s wrath by participating in a strike for better treatment of Broadway actors. He entertained troops all over the world during World War II, helped President Roosevelt create the March of Dimes, and served as the first president of the Screen Actors Guild. He was reportedly responsible for launching the careers of stars such as Dinah Shore, Deanna Durbin, and Sammy Davis Jr. Once on a television show in his later years, he caught a great deal of flack from racists and worried advertisers when he hugged Sammy on the air. His reaction was to hire the black entertainer for the rest of the program’s run, and to give him another hug the following week. Those who think of Eddie Cantor as a bigot because of his blackface performances are simply not aware of the full story. In 1964, Eddie received a Presidential Commendation from President Johnson for his devotion to “humanitarian causes of every description.”
Most of Eddie Cantor’s films are available today for home viewing, and you’ll find a group of them listed below. Though most people admittedly haven’t seen many of them, please check them out if you can find them.
Eddie Cantor Tributes/Pages
- Eddie Cantor Appreciation Society – Follow the links on this page for a biography, news, and to join the Society, or to purchase books, CDs, and videos. Created by Brian Gari, Eddie’s grandson.
- Eddie Cantor – From the Al Jolson “World’s Greatest Entertainer” site. Scroll down and click on “Friends and Links” to find a link to the Eddie Cantor page on this site.
- Eddie Cantor Radio Shows – A detailed listing of programs from the 30s to the 50s from Jerry Haendiges’ Vintage Radio Logs.
- The Legendary Eddie Cantor – Some links are to the Appreciation Society, but this site offers some photos, album covers, song listing, and other material.
- Internet Movie Database – Biography, filmography, and more.
Other Eddie Cantor Pages
Selected Reviews of Eddie Cantor’s Best Films
- Ali Baba Goes to Town (1937) – Review from Fantastic Movie Musings & Ramblings
- The Eddie Cantor Story (1953) – Review from Class Act.
- The Kid from Spain (1932) – Review by Danny Reid of Pre-Code.com
- Palmy Days (1931) – Review from An Evening Illuminated.
- Whoopee! (1930) – Review from Movie Mirror.
Where To Find Or See Eddie Cantor Films
Eddie Cantor Photos/Art On The Web
Eddie Cantor Movie Posters On The Web