Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Eddie Cantor comedy Ali Baba Goes to Town (1937).
This movie, while plenty funny, marks the end of Cantor’s flush period as a 30’s comedy star. After having starred in a talkie every year since 1930, the next movie after Al Baba wouldn’t be for three years, and thereafter his vehicles became less and less frequent. By this stage in his career Cantor was waxing stout and middle aged – – his traditional character didn’t suit him as well any more.
Ali Baba is essentially a remake of Cantor’s earlier screen hit Roman Scandals, except in this one (rather than ancient Rome) Eddie falls asleep as a movie extra on a film set for Arabian Nights and awakes as Ali Baba. The film is not a font of racial sensitivity—in addition to the constant lampoon of Arab culture, Cantor indulges in some very late blackface**. But the jokes and music are good, and the plot moves along. Lots of rare topical humor at the EXPENSE of the New Deal as Eddie tries to remake the Sultan’s government. An eye-opener…criticisms about high taxes! There were five writers on the project – – all Republicans, I’m guessing!
Gypsy Rose Lee is also in the film as the Sultana, in only her second role as an attempted movie star under her real name Louise Hovick. Though I am naturally among her worshippers, it’s not hard to see why she never became a movie star (though a highly intelligent woman, she couldn’t, um, act. Whereas her siser June havoc could).
Also in the film – -wow! : crooner Tony Martin, John Carradine (as a thug), Douglas Dumbrille (as a Prince), Sidney Fields, Charles Lane, Jeni Le Gon, Hank Mann and Lee J. Cobb in bit parts, and dozens of the top stars of 1937 in cameos at a fictional movie premiere — including, hilariously enough, Eddie Cantor!
To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. To learn about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.