Banjo Eyes: Eddie Cantor and the Birth of Modern Stardom

By Herbert G. Goldman | Go to book overview
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Prologue

MORE THAN MEETS THE EYES

Eddie Cantor has been dead for more than thirty years. In view of the high level of stardom he enjoyed, the length of time he held it, and the different media in which he was important, he has become the most forgotten star of the twentieth century.

Cantor made no films that are either enjoyed as classics, like Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, or analyzed obsessively by students of the cinema, like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. He did not star in TV shows that have remained in syndication. He is also not -- and never was -- a darling of the intelligentsia.

Cantor, his individual talents aside, was essentially a musical comedy performer. Musical comedy -- its comedy as important as its music -- ruled the Broadway stage during the '20s, survived well past the establishment of "integrated musicals" in the 1940s, and did not die until the mid-1960s, when the musical theatre took new directions ranging from theatrical ( Man of La Mancha) to cynical ( Sweet Charity) to experimental rock 'n' roll ( Hair). By the early '70s, musical comedy, and indeed, musical theatre as, primarily, an entertainment medium was a rarity, presented as "nostalgia."

Indeed, musical comedy, arguably the purest form of entertainment, is often viewed as something of a jester-lackey to the culture of pre-1965 -- a culture now seen, frankly, as repressive. Nor can old Broadway musicals be viewed as abstract art, as can silent films, which seem a world unto themselves due to their very nature. Cantor was so much a part of this now largely despised "show biz" -- the very mention of which causes discomfort to many and which is often thought as "better left forgotten" -- that his name has, since the '70s, been greeted with disdain, or with blank stares from those who do not understand his importance, style of performance art, or talent.

-xi-

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