Directed by: Thornton Freeland and Busby Berkeley
Starring: Eddie Cantor, Ethel Shutta, Paul Gregory, Eleanor Hunt, Chief Caupolican, Spencer Charters
The Eddie Cantor musical-comedy Whoopee! (1930) is notable for so many things that it’s hard to know where to begin. It’s the only movie ever produced by legendary showman Florenz Ziegfeld. It’s Cantor’s talkie-feature debut. It’s the only film with the first Native American Metropolitan Opera star, Chief Caupolican, and the only film of any note with the luminous Ethel Shutta. It’s one of the best surviving examples of the two-strip Technicolor film. It makes great use of one of the best jazz dance bands ever, George Olsen and His Music. (At the time, Olsen was married to Shutta.) It’s also probably as close as we’ll ever get to seeing what a 1920s Broadway stage musical was like. And it marks the film debut of one of the biggest forces in musical film, Busby Berkeley.
Berkeley—like nearly everyone else involved—came from the stage and was brought to the film to duplicate the kind of musical number he’d done there. Of course, his most famous effect at the time—arranging dancers so that they formed geometric patterns when viewed from above—no longer required a huge angled mirror so the audience could see it in film. Suddenly Berkeley could just shoot straight down on his dancers. More, he quickly learned he could do other things with the camera: move it along a wall of dancers, shoot between their legs, have them march forward in a procession of close-ups on pretty faces etc. It’s surprising how much of his basic cinematic vocabulary is already evidenced in this one movie. Beyond this, the film is simply a great showcase for Cantor and Shutta. Cantor’s signature song “Makin’ Whoopee” is captured forever on film in all its quaint raciness and his “My Baby Just Cares for Me” gets even better treatment (and a terrific arrangement by Olsen), while Shutta not only gets a great song, “Stetson”—but follows it up with one of the most memorable dances in the history of movies (there truly is nothing like it). The comedy is a mix of the corny and the downright strange (for instance, Cantor’s apparent fixation on a calf, or a weird scene where he and Spencer Charters compare operation scars).
It should be noted, however, that the film is very much a product of its time and is not politically correct. As should be expected, Cantor has a blackface routine (he and Jolson usually did), but there are also a plethora of Jewish jokes (which is interesting in that Cantor is playing a safely Anglicized character named Henry Williams, and yet makes no pretence that he’s anyone but Eddie Cantor). More disturbing, however, is the film’s plot resolution where everything is set right by the revelation that the romantic lead is white and not part Native American. So keep the film’s antiquity firmly in mind.
Whoopee! is the first of a three-movie Busby Berkeley retrospective being presented at Pack Library in Lord Auditorium. The film will be shown at 6 p.m. Monday, May 5, and will be introduced and discussed by Xpress film critic Ken Hanke.