Banjo Eyes: Eddie Cantor and the Birth of Modern Stardom

By Herbert G. Goldman | Go to book overview
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Chapter 4

THE FOLLIES

"Do you know what aristocrats are? We were aristocrats in the Follies, mister."

Eddie Cantor was a feature of the Midnight Frolic for twenty-seven consecutive weeks, his act changing almost nightly, his popularity with Ziegfeld "regulars" increasing to the point where it soon rivaled his self-confidence.

His stage persona was unmistakably Jewish -- pushy, slightly nebishy, but without the intellectual neuroses that would distinguish Woody Allen in the 1960s. His impudence -- always a large part of his onstage character -- seemed balanced by a readiness to do his very best, and his seeming lack of awe for the money, names, and personages in the audience allowed him to be entertaining without being ingratiating. Cantor had an air of familiarity coupled with the naivete of a young virgin out to "see the girls," one who gets pulled in too deeply and has second thoughts.

Eddie's willingness to please his almost exclusively non-Jewish audience, composed of such names as Harriman and Vanderbilt, made it seem that he genuinely liked them, while admiring their breeding, class, and wealth. In short, he was a "white Jew" -- acceptable to Ziegfeld's "uptown" audience, a little man with banjo eyes whom they could take to heart and, perhaps, home, to treat to the finer things in life he would appreciate, if only for a brief and fleeting instant.

His determination and inventiveness were also quite endearing, making him seem like the underdog who succeeds by sheer will, persistence, and native intelligence. Above all else, he seemed the weakling, a role he sometimes carried to extremes by playing an extremely effeminate character that suggested, sometimes bordered, on homosexuality while leaving little doubt that he was "playing" at the part. He had done this with Bedini & Arthur

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