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 naive young man. The Cantor formula was enormously successful. Three Cantor vehicles--The 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 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 while raising several hundred thousand dollars to aid Jewish refugees emigrating from Germany. He also contributed to the American anti-Nazi movement.
Jewish activists like Cantor faced many challenges. Religious and lay leaders recognized Hitler as a threat to Jews everywhere from the time the Nazis took power in 1933. However, they disagreed about how American Jews could best help their coreligionists abroad while neutralizing antisemitism at home. During the 1930s, antisemitic organizations became more visible in the United States, incidents of physical abuse against Jews increased, and opinion polls indicated that a significant number of Americans had low opinions of Jews. (7) In this environment, prominent Jews, including Cantor, rarely campaigned for major changes in U.S. immigration or foreign policy that might have saved more European Jews. (8) Nevertheless, American Jews drew media attention to the increasingly horrific conditions in Germany and warned concerned Americans that their country could be next by holding large anti-Nazi theatrical productions, boycotts, and demonstrations. Zionist plays were designed "to remedy, however slightly, the sense of powerlessness that pervaded Jewish experience [and] to activate feelings of solidarity that dispersal had stifled." (9) The American Jewish movement to boycott German goods, which started in 1933, had similar "symbolic and therapeutic effects. It gave supporters the sense that Nazism could be opposed abroad much as anti-Semitism was at home--by fighting against it." (10)
Cantor participated in this effort to increase public awareness about antisemitism while bolstering American Jewish morale. He presented Jews as patriotic Americans, encouraged Jews to be proud of their heritage, and raised funds for Jewish charities that supported European refugees. Cantor condemned antisemitic laws and practices in Germany, but he also presented Nazism as an attack on the decency, tolerance, and kindness that were the foundations of American society. Cantor's activism during the early 1930s consisted primarily of performances at benefits, which raised funds and provided implicit endorsements of charities and political causes. Later in the decade, he became increasingly outspoken in his speeches, writings, newspaper interviews, and radio performances.
Cantor's Early Jewish Activism
Throughout his career, Cantor was proud of his devotion to Jewish charities, especially those that helped children. When Cantor headlined a 1921 concert benefiting the Home for Jewish Children in Boston, his agent, Max Hart, remarked on the young star's strong sentiments for "this kind of charity." (11) During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Cantor lent his name and talents to several Jewish federation, Zionist, and anti-Nazi campaigns. The biggest events were the annual "Night of Stars" shows, which featured hundreds of celebrities in support of the United Palestine Appeal and other organizations that facilitated Jewish settlement in Palestine. Cantor served on the planning board for several productions, starting in 1934, and appeared in the 1938 and 1940 editions. A crowd of 35,000 flocked to the debut "Night of Stars," held at Yankee Stadium, on September 20, 1934. Its 300 stars included Jack Benny, George Jessel, Bill Robinson, George Burns, and Gracie Allen. In 1935, the show moved to Madison Square Garden, where it remained for the next several years. While celebrity benefits were not new, the scale of "Night of Stars" was striking, as was its pro-Zionist, anti-Nazi agenda. Event chairman Nathan Strauss explained that "Night of Stars" was not merely a fundraiser. It also served the broader political purposes of protesting against discrimination in Germany and offering "moral support" to the victims of Nazi persecution. (12)
Cantor made his first public anti-Nazi statements in response to bans of his films. In June 1934, Der Angriff, the newspaper owned by Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, attacked Roman Scandals (1933). The film, asserted Der Angriff, "illustrates the Jewish sadism which prevails in American films." (13) During a January 1935 trip to London, Cantor indicated that he didn't mind losing access to audiences in Germany: "Why should I send my films to Germany and make people laugh who make my people cry?" Cantor repeated the remark in discussing the Nazi ban of another film, The Kid From Spain (1932), at a 1935 benefit for the Catholic Actors Guild in New York. (14) In an evening filled with light entertainment, Cantor's statement stood out.
As someone who understood the persuasive power of the mass media, Cantor was especially concerned about Father Charles Coughlin, the popular priest whose radio show and newspaper often carried antisemitic messages. On July 1, 1935, Cantor delivered a sharp address at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles before some 1,000 B'nai B'rith convention delegates and guests, including California Governor Frank Merriam and Hollywood executive Irving Thalberg. "Father Coughlin is a great orator but I doubt that he has a sincere atom in his entire system." said Cantor, whose appearance was described by Time as "sober and articulate." He may have anticipated that Coughlin or his followers would accuse him of being anti-Catholic or anti-Christian, as he continued, "We Jews have nothing to fear from good Christians ... but I am afraid of people who pretend to be good Christians. I am also afraid of Jews who are not good Jews." Cantor recognized the political dangers of domestic antisemites such as Coughlin: "We are living in precarious times. You know the situation in Europe as far as Jews are concerned; but I doubt if many of you know how close to the same situation we are in [in] America." (15)
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Cantor's speech stimulated debate at the B'nai B'rith convention that mirrored broader discussions during this time about whether to address domestic antisemitism. The evening's next speaker, San Francisco Judge I.M. Golden, disagreed with Cantor, claiming that "we need have no fear concerning our position in this country. We may well be assured that the...