powered by AFI
Comedian Eddie Cantor, movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn's consistent moneymaker, even during the dreary days of the Depression, presented another hit to the producer with The Kid from Spain (1932). In a year when a loaf of bread cost seven cents and a pound of hamburger ten, the audacious Goldwyn dared to charge $2.20 per ticket during the movie's New York roadshow engagement. It was more than showmanship that prompted the independent Goldwyn to push the ticket price envelope; he had borrowed a cool million bucks from Bank of America to make the musical extravaganza and his company's financial future was by no means assured. The grim state of the U.S. economy combined with all the money tied up in his own productions - Goldwyn's and everybody else's stock investments had lost ground - put the producer personally on the line for his company's continued existence.
Born in 1892, the energetic Cantor, a kid from Lower East Side New York, had crafted his musical comedy act from his early days on Coney Island as a teenage singing waiter to the vaudeville stage where he became famous for both his song interpretations in traditional blackface and his own unique brand of ethnic comedy which delighted New York City audiences. He was soon snapped up by impresario Florenz Ziegfeld and eventually featured in the legendary Ziegfeld Follies alongside stars like Will Rogers, Bert Williams and W.C. Fields. Cantor had his first solo Broadway hit in 1923 with Kid Boots, and after his 1928 show Whoopee! became a big hit, Samuel Goldwyn brought him to Hollywood to make the movie adaptation of Whoopee! (1930, filmed in 2-strip Technicolor), his first feature film (he had previously appeared in some movie shorts). When the film made a tidy profit, Goldwyn wanted to start on another Cantor movie immediately.
Eddie Cantor already had a story in mind for his second film. He loved the idea of basing a movie around the real-life exploits of his childhood friend Sidney Franklin, an artist from Brooklyn who had gone to Mexico to paint and study history but ended up learning to bullfight. Franklin eventually became one of the top bullfighters in the world, headlining in corridas in Spain and Mexico, and making friends with fellow bullfighting aficionado Ernest Hemingway who would write about him in Death in the Afternoon, the writer's non-fiction study of the sport. Cantor could already envision a slapstick ending to his proposed movie, a madcap bullring scene with Eddie's consummate coward character meeting a bull face-to-face.
Goldwyn wasn't convinced and told Eddie that he wasn't sure the public wanted a Spanish-themed musical comedy. Even though Cantor tried to sell him on the universality of the comic bullfighting pantomime that would appeal to audiences anywhere -- including the lucrative European market -- Goldwyn chose instead to star Eddie in Palmy Days (1931), a frantic comedy hit which eventually made over a million dollars at the box office. After sewing up Cantor's services with a multi-picture contract, the producer reconsidered and purchased the bullfighter story. He engaged songwriters Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar, composers of hits like "Three Little Words" and the songs for Marx Brothers' films such as Animal Crackers (1930) and Horse Feathers (1932), as screenwriters. He also hired scenarist William Anthony McGuire who had written Whoopee! and Kid Boots for Cantor. Ruby and Kalmar, along with Cantor and musical director Alfred Newman, took a shortened version of the script and score to San Francisco, where Eddie tried out the material at a theatre over multiple daily shows for a week's engagement, getting audience reactions and honing the jokes.
Back in Hollywood with a crowd-tested script and songs, Eddie and the gang were paired up with director Leo McCarey, a Hal Roach Studio veteran writer/director of Our Gang, Charley Chase and Laurel & Hardy comedy shorts who had graduated into features. The Kid from Spain would be photographed by Gregg Toland, one of the youngest and most innovative cinematographers in Hollywood, who worked extensively for Goldwyn during the 1930s. He would later go on to pioneer the deep focus technique as seen in Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941). Choreographer and dance director Busby Berkeley was brought on to stage the elaborate musical sequences, a job he had already performed on previous Cantor hits Whoopee! and Palmy Day.
Actress Lyda Roberti was cast as Cantor's female co-star. Roberti was a show business veteran; her father was a famous German clown, and her mother a circus bareback rider from Poland. Lyda began her career under the tent, traveling all over Europe and Asia with her parents' troupe, and ended up stranded in Shanghai when the circus went bankrupt. Roberti literally sang and danced for her supper, eventually saving up enough money to sail to San Francisco and start her performing career there on the vaudeville stage. After continuing on to Los Angeles where her performing career prospered, Lyda eventually caught the eye of stage comedian Lou Holtz who offered her a job in his next show if she'd come to New York. She did, and wowed the Broadway audiences with her blonde beauty and charming, unique accent. She returned to the West Coast to star in movies; The Kid from Spain was her fourth, coming directly after her female lead in the W.C. Field's comedy Million Dollar Legs (1932). Unfortunately, the talented Roberti was plagued by health problems and died of a heart attack in 1938 at the age of 31.
The rest of the cast of The Kid from Spain was filled with both new faces and veteran screen and stage performers. Robert Young was improbably cast but competent as Ricardo, Eddie's Mexican friend and the picture's male romantic lead. Offscreen Young was an introvert who was encouraged to become an actor by his future wife who introduced him to the Pasadena Playhouse in Los Angeles. Actress Ruth Hall, who had appeared onscreen with the Marx Brothers in Monkey Business (1931), played Young's girlfriend Rosalie. John Miljan, one-time silent leading man who transitioned into playing villains (after surmising that his matinee idol days were behind him), co-starred as Pancho, Ricardo's suave bullfighter rival for Rosalie's hand. Noah Beery, who had been in movies since 1913 and was the brother of Wallace Beery, played Rosalie's father. J. Carrol Naish appeared as Pedro, Pancho's evil henchman, who was instrumental in setting up the movie's final and riotous sequence, the comedy bullfight with Eddie mistaking a savage bull for a promised harmless opponent.
As with all of his musicals, Samuel Goldwyn was proud of the dazzling line-up of chorus girls, known as the Goldwyn Girls, who appeared in the elaborate song and dance sequences of The Kid from Spain. Nearly thirty beautiful young actresses labored in their uncredited roles in the movie, including young Jane Wyman, Paulette Goddard, Toby Wing and Betty Grable, all platinum blondes at the time. Busby Berkeley put the lovelies through their paces in two characteristically elaborate musical sequences, the first a swimming pool-set number with the scantily clad Goldwyn Girls going about their duties wearing high heels. They were also featured in a fantastical sequence set inside a Mexican nightclub.
Bullfighter Sidney Franklin, Eddie's inspiration for The Kid from Spain, even made a brief appearance as himself in the movie; in fact, on the day of the filming of the big bullfight finale, the location was packed with some of Hollywood's biggest names. Goldwyn had invited his pals to watch the sequence; disguised under huge sombreros, Harpo Marx, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Douglas Fairbanks enjoyed watching Eddie Cantor go through his comic paces. And of course there was at least one choice "Goldwynism" connected with The Kid from Spain (the producer was famous for his malapropisms). Frustrated with a string of bad weather days that held up filming, Goldwyn railed at director Leo McCarey: "Tomorrow we shoot, whether it rains, whether it snows, whether it stinks."
Goldwyn needn't have worried too much about making his money back on The Kid from Spain. Eddie Cantor's hilarious comedy antics won over audiences, and many critics as well. Mordaunt Hall in The New York Times called it "an astutely arranged combination of fun and beauty, with such effective groupings of dancing girls that these scenes themselves aroused applause." The Los Angeles Express called it "one of the funniest, most exciting, most eye-filling comedies yet offered on the screen."
Although The Kid from Spain didn't match the box office success of Palmy Days, it was still a great success for Goldwyn and Eddie Cantor. And the film's star, revealing his lower East Side roots, had something to say about Goldwyn's ambitious New York City ticket price at the lush Palace Theater. Commenting in a letter to Variety he revealed, "I'd be much happier if The Kid from Spain were playing at the Rivoli for 75 cents."
Producer: Samuel Goldwyn
Director: Leo McCarey
Screenplay: Bert Kalmar, William Anthony McGuire, Harry Ruby
Cinematography: Gregg Toland
Art Direction: Richard Day
Music: Harry Ruby
Film Editing: Stuart Heisler
Cast: Eddie Cantor (Eddie Williams aka Don Sebastian II), Lyda Roberti (Rosalie), Robert Young (Ricardo), Ruth Hall (Anita Gomez), John Miljan (Pancho), Noah Beery (Alonzo Gomez), J. Carrol Naish (Pedro), Robert Emmett O'Connor (Det. Crawford), Stanley Fields (Jose), Paul Porcassi (Gonzales), Sidney Franklin (himself, the American Matador).
by Lisa Mateas