Directed by: Thornton Freeland (Flying Down to Rio)
Starring: Eddie Cantor, Ethel Shutta, Paul Gregory, Eleanor Hunt, George Olsen and His Music
Thornton Freeland’s Whoopee! is as close as you’ll ever get to experiencing a 1920s Broadway show — and in early two-strip Technicolor! It’s essentially a filmed version of the Florenz Ziegfeld (who co-produced the movie) stage show that retains most of the original cast and songs — and makes little pretense of taking place anywhere other than on a stage. (There are a handful of actual exteriors in the movie, but they don’t fool anyone.) It offers Eddie Cantor in his most famous stage role as the hypochondriac tenderfoot Henry Williams, who has gone to the great wild West for his health. A great deal of how you’ll respond to the film depends on how you respond to Cantor in a performance that never pretends to be anything other than a performance. Consider that here you have a New York Jew of Russian extraction (who at one point performs in blackface) playing a sexually ambiguous character with an Anglicized name (Henry Williams), who constantly makes wisecracks about being Jewish. This is hardly an attempt at creating a character other than Eddie Cantor.
The story is nonsense with frequent pauses for songs — and three elaborate production numbers by another Broadway import by the name of Busby Berkeley. Also along for the ride is the show’s jazz band — one of the hottest of the era — George Olsen and His Music. Olsen’s then-wife Ethel Shutta, as Eddie’s nurse and love interest (well, along with a calf), performs one of the oddest and most wonderful dance numbers you’ll ever experience. Since this is a Ziegfeld show, there are scads of scantily-clad showgirls and a big number where they come down the equivalent of a staircase in what can only be called an Indian fashion show — presided over by Chief Caupolican (the first Native American to sing at the Metropolitan Opera). It’s all divinely silly — in the best way.
An earlier review of Whoopee! can be found here: http://avl.mx/ti
The Asheville Film Society will screen Whoopee! Tuesday, May 21 at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.
In Brief: Like a wonderful time capsule, Whoopee! offers us a glimpse into a world that hasn’t existed for a very long time: the 1920s Broadway theater. Almost no one who was a part of that world is still with us, and even those who might have seen such a show are seriously diminished in number. Yet at the flick of a switch, Whoopee! — starring the legendary Eddie Cantor and the should-be-legendary Ethel Shutta — has the power to take us back to that world in all its antique charm. Whatever it lacks in cinematic style, it more than makes up for in its energetic, appealing cast, bright tunes and sheer good-natured nonsense.