Shopping at the Dollar Tree for a passel of leather chew rolls for the dogs, I recently happened to pick up a one buck VHS tape of the 1933 MGM musical comedy, Roman Scandals. (Hold onto some of yer twentieth century electronics, kids, 'cause there's still o' bunch of cheap entertainment to be found in it!)
A vehicle for banjo-eyed trouper Eddie Cantor, the flick's an enjoyable amalgam of pre-Hays Code one-liners and Busby Berkeley-directed showgirl set pieces. Cantor plays an easy-going chump in a Depression Era small-town called New Rome; when he runs afoul of the town avaricious rich guy, he's kicked out of town – and as he tramps his way along the dusty road, he gets conked on the head (or sump'n) and dreams he is back in ancient Rome. In dream Rome, he runs afoul of the Emperor Valeria (durable bad guy Edward Arnold), whose double-dealings none too surprisingly parallel those that we’ve already seen in New Rome.
Not much different from the kind of movie comedy that Danny Kaye would be making in the forties and fifties (there's even a poisoned food bit that anticipates one of Kaye's more famous movie routines), Cantor gets several song-and-dance bits (music courtesy of Al Dubin and Harry Warren) in addition to his good-natured clowning about.
The Busby Berkeley showpieces provide his pronounced blend of the titillating and the bizarre. In one, singer Ruth Etting, playing one of the emperor's slave girls, does a torch ballad that turns into a long parade of "naked" blond-haired lovelies being chained to the wall and whipped as a group of fat Roman senators leer suggestively. (On the basis of this and Hips, Hips, Hooray!, Rute Etting seemed to have a knack for getting prime billing in pictures that basically required her to sing one big number and then disappear for the rest of the movie.)
In a second, Cantor disguises himself as an "Ethiopian beauty specialist" using some remarkably durable mud to put himself in blackface. He sings to a chorus girl audience of blond slaves and their black hairdressers – who both get to tap and parade around in typical Berkeley fashion before Cantor is inadvertently exposed by lifting his toga while dancing and showing off his lily white thighs. They force him into a steam room to get the rest of the mud off him, and then turn on the steam. But when he emerges, he's Billy Barty with the mud still on him!
The movie has a negligible romance in it, of course, which is primarily notable for featuring a young Gloria Stuart and David Manners (the gallant hero of several Universal horror flicks) in the roles. Lucille Ball reportedly shows up as one of the Goldwyn Girls, but I've gotta admit I didn't pick her out from the crowd. Again, since the movie was released a year before the Hays Office, some of the jokes go beyond what would later be considered respectable. In my favorite, Eddie is confronted by a duo of menacing Roman Legionnaires, who threaten to kill him. "You can't kill me – I haven't been born yet," Eddie yelps. "It wouldn't only be murder, it'd be birth control!" To be honest, that particular punchline caught me off guard.
As a movie comedian, Cantor (much like satchel-mouthed comic Joe E. Brown) is probably better known for the cartoon caricatures that were done of him by the Warner Bros. studios than his own work – which, on the evidence of Roman Scandals, is a shame. He carries the picture, which reportedly was par for this notorious camera hog, but you don't mind since he comes across so instantly affable.
There's some decent slapstick in the flick (most notably involving a mishandled bullwhip) and a nice comic chariot chase in the end, but the bulk of the laffs come from Cantor's disarming way of delivering wisecracks – which, even at their most deflating, don't crack his agreeable demeanor. (Reportedly, Cantor had pages of verbal jokes by such venerable gagmen like Nat Perrin inserted into the script – which reportedly did not set well with original authors George S. Kaufman and Robert Sherwood.)
A solid example of Depression Era musical comedy that I'd recommend looking out for — Turner Classic Movies has broadcast it in the past during the wee small hours of the morning, but if you've got a Dollar Tree in the area, why not check it out there? It'd be a buck well spent.