The film is a very funny and charming semi-musical full of one-liners and songs for Cantor (most written by Harry Warren and Al Dubin including, “Build a Little Home”, “Be Young and beautiful” among them. The art deco version of Rome is gorgeous. Eddie plays a shlub who works in a museum and dreams he goes back to ancient Rome and becomes a slave named Oedipus. Rome is depicted as a decadent, cruel and terrifying place…essentially a totalitarian state. This fuels the humor and also provides great dramatic tension. Oedipus is made royal food-taster to the emperor (Edward Arnold), whom of course the empress is trying to poison. (The little rhyme Eddie uses to remember which dish contains poison was later appropriated by Danny Kaye in The Court Jester — people tend to remember the later version). Gloria Stuart of Titanic is the Empress—70 years younger! Billy Barty plays a version of Eddie when he shrinks in a steam bath. Some unfortunate blackface** stuff is a little jarring. (The premise is a beauty mud pack…but when Eddie starts to act like a minstrel, the intention is unmistakable).The cast also includes Ruth Etting as a slave girl, David Manners (of Dracula) as Eddie’s aristocratic young protector, and of course the lovely pre-code Goldwyn Girls, choreographed by Busby Berkley. Among them were Lucille Ball and Paulette Goddard.
While the movie obviously draws from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, it ended up being influential itself. It is literally the basis for the Roman section of Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part One. The premise was also used by the Three Stooges for one of their late features—undoubtedly others have used it as well. (Think of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum). And the same premise was adapted for the later Eddie Cantor comedy Ali Baba Goes to Town (1937).
For more on 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 etcTo find out 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.