This weekend I celebrated a milestone birthday, and my confectionery of choice was ice cream. That got me thinking of the technicolor conclusion of Kid Millions (1934). If you’ve never seen the film, watching the above clip won’t spoil you. It’s pure fantasy that’s mostly unrelated to the film’s complicated comedy plot.
In this film, Eddie Cantor‘s character Eddie Wilson, Jr. has a dream of a better life for him, his sweetheart, and children. Once he escapes his life of poverty and toil aboard a barge, he wants to open up an ice cream factory that will give away its sweet product for free to children. The bulk of the film is him trying to claim a previously unknown inheritance to make all his dreams come true.
The ending sequence remains amazing today, so it must have made a tremendous impact on its original depression-era audience. Beautiful women in silky pajama-like outfits dance, sing, and make ice cream on huge sets with giant props. It’s as if Busby Berkeley had never become a choreographer, but had been a factory foreman instead. The film’s actual choreographer Seymour Felix must have had a blast coming up with routines.
In a time when many were without a lot, here was a scene filled with giant shakes, fruit, chocolate, bottles of milk, and plates of ice cream with no end of abundance in sight. Anyone of any age watching the screen children break down the door to rush into the factory would understand that urge. They’d trample Eddie for a taste of happiness.
Poor Eddie has a hard time today, too. For someone once so famous and celebrated, he’s not very well-known. He was a multi-media star (stage, radio, records, films, TV, and books), and he was awarded an honorary Oscar. Yes, his jokes seemed old when he told them, but as a performer I find him engaging and entertaining, so I laugh.
If an average person has a hint of who he was, he’s either Banjo Eyes or more likely that blackface performer. The latter is probably why his movies are not often revived. In his films there’s inevitably a scene of him performing in blackface. This performance form is no longer favorably viewed today, but back when Eddie started it was much more common, particularly in vaudeville and in film for a short while.
It’s a shame that often overshadows his performances, his humanitarian work, and his support of performers of color, like Sammy Davis, Jr. Just look at his version of utopia in Kid Millions. Sitting together in the same room eating their Neapolitan ice cream is an integrated cast of children. There’s even a pan of the room in which a row of African-American children are momentarily spotlighted. This was unusual at the time and had to be by design. Cantor’s heavenly ice cream social was for all children.