Bright Lights Film Journal

What Kind of a Cowboy Are You? Eddie Cantor Goes West in <em>Whoopee</em>

“All Singing! All Dancing! All Color! All Racist!”

Whoopee is a find, a treasure, a thing of beauty and a joy forever. Most of all it is a chunk of Flo Ziegfeld’s Roaring Twenties Broadway, preserved for all time in glorious, 1930 two-color Technicolor. Whoopee features great songs (“Making Whoopee” and “My Baby Just Cares for Me”), great Busby Berkeley production numbers (“Cowboy Number” and “Stetson”), great performers (Eddie Cantor and a 15-year-old Betty Grable), and a double-barreled blast of old-fashioned racism, directed at both blacks and Indians. If you can’t handle blackface (Eddie Cantor’s trademark), avoid this film like the plague.

Whoopee was part of a wave of “all-singing, all-dancing” musicals that hit the U.S. with the advent of talking pictures. Many of them, Whoopee included, were musicals transferred almost bodily from Broadway to the screen. Like all popular art forms, these musical comedies were intensely stylized. Audiences knew what they wanted, and they got it. There were two sets of lovers, one serious and one comic. To keep the laughs coming, there was an oversupply of the following: young, mama’s boy millionaires; old, curmudgeonly millionaires; icy, indignant society matrons; boy-crazy plain-Janes; and wanton young widows.1 Poor people, who were considered boring back then, rarely made it on stage unless they were young and physically attractive. The leading man usually was poor. Otherwise, he could afford to marry the leading lady right off the bat, instead of spending two hours singing romantic ballads to her.

Since Eddie Cantor, the star of Whoopee, was a comic, the basic pattern is distorted, though still intact. Cantor, playing a hypochondriacal millionaire who travels out west for his health with a private nurse in tow, gets the big songs, and most of the stage time, but not the leading lady. Cantor is probably not even a name today to anyone under 50, but he was making records before World War and lived to be one of the stars of early, black-and-white TV. He starred in Whoopee on Broadway, and it provided him with one of his greatest hits, “Making Whoopee,” best-known today from the piano-top version sung by Michelle Pfeiffer in The Fabulous Baker Boys. Pfeiffer’s version was sultrier than Cantor’s but less sophisticated: her subject was fornication, while his was adultery.

Whoopee will come as a jolt to anyone unfamiliar with pre-1934 Hollywood.2 Surprising as it may seem, Americans did know about sex back then, and Whoopee contains generous servings of twenties cheesecake. Want to see cowgirls in halters and mini-skirts? Indian maidens in bikinis and warbonnets? This is the picture for you. Viewers of a certain persuasion may also enjoy the following exchange between Cantor and his nurse, who is questioning him about a supposed rival.

Nurse (disguised as a cowboy, complete with mustache): You ran off with Sally Morgan! Then you do love her, don’t you?

Cantor: No! No!

Nurse (trying to embrace him): Oh, Henry! I could kiss you!

Cantor (pushing her away): Hey! What kind of a cowboy are you?

For all its delights,Whoopee is not without flaws. Although Cantor made his living largely as a comic, he wasn’t very funny. Some of his material is so bad it’s good (Nurse: “The doctor says your lungs are as good as new.” Cantor: “No wonder! I’ve never used them! All these years, I’ve been breathing through my liver!”), but much of it is so bad it’s bad. About 45 minutes of his shtick could be cut with no loss, but the rest of this film is imperishable, a monument to the twenties’ unabashed optimism and love of display as enduring as the Chrysler Building or the Radio City Music Hall. And it beats the hell out of Trainspotting.

• If you’ve already seen Whoopee and can’t remember Betty Grable, she was the lead singer/dancer in the opening number (the girl with the lariat). She never appeared in the picture again, because she was subbing for the real leading lady, who apparently couldn’t sing or dance. Grable had the opposite problem; she could sing and dance, but couldn’t act. It took her almost a decade to get into starring roles. In the meantime, she put bread on the table doing bit parts in several of the bestAstaire/Rogers vehicles. She was the platinum babe who partnered Edward Everett Horton in the gloriously goofy “Let’s Knock Knees,” (Gay Divorcee, 1934), a number that somehow offends most Astaire/Rogers scholars.3 But Betty didn’t let the critics get her down. Still platinum, she backed up Ginger in “Let Yourself Go” (Follow the Fleet, 1936), before hitting the big time in the forties with a string of florid extravaganzas like Down Argentine Way and Moon over Miami. I find these grim going, but they were a favorite of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who liked to sit in the front row, so that he could soak up all the ambiance.4

• Test your knowledge of twenties popular culture by deciphering the lyrics of the second verse of “My Baby Just Cares for Me.” (Note: All films referenced in the endnotes are available on video.)

My baby’s no Gilbert5 fan
Ronald Colman6 is not her man
My baby just cares for me!
My baby don’t care for Lawrence Tibbett7
She’d rather have me around to kibitz!
Buddy Rogers8 is not her style
And even Chevalier’s9) smile
Is something she can’t see!
I wonder what’s wrong with Baby,
My baby just cares for me!

• Eddie Cantor10 was a product of the Lower East Side when it was really the Lower East Side. Check out his ethnically correct pronunciation ofstrudelin “Making Whoopee,” and his Jewish peddler routine late in the picture when he’s selling Indian blankets to the white man.

  1. Early widowhood was the only socially acceptable way for a woman to be simultaneously young, single and a non-virgin in American popular culture during the twenties. “College widows” were standard temptresses. See, for example, the Marx Brothers’ classic Horsefeathers (1931). []
  2. The Hays Office, Hollywood’s board of censors, started tightening up considerably in the early thirties. Life was tough during the Depression, and twenties naughtiness seemed out of place. The shift affected American culture right through both WWII and the Cold War. Irving Berlin’s “Heat Wave,” which originally contained the line “She started a heat wave by letting her seat wave,” was sung as “She started a heat wave by letting her feet wave” for twenty-five years. Another line, “It’s so hot every maid is as warm as a bride,” disappeared down the Memory Hole entirely. []
  3. “Let’s Knock Knees,” trashed by both Arlene Croce (The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book) and John Mueller (Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films) contains such great lines as “It seems so hoi polloiable / And yet it’s quite enjoyable / I like it, please / Let’s knock knees,” not to mention a chorus of art deco beach bunnies and boys. Furthermore, Betty dances with far more assurance than Ginger, who was pretty stiff at this stage of her career. But Ginger had Fred, and that made all the difference. []
  4. Wittgenstein, an Austrian who taught at Cambridge University in England, irritated his British hosts by claiming to be able to prove a priori that the English could not make a decent film. []
  5. John Gilbert was Greta Garbo’s on- and offscreen lover, and perhaps the most famous victim of the switch to talkies. Despite his poor speaking voice, Garbo was able to have him cast opposite her in Queen Christina. []
  6. Dapper Ronald Colman did make the transition to talkies. Among his best pictures were the mega-hits Tale of Two Cities and Prisoner of Zenda. []
  7. Lawrence Tibbett was a lead tenor with the Metropolitan Opera in the twenties. He created a sensation starring in early talkies, particularly in small communities that had never heard a trained singing voice. Unfortunately, none of his films are available on video. []
  8. Dreamboat Charles “Buddy” Rogers was one of the silent screen’s biggest stars. He is perhaps best remembered for his performance in Wings (1927), the first film to win the “Best Picture” Academy Award. The film also starred Richard Arden, Clara Bow, and a very young Gary Cooper. []
  9. Maurice Chevalier is probably best remembered as the dirty, or at least naughty, old man in Gigi. But he was also a naughty young man in such films as The Merry Widow – the 1934 version with Jeanette MacDonald, not the 1952 Lana Turner remake. (Character actress Una Merkel set some sort of record by appearing in both films. []
  10. If you want more of Eddie Cantor, check out one of those massive video-guide tomes, but be warned: you’re going to be seeing some seriously racist material. Blackface was a Cantor trademark. I haven’t seen anything that compares with Whoopee, although Kid Millions has a wonderful (blackface) version of Irving Berlin’s “Mandy,” featuring Ethel Merman, Ann Sothern, George Murphy, and the Nicholas Brothers – the only part of the film that takes advantage of the fabulous cast. Some of Cantor’s TV work (as host of the Colgate Comedy Hour) may be available as well. Cantor’s singing is available on CD. []