03 June 2023

Eddie Cantor

Eddie Cantor (1892-1964) was an American actor, screenwriter, producer and songwriter. After a rich Broadway career in the late 1910s and 1920s, he became a popular Hollywood star in pleasant and fast-paced musical film comedies in the early 1930s.

Eddie Cantor
Belgian postcard by N.V. Universum S.A., Antwerpen / Anvers. Photo: Paramount.

Eddie Cantor
British postcard by De Reszke Cigarettes, no. 37. Photo: United Artists.

Eddie Cantor in The Kid from Spain (1932)
British postcard in the Famous Film Stars series by Valentine's, no. 7123A. Eddie Cantor in The Kid from Spain (Leo McCarey, 1932).

Florenz Ziegfeld and the Ziegfeld Follies

Eddie Cantor was born Edward Israel Iskowitz in 1892 in New York City, New York, USA. He was the son of amateur violinist Mechel Iskowitz (also Michael) and his wife Meta Kantrowitz Iskowitz (also Maite), a young Jewish couple from Russia. Both his parents died when he was still very young, and he was adopted and raised by his maternal grandmother, Esther Lazarowitz Kantrowitz. She called him Izzy and Itchik, both diminutives for Isidor.

She supported herself and her grandson as a door-to-door peddler. The boy was educated in public schools. "Kantrowitz" was the name mistakenly assigned to the boy instead of his actual name, Iskowitz, by a public school registrar. It was shortened to Cantor. Eddie was the nickname given to him by his girlfriend, Ida Tobias, whom he later married.

After winning $5 at a Bowery Theatre Amateur Night, the teenage Cantor knew where his destiny lay. One of his earliest paying jobs was a double position as a waiter and performer. He sang for tips at Carey Walsh's Coney Island saloon, where a young Jimmy Durante accompanied him on piano. He made his first public appearance in Vaudeville in 1907 at New York's Clinton Music Hall, then became a member of the Gus Edwards Gang, later touring Vaudeville with Al Lee as the team Cantor & Lee.

His grandmother, Esther Kantrowitz, died on 29 January 1917, two days before he signed a long-term contract with Broadway's top producer Florenz Ziegfeld, to appear in his "Follies". Eddie starred in the Ziegfeld rooftop post-show 'Midnight Frolic' (1917) and in the 'Ziegfeld Follies' of 1917, 1918, 1919 and 1927. He also made Broadway stage appearances in 'Broadway Brevities of 1920', 'Make It Snappy' (1922), 'Kid Boots' (1923), 'Whoopee' (1928) and 'Banjo Eyes' (1941).

For several years, Cantor starred in an act with pioneering comedian Bert Williams, both in blackface. Cantor played Williams' son. Other co-stars with Cantor during his time in the Follies included Will Rogers, Marilyn Miller, Fanny Brice and W.C. Fields. The successful Broadway series of 'Banjo eyes' in 1941 was cut short when Cantor suffered a major heart attack, the first of several that would dominate his later years.

Eddie Cantor in Special Delivery (1927)
British postcard in the A Real Photogravure Portrait series. Photo: United Artists. Eddie Cantor in Special Delivery (Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, 1927).

Eddie Cantor and Edward Arnold in Roman Scandals (1933)
British postcard by Film Weekly. Eddie Cantor and Edward Arnold in Roman Scandals (Frank Tuttle, 1933).

Eddie Cantor in Roman Scandals (1933)
British postcard by Film Weekly. Eddie Cantor in Roman Scandals (Frank Tuttle, 1933).

Eddie Cantor
British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, London, no. 693. Photo: United Artists.

One big-budget musical comedy per year

Eddie Cantor also made numerous film appearances. He appeared in a number of short films in the 1920s, performing his Follies songs and comedy routines, and in two silent feature films, Kid Boots (Frank Tuttle, 1926) with Clara Bow and Special Delivery (Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, 1927). He was offered the lead role in The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland, 1927) after it was turned down by George Jessel, but Cantor also turned down the role so it went to Al Jolson.

His best Hollywood years were spent under contract to Samuel Goldwyn, where Eddie turned out one big-budget musical comedy per year between 1930 and 1936. Eddie became a leading Hollywood star with the film version of Whoopee! (Thornton Freeland, 1930), shot in two-colour Technicolour. He continued to make films for the next two decades, including such hits as Palmy Days (A. Edward Sutherland, 1931), The Kid from Spain (Leo McCarey, 1932), Roman Scandals (Frank Tuttle, 1933) with Gloria Stuart, Kid Millions (Roy Del Ruth, Willy Pogany, 1934) co-starring Ann Sothern and Ethel Merman, Strike Me Pink (Norman Taurog, 1936) and Ali Baba Goes to Town (David Butler, 1937).

His last leading role was in If You Knew Susie (Gordon Douglas, 1948) with Joan Davis. In the Warner Bros. biopic The Eddie Cantor Story (Alfred E. Green, 1953) he did a cameo appearance. He was the President of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) from 1933-1935. Cantor turned to radio with 'The Chase and Sanborn Hour' in 1931. Performing as a standup comedian, he used his vaudeville experience to outstanding effect and combined the expression of patriotism and personal values with humour; audiences responded enthusiastically. With changes of name, the show continued for 18 years on the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) networks.

He also served as host of The Eddie Cantor Variety Theater, a half-hour television variety show that was syndicated in 1955. Cantor also made many records. His theme song was 'One Hour With You'. His other popular-song compositions include 'Get a Little Fun Out of Life', 'It's Great to Be Alive' and 'The Old Stage Door'. Hal Erickson at AllMovie: "The offstage Cantor was not perfect, but most of the man's character flaws have been forgotten in the light of his inexhaustible work on behalf of dozens of charities, most prominently the March of Dimes. He also regularly put his career on the line through his union activities with Actors Equity, the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Radio Artists, and flew in the face of bigotry and anti-Semitics through his work with the B'nai Brith and Jewish Relief."

Eddie Cantor wrote the books 'Ziegfeld, the Great Glorifier' and 'As I Remember Them', and the autobiographies 'My Life Is In Your Hands' and 'Take My Life'. He received a Special Academy Award in 1956 for distinguished service to the film industry. Eddie Cantor died of a heart attack in 1964 in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, California, USA. His wife Ida had passed away two years earlier. They had five daughters, Marilyn Cantor Baker, Marjorie Cantor, Natalie Cantor, Edna Cantor McHugh and Janet Cantor Gari. Eddie Cantor is interred in Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery, a Jewish cemetery in Culver City, California.

Eddie Cantor
French postcard, no. 47.

Eddie Cantor
British postcard by Picturegoer, London, no. 693a. Photo: United Artists.

Eddie Cantor
British postcard by W&G Ltd., no. 82. Photo: United Artists. Eddie Cantor in Kid Millions (Roy Del Ruth, 1934) at the Hippodrome in Nottingham.

Eddie Cantor
American Arcade card.

Sources: Hal Erickson (AllMovie), Britannica, Wikipedia (English and Dutch) and IMDb.

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