29 May 2002 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Hilarious musical comedy
"Palmy Days" is one of comedian Eddie Cantor's funniest films, with some snappy songs, lots of pretty girls, and a genuinely exciting climax in which Eddie and a jacket full of money end up on a conveyor belt heading towards a giant bread-slicer. Even Eddie's obligatory blackface sequence is less obtrusive here (and less offensive) than usual. As with Al Jolson, audiences expected Eddie Cantor to "black up" in burnt cork for at least one song in most of his stage musicals and early movies. (Jolson and Cantor were friends in private life but bitter rivals professionally.)
In "Palmy Days", Eddie plays the meek assistant to a phoney medium, played by Charles ("Ming the Merciless") Middleton, who's trying to swindle Spencer Charters, the superstitious owner of a gigantic bakery/restaurant staffed by dozens of beautiful waitresses and she-chefs in skimpy outfits who perform Busby Berkeley dance routines while baking the crullers. A misunderstanding persuades Charters to engage Eddie as his new time-and-motion expert. When Charters hands Eddie $25,000 cash to dole out to the employees as efficiency bonuses, Middleton and his goons try to kill Eddie so they can steal the cash.
The songs are catchy, with good lyrics and some early Busby Berkeley choreography: not dancing as such, but lots of pretty girls marching in close formation. The jokes are (mostly) very funny. Eddie Cantor often had lacklustre leading ladies, but here he's teamed with Charlotte Greenwood, a long-limbed comedienne who's very funny in her own right and quite appealing (for those of us who fancy an assertive woman). Charlotte leads the girls in a neat gymnastic routine to the tune of "Bend Down, Sister". George Raft is well-cast as one of Middleton's goons.
Some of the gags in this movie are surprisingly blue. A very young Betty Grable does a brief comedy routine with a fussy young man whose favourite flower is a "pansy" (nudge, nudge). There's an amazingly kinky and protracted drag sequence in this film, when Eddie is fleeing from the thugs who are trying to kill him. Eddie puts on a blonde wig and one of the skimpy waitress uniforms, and he hides among several dozen real waitresses.
Eddie Cantor was a small, delicate man with large eyes: when he wears a female disguise in this movie, he comes amazingly close to resembling a good-looking woman! Meanwhile, gym-mistress Charlotte is herding all the waitresses into the changing room so they can undress and take a shower. Charlotte grabs "waitress" Eddie and orders "her" to undress and get into the shower with all the "other" girls. If "waitress" Eddie's male gender gets exposed, he'll get killed. Adding to the kinkiness is a quick reaction shot of Charlotte Greenwood, suggesting that she *knows* this particular "waitress" is really a man in drag. The end of this sequence is astonishing, and I'm surprised it got past the censors: if this movie had been made a year later, the Hays Office would definitely have scissored it.
There's an amusing continuity error in this film. When Charters first hands the $25,000 bonus money to Eddie, it consists of several large stacks of banknotes. A bit later in the film, this same $25,000 has somehow compressed so that Eddie can hide it all inside a single loaf of bread. During the fight scene at the climax of this film, the whole $25,000 has somehow morphed into a single fistful of cash.
They don't make 'em this funny anymore. "Palmy Days" has a big production budget, and most of it shows up on screen in the gorgeous sets and costumes. Try to ignore the brief subplot romance between bland Barbara Weeks (who?) and dull Paul Page (double who?). I'll rate "Palmy Days" 10 points out of 10. Bend down, sister!