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Western sheriff Bob Wells is preparing to marry Sally Morgan; she loves part-Indian Wanenis, whose race is an obstacle. Sally flees the wedding with hypochondriac Henry Williams, who thinks he's just giving her a ride; but she left a note saying they've eloped! Chasing them are jilted Bob, Henry's nurse Mary (who's been trying to seduce him) and others. Written by
Rod Crawford <email@example.com>
WHOOPEE (United Artists, 1930), directed by Thornton Freeland, subtitled "A musical comedy of the great wide west," produced in collaboration with Florenz Ziegfeld and Samuel Goldwyn, is another one of those reworking Broadway shows to come out of Hollywood during the early days of talkies. Headed by Broadway's own Eddie Cantor, with co-stars, many of whom recreating their stage roles, WHOOPEE ranks one of the better stage-to-screen musicals released during the 1929-30 season. It's also the film responsible in elevating Cantor into major box office attraction. Not only was this his first for Samuel Goldwyn, but the introduction of choreographer Busby Berkeley to the motion picture screen. While Berkeley's now famous dance direction trademarks are evident here, they're far from the best to what he later created at the Warner Brothers studios in the 1930s.
Set in an Arizona dude ranch, Sally Morgan (Eleanor Hunt) is about to marry Sheriff Bob Wells (John Rutherford), though she really loves Wanenis (Paul Gregory), a young Indian living on an Indian reservation near her father's ranch. Because Wanenis is of Indian blood, it is not permissible for a white girl to marry a "red skin." Also staying on the ranch is Henry Williams (played by Eddie Cantor with horn rim glasses), a hypochrondiac pill popper from the east, there for a rest cure, accompanied by his nurse, Mary Custer (Ethel Shutta), who not only feeds him medicine, but happens to be in love with him. Unable to go on with the wedding, Sally arranges for Henry to drive her away in his ran-shackle Ford, leaving Wells and guests at the altar. Since Wells refuses to take "No" for an answer, he goes in hot pursuit of them, as does Miss Custer, leading them all to another ranch, leading to complications, songs and dance numbers.
The musical program includes: "The Cowboy Number" (sung by Betty Grable); "I'll Still Belong to You" (sung by Paul Gregory); "Makin' Whoopee" (sung by Eddie Cantor); "The Mission Number" (sung by chorus); "A Girl Friend of a Boy Friend of Mine" and "My Baby Just Cares for Me" (both sung by Cantor); "Stetson" (sung by Ethel Shutta); "I'll Still Belong to You" (reprise by Paul Gregory); "The Song of the Setting Sun" (sung by Chief Caupolian) and "My Baby Just Cares for Me" (reprise by Cantor).
Of the song tunes, only three show off the Berkeley style: First "The Cowboy Number," featuring two overhead camera shots of dancing cowboys and girls doing circular formations shots climaxed by snake-like effects; "Stetson" having cowgirls dancing while passing their hats to one another, followed by individual close-ups and camera panning through a leg tunnel; and "The Setting Sun," highlighted with one overhead camera shot of Indian doing formations with their feather hats. Among those in the supporting cast are Albert Hackett as Chester Underwood; Marian Marsh as Harriet Underwood; the George Olson Band, and the 1930 Goldwyn Girls (the most famous one here being Betty Grable).
WHOOPEE, the only Cantor musical reproduced from stage to screen, is a prestigious production. Done in early two-strip Technicolor, considering how many early Technicolor musicals are lost, it's fortunate this one has survived. Unlike the subsequent Cantor/Goldwyn musicals, WHOOPEE never played on commercial television in the 1960s and '70s. It was by 1980 did it finally turn up on cable television before turning up on home video in 1986. While the video transfer to this film is excellent, the color on the TV prints are not as good. It's reflection of the times by ways of making reference to popular hit names as Lawrence Tibbett and Amos and Andy are definitely names that would be of a loss today. Cantor's nervous wreck characterization would be carbon copies by future film comedians, especially Danny Kaye, who's Samuel Goldwyn debut, UP IN ARMS (1944), was a partial reworking to WHOOPEE, though not its remake.
As with other Cantor comedies of the day, some gags are humorous (such as Cantor and character actor Spencer Charters comparing their operations, a gimmick they briefly reprized in Cantor's second Goldwyn musical, PALMY DAYS in 1931), others don't come off as well. One low point occurs when Henry (Cantor), disguised in black-face, calls out to Sally Morgan,. Failing to recognize him, she responds very bluntly, "How dare YOU speak to me!" Quite an uneasy feeling for its viewers that could have been handled differently, with her politely replying, "Do we know each other?" Ethel Shutta, repeating her Miss Custer role from the stage version, is a fine comedienne reminiscent to Warner Brothers' own Winnie Lightner. Unlike Lightner, who appeared in numerous films of the early 1930s, Shutta made this her only screen role during the "golden age of Hollywood."
When WHOOPEE became one of a handful of Eddie Cantor musicals to play on cable channel's American Movie Classics in the 1990s, at one point, host Bob Dorian, before the presentation of the film, asked his viewers to watch the film as it was originally intended and not be offended by some racial slurs, jokes, and Cantor disguised in black-face to keep from being arrested. In spite of how viewers might have felt towards this film then and now, WHOOPEE, played longer and more frequently on AMC (1992 to 1998) than any other Cantor musical. WHOOPEE is one of those Broadway transfers to give contemporary audiences a basic idea of the kind of entertainment endured many generations ago. WHOOPEE, as it stands, remains an interesting antique. (***)
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