Born Israel Iskowitz in New York City’s East Side, Eddie Cantor is the greatest 20th-century example of the mortality of comedy. Breaking into the revues in 1916 with a combination of black-face mimicry, aggressive verbal wit, burlesque, and pastiche singing, he rose to stardom in Ziegfeld’s theatrical enterprises by a crazed audacity. He combined shamelessness with a kind of fool-innocence, and seized any occasion to produce a laugh.
And yet, what was timely in Cantor's joking became quickly dated. What was audacious in his buffoonery (the minstrel-style mugging, the parodies of sissy style homosexuality, the exposure of family members to ridicule) in the 1920s and 1930s became with the passage of time boorish and offensive. Part of his problem was his attempt to bind comic anarchy with an ingratiating wish to please the audience. The Marx brothers survive because they opted for pure anarchy. Fanny Brice survives because she could elicit such great sympathy. Cantor's hybrid art has fallen apart.
The great stage successes in which he starred, "Kid Books" and "Whoopee," defy revival. His movies, "Whoopee!," "Roman Scandals," and "Ali Baba Goes to Town," are among the most painful comedies of that decade to watch. Even his radio broadcasts of the 1930s, with their brilliant verbal energy and forward impetus, has done little to redeem this star's talent from the dustbin of history. He remains the most enigmatic of the first rank stars of the early 20th-century American stage. David S. Shields/ALS