The star of this film, Eddie Cantor, was as all-around a performer as there can be. He was a star in vaudeville, on Broadway, in tours, and in films, as well as on radio and television.
Here he is supported by Tony Martin, Roland Young, June Lang, Louise Hovick (who would soon change her name to Gypsy Rose Lee), Douglas Dumbrille, John Carradine, Virginia Field, and Alan Dinehart.
Aloysius (“Just call me Al”) Babson, played by Eddie, is riding the rails to Hollywood with his autograph book in hand. He has transformed a freight car into a rudimentary living room/ kitchen and made himself at home. When two real hoboes join him he tries to make the best of it, but they take his coffee and are generally unpleasant. When he describes his mission to Hollywood, they demand a song and Eddie sings and dances to “(You’ve Got to) Laugh Your Way Through Life”. His dance is the famous one where he claps his fingertips together while more or less skipping back and forth. Unfortunately he skips backward right out the door and falls down a hill somewhere in the desert. As the train moves on, he starts walking and sees in the distance the spires and minarets of Bagdad. Dumbfounded, he continues walking. As he nears the city he hears shouting and turns to see a horde of Bedouins riding down on him. He runs for the city gates, but collides with two men galloping their steeds close together and all five (3 men, 2 horses) fall to the ground. All are okay except Al, who is unconscious. He is carried to a tent labeled First Aid, and he wakes up in the infirmary of a Twentieth Century Fox location shoot in the care of Nurse Dinah (Virginia Field). The doctor (Charles Lane) and Broderick (John Carradine) arrive and “Doc” pronounces Al sound, so Broderick shoves a disability consent form at Al. Al looks past the men at Dinah who is shaking her head no, don’t sign, so he refuses. The result is that Broderick keeps sweetening the offer until he agrees to sign Al on as an extra for $25 a day! Then, per Doc’s instructions, Dinah gives Al a pill bottle and tells him to take 2 pills at 12 o’clock. On set he is one of the 40 thieves, and climbs into a jar. As he starts to sit down, he hears the director Boland (Alan Dinehart) grouse, “Two o’clock and not a single shot yet!” And he starts muttering, “12 pills at 2 o’clock”. He takes the pills and passes out in the jar, and dreams that he exits the jar in the real Bagdad. Now the actors have become the real people they play: Roland Young is Sultan Abdullah, Louise Hovick is the Sultana, June Lang is Princess Miriam, and Douglas Dumbrille is the Sultana’s evil brother Prince Musah. Later we will meet Tony Martin as Miriam’s boyfriend Yusuf, Carradine again as Musah’s henchman Ishak, and Virginia Field as the niece of Omar the Rug Maker (Maurice Cass).
Al introduces himself and everyone takes him for Ali Baba Jr. so Sultan Abdullah quickly makes him his prime minister. When Al learns that the bulk of the people don’t have enough work and therefore food, he tells Abdullah that he should do what Al’s people do: “They put the people on relief.”
“Relief? What’s that?”
“They make the rich support the poor. You see, they take from those who have too much, and give it to those who have too little.. That relieves everybody – the poor of their hunger and the rich of their money.”
“Oh. Sounds all quite simple.”
“Simple? You think so? You should see one of our income tax forms.”
“Does everybody pay taxes?”
“Everybody except those who work for the government.”
“And who works for the government?”
“Pretty much everybody. You see, with the money they get from taxing the rich, they make work for the poor. The more work for the poor, the more profit for the rich. Then they tax ’em again. That makes more work, more profit, more taxes, more work… That’s the American Way. They call it the New Deal.”
“Well, if they go on taxing and taxing, where will it all end?”
“That’s just what they were worrying about when I left.”
When Al sees a group of African men in tribal garb he asks the Sultan who they are. The Sultan says they are his musicians from Africa who speak a strange tongue. Al tries French, Spanish, Italian, and Yiddish, and then in a burst of insight, tries, “Hi dee hi dee ho?” And he gets the reply, “Hee dee hee dee hee?”, and in a few more exchanges they achieve complete understanding. Al puts on blackface, always a large part of Cantor’s act, and he and the men sing and dance to “Swing Is Here To Stay” (Who cares if spring is here, as long as swing is here?). This erupts into a really outstanding production number featuring a tap routine from Jeni Le Gon and a separate specialty number from the Peters Sisters. The swing infects Ishak and Musah, and finally Abdullah himself is getting jiggy and doing a good job of it too. Since I reviewed “Finian’s Rainbow” I’ve gotten less upset and more calm about this sort of thing, and just accept it as a relic of a less enlightened time. Plus I can’t deny that for performers, working is better than not working.
Later Al meets Dinah (here she is Deena) at her uncle’s rug making place, and when asked for help finding the word that will make the rug work, he says, “What does it do? Beat itself?”
Then Abdullah runs for President (Al and Yusuf sing “Vote for Honest Abe”), and Musah raises an army to take the city and make himself Sultan, and in his camp there is another specialty dance – this one by the Pearl Twins.
Will Al find the magic word? More important: will he ever wake up?
This is a musical comedy, but with political satire and action as well. Overall I liked it a lot, and I really wanted to know how those three female specialty acts fared in the ’40s. Well, the Pearl Twins, unfortunately, not so well. This movie was their second and last appearance on film. But Jeni Le Gon worked all her life, appearing in her first film, “Hooray for Love” (1935) as dancing partner to Bill Robinson. She performed in film and on Broadway, and made her last appearance as Widow Granny in the Snoop Dogg movie “Bones” (2001). And the Peters Sisters (Edith Peters, Joyce Peters, and Virginia Vee), who were signed by Cantor himself for this film, then went to the Cotton Club to sing with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. In 1938 they moved to England and performed there throughout the war, and after the war they fulfilled a long-standing booking at the Folies Bergere. In the ’50s they toured North and South America, remaining famous and active in England.
Directed by David Butler, who would later direct musicals at Warners, with a screenplay written by Harry Tugend and Jack Yellen, based on a story by Gene Towne, Graham Baker, and Gene Fowler,
Thanks, Andy and Tiffany!