- "Eddie Cantor Fights the Nazis:The Evolution of a Jewish Celebrity"1
One morning in February 1936, Tamar de Sola Pool interrupted Eddie Cantor's breakfast at the posh Hollywood Beach Hotel in South Florida with a proposition. Pool was president of the New York chapter of Hadassah, The Women's Zionist Organization of America. She wanted Cantor to support a new campaign for Youth Aliyah, a German organization that was helping teenagers from Europe immigrate to Palestine.2 Pool may have suspected that Cantor, one of America's most popular entertainers, would be sympathetic to Youth Aliyah because of his history of supporting Jewish charities and labor guilds. He did not disappoint her. Cantor made numerous appearances for Youth Aliyah at a time when public figures of Cantor's stature, including most other Jewish celebrities who were politically active, rarely discussed their religious faith in public. Cantor became Youth Aliyah's biggest fundraiser and Hadassah's "number one boy friend." In addition, Cantor's involvement offered Youth Aliyah credibility as a "big-time campaign" and helped Hadassah form partnerships with other Zionist organizations in the United States and Palestine.3
During the mid-1930s, Cantor wanted to modify his image by showing the public that he was more serious and intelligent than his movie and radio roles suggested. Cantor starred in seven movies from 1930 to 1937, playing a variation of the same character in all of them. The Cantor hero is a timid weakling who finds himself in dangerous, alien territory. Yet he somehow manages to survive through a combination of luck, resourcefulness, and the kindness of others, usually women, who provide maternal protection. Even as Cantor approached his mid-forties, the father of five was cast as an effeminate and naïve young man. The Cantor formula was enormously successful. Three Cantor vehicles—The [End Page 235] Kid from Spain (1932), Roman Scandals (1933) and Strike Me Pink (1936)—ranked among the top twenty films in box office receipts from 1932 to 1940. In addition, Whoopee! (1930) was the tenth-ranked film from 1914 to 1931.4 On radio, where Cantor was also among the most popular and highly paid talents, he performed manic comedy skits with a cast of quirky sidekicks and amused guests.
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In 1928, Cantor wrote that one day he hoped to appear in a "straight play where I will not have to depend on singing or dancing or clapping of hands to get my effect, but upon the simple ability of acting, which maybe I have, after all."5 When Pool recruited him in 1936, Cantor had [End Page 236] not achieved this goal. He was starring in Strike Me Pink, the last in a series of formulaic films that he made for United Artists and producer Sam Goldwyn. After the movie's release, Cantor broke with Goldwyn because the producer refused to slot him in more diverse roles. Cantor left his next studio, Twentieth Century-Fox, in 1938 for similar reasons. As biographer Gregory Koseluk explained, "Cantor obviously was looking for a change. It would seem he was seeking to mature his screen character before he outgrew it."6
Cantor's anti-Nazi activities facilitated a broader public makeover from 1936 to 1939. Cantor raised funds and made anti-Nazi speeches during appearances for Hadassah and other Jewish organizations, delivering a consistent message: He was a Jew and there was a war against Jews in Germany that was spilling over into the United States. Cantor identified dangerous senators, priests, and industrialists; warned of growing American Nazi groups; and promised to continue his crusade, despite threats to his life and his livelihood as a performer. His bold statements attracted a great deal of coverage in the major daily newspapers and entertainment industry trade journals. By acknowledging his religion and speaking to the pressing issue of his times, Cantor revitalized his public image...