“Big Chief Izzy Horowitz”: Theatricality and Jewish Identity in the Wild West
In the American musical theater, self-consciously theatrical characters have enormous freedom to determine their place within the social and cultural framework of the stage community.(1) Unlike characters who lack theatrical self-awareness, those who can adopt numerous characters in the course of a single play, altering their outward appearance, language, and gestures to suit the moment, are especially powerful in the world of the musical. They establish a special relationship with the ultimate arbiters of theatrical success–the audience beyond the footlights. The audience members are in on the secret; having seen the performer transform him- or herself, they are not fooled by the changes and can share the pleasure of watching the rest of the cast–the straight men–become increasingly confused.
To American Jews of the 1920s and 1930s this ability to transform oneself was essential both on and off the stage. In the volatile interwar years in which American identity was perpetually being redefined, Jews often found themselves held up as examples in a public debate on immigration, assimilation and Americanness.(2) The definition of the Jew was of particular concern: were Jews an ethnic and cultural group, and hence assimilable, or were they a racially distinct people who could never become true Americans?(3) In America there are only two operative racial categories, white and nonwhite, and privilege has always rested with the former. For Jews, especially those immigrating from Southern and Eastern Europe, being defined on the grounds of racial difference meant being defined as non-white. The danger of being essentialized, locked into an unwanted racial self-definition, therefore, was clear: to be racially other was to be forever excluded from the privileged white American community.(4) For this reason many Jews resisted racial definitions and clung tenaciously to the notion that one could become an American simply by adopting American culture, language and appearance. The musicals of the 1920s and 30s, many of them written and performed by Jews from immigrant backgrounds, likewise suggest a vehement opposition to rigid racial categorizations, advocating instead a more fluid conception of identity. Emerging from immigrant families and desperate to become Americans, Jewish performers in particular understood the crucial importance of being able to adopt whatever personae they chose. Their ability to become someone else with a simple change of costume helped them to negotiate the perilous landscape of American racial ideology both on and off stage.
A popular setting for late 1920s and early 1930s musicals, the Wild West in particular highlighted the importance of theatrical role-playing in an environment in which identity was inherently unstable. While the West may seem an unlikely setting for such an urban form as the Broadway musical, there are actually striking similarities between the mythical West of the nineteenth century and the mythical city of the early twentieth. According to Daniel Boorstin, “the modern American city [was] to be a twentieth-century American West, with its own special vagueness, its own mysteries, its own false promises and booster hopes” (246). Like the streets of New York City, the mythical nineteenth-century American West promised anonymity and freedom from conventional social hierarchies.(5) The newcomer in a Wild West town was like an immigrant–he started fresh. No one knew who he was, or where he came from, and so his chances of success depended on how well he inhabited the role he chose.(6) As in the theater, success in the mythical Wild West was largely dependent on the ability to perform-the best shot or the best horseman quickly earned the respect of the local community.
While both settings called for capable role-playing, however, the specific skills required for success in the West or in the immigrant neighborhoods of New York differed significantly. The mythical West was populated by the mythical Western man-the cowboy. Dubbed by Daniel Boorstin “the first American athletic idol,” the hero of the Western housed “a strong character in a sturdy physique.” His skills included “the agility to dodge’ Indian arrows, the stamina to ride for days, and the boldness to match fists with all comers.”(7) The mythical immigrant in the city, on the other hand, was more likely to depend on wit and facility with language than on physical talents to become a successful urban American. The two most successful Wild West comedies of the period, Donaldson and Kahn’s Ziegfeld extravaganza Whoopee (1929) and George and Ira Gershwin’s musical comedy Girl Crazy (1930), create their humor by placing characters equipped with one set of skills (wit) into situations where the other (brawn) is required. Both musicals feature specifically Jewish comic characters who depend on their witty performance skills to insure their survival.(8) They are always dressing up in order to get out of trouble. In a flash they don Indian headdresses, blackface makeup or women’s dresses to outwit their pursuers. Using these performance techniques, these self-conscious and highly theatrical Jewish characters not only evade their would-be captors but triumph over them.
Overlaying the basic comic structure of wit versus brawn is a politics of gender and racial identity. Those who fight to win the West (cowboys) are white, male and heterosexual. Those who must gain admittance through wit and role-playing (Jews) are of suspect sexuality and often appear in nonwhite disguises. Because the musicals themselves are urban phenomena, however, originating on Broadway, not in Arizona or Texas, sympathy always remains with the misplaced (and nonwhite) urbanite, not with the all-American cowboy. The unlikely presence of an urban Jewish immigrant in the Wild West is funny then precisely because the Jew, with his superior theatrical skills, is capable of outwitting and outperforming the cowboys. While the Jewish characters in Whoopee and Girl Crazy may be threatened by the circumstances in which the plot and setting place them (indeed they are usually running for their lives), they are never in real danger because they, and only they, control the boundaries of the performance itself. And though the cowboy may be able to shoot a gun in the course of the play, the Jewish comic can (and often does) stop the show.(9) Unlike the cowboy, the comic is aware that there is an audience just beyond the boundaries of his story, a plot that must be resolved, and a curtain that must eventually come down.(10)
The musical theater form of the 1920s and 30s privileged this selfconscious style of performance. Characters in Whoopee and Girl Crazy have little psychological depth; rather, their boundaries are determined by their role in the plot, the type of songs they sing, and the way they look. Little motivation (if any) is necessary for a number to begin, and numbers are as much about the celebration of the performers’ skills as about plot or character development. The musical theater of the 1920s and 1930s was, in fact, a meritocracy, and Jewish performers (and the characters they played) worked hard to come out ahead.
Based on the Owen Davis play, The Nervous Wreck (1923), Whoopee was created as a musical vehicle for Jewish performer Eddie Cantor, who played Henry Williams, a hypochondriac sent to California to improve his health. The thin fabric of the plot concerns Sally Morgan, daughter of a ranch owner, who is unhappily engaged to marry Sheriff Bob. She has been forbidden by her father to marry her true love, Wanenis, because he is half-Indian. The curtain rises on the wedding scene, with hundreds of chorus girls and cowboys preparing for the big event. At the last minute Sally convinces Henry to help her escape, and they drive away with the sheriff’s entire posse hot on their trail. The rest of the play involves Henry’s and Sally’s adventures in outwitting their pursuers. Henry hides from the cowboys by posing as a cook, a blackface minstrel, and an Indian. They finally end up in safety on the Indian reservation where Sally and Wanenis are happily united after Chief Black Eagle reveals that Wanenis is actually white. Henry also finds himself engaged to his nurse (Miss Custer), a dominatrix with a penchant for weak men, and both couples live happily ever after, “making whoopee.” Florenz Ziegfeld presented the highly successful production on Broadway in 1928 and 1929. Among the hit songs from the musical were “Making Whoopee,” “Love Me or Leave Me,” and “I’m Bringing a Red, Red Rose.” MGM produced a film version in 1930 with the same cast, which closely approximates the Broadway style, and added the popular Cantor hit “My Baby Just Cares for Me.”(11)
Girl Crazy also enjoyed enormous success in 1930. Originally written for the Jewish comic star Bert Lahr, it instead ended up starring the Jewish vaudevillian Willie Howard. Both Ginger Rogers and Ethel Merman had their first Broadway hits in the production, Merman alone stopping the show seven times The pit orchestra was comprised of an extraordinary ensemble of future jazz greats including Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Glenn Miller, and Jimmy Dorsey. And the score included numerous unforgettable Gershwin tunes such as “Embraceable You,” “Sam and Delilah,” “I Got Rhythm,” and “But Not for Me.”
Like Whoopee, Girl Crazy covers familiar musical comedy ground. Danny Churchill, wealthy New York playboy, is sent out West by his father so that he will stop chasing girls. Upon arrival, however, he meets Molly (played by Ginger Rogers), the postmistress and the only girl in the area. He decides to liven up the scene by turning his father’s cattle farm into a dude ranch for city folks, complete with a gambling hall and nightclub acts. He imports all of his friends from New York to work on the ranch, and hence enough women arrive to provide the requisite leggy chorus. He also hires Slick, a gambler, and his wife Frisco Kate (played by Ethel Merman) to run the nightclub. Various complications ensue in his romance with Molly, who does not think Danny has the right stuff to be a cowboy. But while the whole gang is in Mexico on an evening’s romp the love story falls into place. By the end Molly is ready to move to New York as Danny’s wife and all is well with the world.
Woven into this straightforward plot is another story, that of Gieber Goldfarb. Gieber is the Jewish taxi driver who drives Danny all the way from Broadway and 48th Street to Custerville, Arizona. Finding that he is out of gas, Gieber is compelled to stay in the West with Danny. His encounter with the Wild West is not quite so smooth as Danny’s, however. In fact, for most of the play he is running for his life. In a few short hours Gieber appears not only as a taxi driver but also as an Indian, a sheriff, a woman, and a variety of famous performers. Like Eddie Cantor’s Henry Williams, Willie Howard’s Gieber is a master of disguise and of theatricality. Unlike the other characters in the play, Gieber, like Henry, perpetually breaks the stage illusion, reminding the audience that they are in a theater and that he is simply an actor playing a role.
In addition to being a highly theatrical character, Gieber assumes that those around him are also performers. In the first scene the cowboys prepare to lynch Gieber, who insists that they are just actors and that he has stumbled onto the set of a Hollywood Western.(12) So self-conscious is Gieber about his position as an actor in a theater that he refuses to acknowledge the reality of danger:
Gieber: Say, you fellers can’t kid me. That shootin’ wasn’t on the level. I
know you’re just a bunch of movie actors out on location. The west ain’t
like this really … Yeah … I’ll bet there ain’t one of you’se hams that
knows which end a gun shoots from. (1-1-8)
The cowboys become even more menacing and try to tie Gieber’s hands. Gieber still refuses to believe they are for real, and also throws in a joke about his Jewishness:
Gieber: You can’t tie my hands … Ain’t this gonna be a talking picture?
How can I work in it? (1-1-8)
Gieber’s (supposed) inability to talk without his hands sets him apart from the reticent cowboys, and the fact that they do not get the joke sets up an important device which operates throughout the play. Gieber’s humor is for the audience; the cowboys (who never get the jokes) serve as straight men. Despite the fact that they hold Gieber at gunpoint, it is Gieber who has the ear of the audience and hence the upper hand on the stage.
Both Gieber and Henry establish their Jewishness through selfconscious comic asides to the audience. When Wanenis, explaining the effort he has made to assimilate to white culture, tells Henry that he “studied the ways of [his] race” and attended “his schools,” Henry exclaims, “An Indian in a Hebrew School!” Wanenis does not respond, but we can assume that the audience did.(13) When Henry is invited to smoke a peace pipe with Chief Black Eagle, he sings (to the tune of “Old Man River”) “Old Black Eagle and old man Siegal” (2-5) and later, when the Chief offers to make him an Indian, Henry exclaims, “Big Chief Izzy Horowitz!”(14) Dressed as an Indian and bargaining with a tourist over the price of a blanket, Henry begins haggling in Yiddish and ends by dancing and singing an “Indian melody” which sounds more like a Hasidic niggun. Neither Black Eagle nor the tourist seem to notice Henry’s antics; indeed, it seems unlikely they would even recognize a Jew, much less a Jewish joke. His Jewishness is a private joke for the audience. Ironically, Henry is more intimate with the two thousand members of the general public who have purchased tickets for the theater performance than with the only other person on stage-with whom he is having an apparently private conversation.
Gieber, likewise, plays his Jewishness for laughs from the audience. He complains about a (clearly) non-Jewish girl who is following him around, claiming “his family would never allow it,” and when Danny says “see you in church,” Gieber responds, “We two will never meet in the same church!” (1-2-6). And in the middle of racing away from some other cowboys who want to kill him, Gieber pauses long enough to share the following interchange with Slick, the gambler:
Gieber: I’m near starved. Slick: You want something to eat? Here’s a ham
sandwich. Gieber: (grabbing sandwich from Slick and starting to eat) I
can’t stand the sight of ham. Slick: What are you eating it for, then?
Gieber: I want to get it out of my sight. (1-5-4)
These comic references to Hebrew school, intermarriage, different churches, Yiddish language and music, and kashruth leave no doubt about the Jewish identity of the characters and also indicate that Broadway audiences of the late 1920s and early 1930s were comfortable and familiar with Jewish ethnic humor and Jewish characters on the stage.(15)
Gieber’s and Henry’s Jewishness sets them apart from the other characters and determines their courses of action in the plays. The only Jews in a world of cowboys and Indians, Henry and Gieber are always running for their lives, although they have committed no crime. Sally dupes Henry Williams into helping her escape her impending marriage. She tells him that Sheriff Bob has decided on an elopement and asks Henry to drive her to the station. Then she leaves a note for the sheriff that she has eloped with Henry. Needless to say, the sheriff takes off in hot pursuit. Similarly, in Girl Crazy, even before Gieber’s first entrance, we hear shots offstage. Gieber races on, pursued by an angry pack of cowboys who falsely accuse him of killing the sheriff. Even when he convinces them that he did no such thing they soon manufacture other reasons for chasing him. When Gieber accidentally is elected sheriff himself he unwittingly makes enemies of the meanest thugs in the county. The anarchy and wide-open spaces of the mythical West are supposed to offer freedom from the constrictions of the city. For these Jewish characters, however, the West is a place of danger while the city represents safety. Gieber asks the cowboys, as they prepare to lynch him in the first scene, “so this is God’s country?” Clearly it is not Gieber’s God’s country.
From the moment they arrive Gieber and Henry find themselves at odds with the locals. They do not speak the same language or observe the same customs. They are constantly getting into trouble with those who are bigger, stronger, and better shots. The disguises they choose to hide behind render them invisible to the members of the stage community while they remain distinctly visible to the audience. Gieber and Henry do not follow the expected path of assimilation by trying to blend into the powerful white majority of cowboys and ranchers. Rather, ironically and brilliantly, Gieber and Henry escape their pursuers by becoming women, blacks and Indians-members of the disempowered groups inhabiting the Western landscape.(16)
Omitted from historical narratives of the West or simplified using stereotypical representations, these groups exist only as types, not as individuals. Gieber and Henry use the very invisibility of individuals within these groups as a refuge. In dressing as women, for example, Gieber and Henry (temporarily) lose their specificity as Jewish characters and become instead anonymous sexualized objects. The function of a Jew on the musical stage was to connote difference. There was always only one Jew, almost always a man, and he was funny because he was so different from the others on stage. The function of a woman on the Broadway stage, particularly in Zeigfeld productions, on the other hand, was to connote sex. The chorus line of women in Whoopee, Girl Crazy and a host of other musicals promoted the sexiness of scores of identical legs, arms, breasts, and faces moving in synchronized rhythm.(17) In adopting the appearance of a black or an Indian, Gieber and Henry also hide behind the sameness of racial types, invoking the prejudiced canard of racial otherness: “they all look the same.” Once the Jew dons the costume of the black minstrel or Indian chief he is indistinguishable from other blacks or Indians. Paradoxically, a Jew can fade into the scenery if he becomes black! Jewish difference is erased in this case (albeit temporarily) by performing the sameness of difference. By becoming an Indian or a black minstrel, then, the Jew becomes one of an American group which, although oppressed, at least belongs in the West. The blackface mask or Indian headdress offered invisibility and hence momentary security, a condition marginally preferable to that of the foreigner–the (one and only) Jew.
Jewish male comics regularly appeared in drag on the Broadway and vaudeville stage. This association of Jewish men with femininity must be read in the context of the complex history of European antisemitic and racialist rhetoric. “Historically,” Daniel Boyarin writes, “the Jewish male is, from the point of view of dominant European culture, a sort of woman.” By woman he does not mean “a set of characteristics, traits, behaviors that are essentially female” but rather “a set of performances that are culturally read as non-male within a given historical culture.”(18) Maleness according to these terms is constituted by physical strength, assertiveness, courage, and directness. By contrast, physical weakness, illness, and passive forms of gaining power-dissimulation, intrigues, tricks and lying-constitute the feminine.(19) Boyarin traces this gendered understanding of Jewishness as far back as the Roman era, when, he claims, the rabbis defined themselves as feminized as a way of resisting a hypermasculine and oppressive Roman state. Sander Gilman shows how connections between Jewishness and femininity which had been developing over the centuries coalesced in the rabidly antisemitic Germany of the late nineteenth century. Infected by the racialist (and sexist) thinking of the times, both Jews and non-Jews accepted the assumption that Jewish men (or, more specifically, Eastern European Jewish men) were closely linked to the feminine and that this linkage was necessarily negative. A highly specific German scientific and medical discourse explained Jewish difference in terms of sexuality. Circumcision, in fact, became the biological marker of the Jewish man’s feminized state.(20) Otto Weininger, a deeply self-hating baptized Jew, directly articulated connections between Jewishness and the feminine. In his dissertation, Sex and Character, he established a psychological model with the Aryan/masculine psyche at one pole and Jewish/feminine psyche at the opposite end.(21) The Jewish male therefore inhabits a liminal state in this discourse, not quite a woman but also not fully male. “Jewish males are `gender-benders,'” Gilman writes, “they exist between the conventional categories of `normal’ (and normative) sexuality, just as they exist between the categories of European national identity and ethnopsychology.”(22)
In Whoopee, Cantor’s portrayal of Henry Williams provides a surprisingly literal illustration of the feminized Jewish man. He is weak, cowardly, and afraid of guns. When Sally explains to Henry why she has run away, Henry cannot understand why she has chosen him as her escort:
Sally: I did it because I thought you would help me. I thought you were brave.
Henry: I’m not brave. I can’t even help myself. (1-35)
And when Sally produces a gun, Henry exclaims: “Put it away! I can’t stand the sight of guns. I hate guns. Put it away. I don’t like guns. Even when somebody says, `son of a gun,’ I almost faint.”
Henry is always taking his temperature, popping pills, and explaining how he has come to California for his health. Yet his illnesses are nondescript, and his nurse insists repeatedly that he is a hypochondriac:
Henry: Miss Custer, I don’t think I’ll be troubling you much longer.
Nurse: Oh, don’t talk like that Henry. When you came West a year ago, you may have been sick then, but now you’re as healthy as I am.
Henry: Is that good?
Nurse: There’s really nothing the matter with you.
Henry: Nothing the matt … What about the pain around my heart?
Nurse: Oh, that’ll go away!
Henry: Yeah, and I’ll go with it.
His sickness is largely psychological. A man who worries incessantly about his health and always needs someone, to take care of him is, in the Western landscape, hardly a man at all. In fact, worrying about one’s health (to the point of hysteria) is even more feminizing than poor health itself. As Gilman points out, in the late nineteenth century, hysteria and other neuroses were often attributed not only to women but also to Jewish men. “While it is clear that women are still the predominant sufferers from the disease,” Gilman writes, “it is evident that there is a clear `feminization’ of the male Jew in the context of the occurrence of hysteria.”(23) Furthermore, American conditions in particular supposedly made the male Jew most susceptible to neurosis. The struggle for life in the American capitalist city, according to Freud’s teacher, Moriz Benedikt, leads to Jewish male hysteria: “Mental anxiety and worry are the most frequent causes of mental breakdown [among Jews]. They are all excitable and live excitable lives, being constantly under the high pressure of business in town.”(24) The excessively excitable Henry Williams has heeded Dr. Benedikt’s diagnosis and gone West to escape the pressures of the city and be cured of his feminizing illnesses.
Henry’s illness also seems to be directly related to his sexual organs, although again he is vague and nonspecific on the subject. To prove his ill health, he makes many references to his “operation:”
Nurse: Henry, you’re just a hypochodriac!
Henry: Yeah, am I? How would you like to see my operation? [Henry rises, lifts shirt and begins to unbutton pants]
Nurse: No! No! Sit down.
Nurse Custer’s shock seems to indicate that Henry’s “operation” is one best not revealed to her or anyone. Henry never specifies what type of operation he has had, but it clearly is related to something in his pants. He later gets involved in an altercation with a wealthy ranch owner named Underwood and they begin comparing sicknesses in a sexually charged game of oneupmanship. When Underwood mentions the scar from his operation, Henry replies: “You think you’ve got a scar? I’m going to show you something, my dear man, that will amaze you … Now look down here [pulling open his pants]. [Underwood looks in amazement] Now let me take a look at yours [Henry looks down Underwood’s pants].” As the play progresses, references to Henry’s operation become increasingly bawdy. At the conclusion, when Henry and Nurse Custer are finally engaged, Henry sings joyfully of the pleasure his “operation” will give to his intended:
My baby don’t care for shows
My baby don’t care for clothes
My baby just cares for me!
My baby just loves those consultations,
And how she enjoys my operation!
What operation might Henry have had which would affect his sexuality and be evident by a glance inside his pants? Henry’s operation seems clearly to have been a circumcision.
Gilman writes at length on the questionable gender identity of the circumcised male in nineteenth-century medical discourse:
There is an anatomical (read: sexual) distinction which sets the male Jew
apart from other “males.” It is the practice of circumcision which defines
the body of the male Jew, at least within the discourse of science … The
act of circumcision sets the Jewish male apart (in that he is no longer
fully a male).(25)
In having an operation on his penis, Henry (as a male Jew) has become less of a man. While he goes West to be “cured” of his problem, he also brings the problem with him. In the opening number, for example, he has convinced the sheriff’s friends to dress in tuxedoes for the wedding. They appear looking ridiculous and uncomfortable, and the other cowboys laugh at the deputies for dressing like dandies. The deputies upbraid Henry for embarrassing them:
Deputy: You dressed us up like this, didn’t you?
Henry: Yes, well, I hope you appreciate it.
Deputy: To show you how much we preciate it, we gonna dress you up.
Henry: But I don’t want to be dressed up! [They carry Henry away]
When Henry next appears he is dressed in Nurse Custer’s bloomers with prickly cacti hanging all over the underwear. The deputies have taken their revenge by exposing Henry’s feminized state quite literally (and distancing themselves from it at the same time): they dress him in women’s underwear and then adorn him with that which he apparently lacks-large prickly phalluses.
Henry remains in this costume during the entire next scene, in which he and Wanenis discuss Wanenis’s problems with Sally. Every time Henry tries to sit down, a cactus pricks him in the rear end, and he springs up again. This apparently silly joke of being pricked in the rear evokes a third characteristic of the nineteenth-century medicalized Jewish male described by Gilman: Jewish men were considered not only feminized but also more likely to be homosexual. German physician Moses Julius Gutmann wrote: “most frequently they [Jews] are sexual neurasthenics. Above all, the number of Jewish homosexuals is extraordinarily high.”(26) Allusions to homosexual sex in Whoopee are blatant and pervasive. In Henry’s interchange with Wanenis, which is ostensibly about Wanenis’s heterosexual obsession with Sally, Henry continually interjects comic bits about the cacti on his pants. He says to Wanenis, “You think you have problems … [turning around] look where cactus is growing! [tries to sit and jumps up] Oh!” When Henry makes a joke at Wanenis’s expense, he then turns to him to hug him. Just before they touch, Henry shouts “ow!” and springs up. He has been pricked once again.
The play is rife with allusions to Henry’s implied homosexuality. When Henry and Underwood first meet Henry is holding him at gunpoint. Henry directs Underwood to start his car, but the language is full of double entendre:
Henry: Crank my flivver!
Underwood: What? Me crank a flivver?
Henry: Go on, you old crank.
Underwood: I’m a sick man!
Henry: You’re sick! I’d love to show you my operation! [begins to undo his pants, then stops] Go ahead, crank it!
Sickness becomes a cue to homosexuality. In the later scene with Underwood their mutual comparison of “operations” leads to a long, involved bit in which the two of them roll around together on the floor, looking into each other’s pants. When they finally both end up seated on the bench again, where they began, Underwood says, panting and out of breath, “Yes, sir, my boy, that is some operation!”
Henry’s “illness” prevents him from engaging in heterosexual sex. Two women propose to him in the course of the first act. In response to Nurse Custer’s amorous revelations Henry replies, “Why do you make overtures to me when I need intermission so badly? Miss Custer, I couldn’t marry you. I’m too delicate.” Trapped on a mountainside in a broken-down car, Sally also proposes to Henry:
Sally: Why don’t you marry me and take me East?
Henry: It’s impossible!
Sally: You know, we wouldn’t really have to be man and wife. Secretly, we could be just good friends. (1-36)
Sally accuses Henry of never having been in love, and he replies with a song. The song tells of an old flame who left him because “she turned out to be the girlfriend of a boyfriend of mine.”
Henry’s relationship with Nurse Custer is apparently a heterosexual encounter. Yet the gender identity of both characters is unstable. While Nurse Custer appears as a sexy woman in her big production number with the cowboys, whenever she appears with Henry she plays the butch to his femme. Claiming she “has a positive passion for a weak man,” she makes an aggressive pass at him:
Nurse: Oh, look in my eyes Henry. Don’t you know I love you?
Henry: Oh, Miss Custer.
Nurse: [climbing on top of him on the bench] Do you know that I’m sure you love me?
Henry: Oh please, Miss Custer.
Nurse: Oh, Henry don’t you know how I feel? [He stands on bench to get away. She picks him up] Henry, marry me!
Henry: Put me down! Put me down!
If Henry is feminized, Nurse Custer is clearly masculinized. She too dresses in drag. For reasons which are never made clear, in Act Two Nurse Custer dresses as a cowboy, with chaps, a Stetson, and a moustache. Angry with Henry for running away with Sally, she eagerly joins the posse to catch him. She wanders into the inn where Henry has been employed as a cook and nails up a wanted poster of Henry:
Henry: [examining poster] $500 reward … [pretending to be Greek, singing] O solo mio! O solo mio!
Nurse: [immediately recognizing him] Hey, who are you?
Henry: Me work here. Me Greek. You put that sign up?
Nurse: Yeah, and I’m hungry to get that guy.
Henry: You hungry? I’ll fix you up one roast beef, one buttered toast, one strawberry pie …
Once again, Henry’s and Nurse Custer’s gender roles are reversed, this time literally. The Nurse is dressed as a cowboy. Henry is dressed as a cook, and offers to make dinner for the “cowboy.” He momentarily poses as a “Greek,” a barely coded homosexual reference. While a cook is not necessarily a woman’s role, in this play the gender of the role is specifically noted. In the scene just before Henry’s arrival at the inn, two farmhands are lamenting the disappearance of the cook and are trying to prepare breakfast:
Mort: [removing blackened pan from oven] Boy, that’s terrible.
Andy: Well, I told you I ain’t no cook. Say, why don’t you try it?
Mort: There ain’t nothin’ female about me.
There is obviously something female about Henry. Nurse Custer desperately wants to find out if Henry loves Sally. When Henry insists that he does not, she is overjoyed:
Nurse: Oh, I could kiss you for that [throws arms around him].
Henry: [still pretending he doesn’t recognize her] What do you want to kiss me for? What kind of a cowboy are you?
Nurse: [removing hat] Don’t you know me?
Even though she removes her hat, the Nurse remains in her cowboy clothes for most of the rest of the play.(27) Henry eventually accepts her as his mate only after he has come to view her as a cowboy.
Gieber’s drag scene in Girl Crazy also aptly illustrates the feminized Jewish male, although Gieber never takes his feminization as far as Henry does. While waiting for a train out of town, Gieber sees the bad guys Lank and Pete approach hot on his trail. Gieber decides to hide in the bathroom. The script reads: “He rushes to door R. marked `Men’. This door is locked, so he is compelled to hide in door marked `Ladies'” (2-2-7). Gieber is literally “locked out” of the “right” door-to the men’s room. However, unlike Henry, who relishes his feminized state, Gieber wants access to traditional male identity, but it is unavailable to him. Pursued by figures who are models of the very manhood he cannot acquire, he must hide in the inner sanctum of femininity-the ladies room. Quickly assessing his situation, Gieber steals a woman’s clothes and reappears in dress and veil. By appearing in drag he loses his identity as the Jew Gieber Goldfarb (who is “wanted” by the usurping sheriff, Lank) and acquires the invisibility of a woman, any woman (who is wanted by all men). Pete and Lank are still suspicious, though, so Gieber must complicate and develop his new role. In order to divert the men, Gieber simpers, flirts, and implies that he is a prostitute. As the scene heats up, Gieber gets increasingly nervous that he will either be found out or forced into a homosexual encounter and finally, attempting to escape, is literally exposed. He loses his dress and runs off in his BVDs.
Both Henry and Gieber choose feminization (or have it thrust upon them) as a means of escaping from trouble. Henry uses his “sickness” as a way of excusing himself for not having the appropriate characteristics of a western male: a love of guns and women. Gieber dresses in drag in order to fool his would-be captors. This choice seemingly disempowers them. Why would a man choose to adopt the mask of a woman in a world in which men clearly hold the reins? Or do they hold the reins? While the Western may privilege the man, the musical privileges the woman. As D. A. Miller has recently argued, the “feminine gender” guarantees “easy, almost automatic access to the musical stage.”(28) The unwritten law of the musical theater, Miller observes, ordains that,
though male and female alike may and indeed must appear on the musical
stage, they are not equally welcome there: the female performer will always
enjoy the advantage of also being thought to represent this stage, as its
sign, its celebrant, its essence, and its glory; while the male tends to be
suffered on condition that, by the inferiority or subjection of his own
talents, he assist the enhancement of hers.(29)
The star of a musical, as we have come to understand her, is therefore almost always female, as Miller catalogues them: “(Ethel) Merman, (Mary) Martin, (Carol) Channing, (Angela) Lansbury, (Julie) Andrews, (Gwen) Verdon, (Elaine) Stritch, (Patti) LuPone, (Bernadette) Peters.”(30)
While the stories of Girl Crazy and Whoopee use all of the cues and cliches of traditional Westerns, the fact that they are musicals (as opposed to action films or dime novels) alters the power relations within the genre. Miller, writing about Louise in Gypsy, notes that despite the fact that she dresses as a boy, she does not gain the advantages of doing so which accrue to other crossdressers of the drama like Portia and Viola: “What good are, say, all a boy’s advantages at school if she doesn’t go to school? Or the catcher’s mitt she is stupidly encumbered with on her birthday when her world gives out status according to how well one plays the boards of a stage?”(31) Supporting Miller’s argument, the production numbers in Girl Crazy were built around the talents of two female stars-Ethel Merman and Ginger Rogers. And the musical numbers in Whoopee, as in all Ziegfeld musicals, were constructed to showcase the main attraction of the evening-the Ziegfeld girls. But both plays were also written specifically for Jewish male comics-Eddie Cantor, Bert Lahr and Willie Howard-a role Miller leaves out of his argument. As Miller points out, the leading male parts in most musicals are throwaways: “Every female who enters the star spot is paired with a less brightly lit male figure, ridiculous or pathetic.”(32) Any number of competent actors could play Wanenis or Danny Churchill in Girl Crazy, but the female leads require powerhouses like Merman and Rogers. Yet what Miller does not notice is that the comic also plays the “female” star role, both metaphorically and occasionally literally, and he too is paired with less brightly lit figures-the straight men against whom his popularity is defined.(33) Henry’s star shines brighter as he ridicules Underwood and Sheriff Bob. Gieber uses the stupid and pathetic Lank and Pete as the objects of his humor.
Taking on the role of a woman, therefore, is, for Henry and Gieber, not necessarily disempowering in this context. In fact, it is the only way to truly gain the power accorded to center stage. The gendered power dynamics of the musical are particularly relevant in a Ziegfeld production like Whoopee, for, as Miller writes,
This is a regime that promulgates a spectacle performed by Beautiful Girls
and beheld by an Invisible Man whose desire (and whose power to have a
theatre devoted to arousing it) they objectify. In other words, however,
this is a regime in which the same man who enjoys the right to orient the
spectacle also incurs the duty, if not quite to disappear from it (absolute
renunciation being incompatible with plot), at any rate to forgo, in favor
of secondary roles, that pride of place which he may freely take in almost
every other sphere.(34)
How, then, can Eddie Cantor, clearly a man, hold the star’s place in a Zeigfeld musical? By feminizing himself. And Willie Howard, the creator of Gieber Goldfarb, who had the unenviable task of sharing the boards with Ethel Merman, was always jockeying for center stage, at times by actually dressing in drag. In creating their characters, Cantor and Howard had to contend with the stereotype of the feminized Jewish man, which was often attached to them by the antisemitism of the era.(35) Because they were actors in musicals, however, they did not have to allow the stereotype to disempower them; instead, they manipulated it to their own benefit. Like the rabbis Boyarin writes about in ancient Rome, Cantor and Howard reject the macho image of the cowboy (which would force them to disappear into the unenviable role of straight man) and instead adopt a feminized persona which allows them literally to dance circles around the “real” cowboys with whom they share the stage.
Dressing in drag (or playing the feminized man) offers its advantages to those eager to escape trouble and capture center stage. Adopting the identities of disempowered racial groups similarly offers Henry and Gieber unlikely empowering safe havens. Like Gieber, who had to choose between bathrooms, Henry is also forced into a hiding spot that suggests a seemingly undesirable disguise. As Sheriff Bob enters the inn where Henry has been hired as a cook, Henry jumps into the stove. A few moments later the stove explodes and Henry pops out, in full blackface. Like Lank and Pete, the sheriff smells a rat, and like Gieber, Henry goes into his act in order to divert them. He plays a shuffling minstrel stereotype, singing and tapping his way through “My Baby Just Cares for Me.” So impressed are the cowboys that Henry offers an encore. But he is discovered when a piece of his body is exposed: forgetting about his disguise for a moment while washing his hands, his white skin is revealed and Henry once again races off in search of a new identity.(36)
The most effective and extended racial disguises Gieber and Henry adopt, though, are those of Indians. When Gieber’s erstwhile girlfriend Patsy offers him an old Indian outfit he jumps at the opportunity to escape discovery by the bad guys and adopts the role of “Big Chief Push-in-the Face.”(37) Henry likewise hides out on the Indian reservation in a red union suit (to indicate his “red” skin) and a full headdress and manages to thoroughly fool Underwood, who unwittingly bargains with Henry for souvenirs for his daughter. Throughout both musicals, the association between Jews and Indians is direct and self-conscious. In Whoopee Indians become Jews and Jews become Indians. As Henry and Sally drive into the reservation, an Indian stops them, saying “hoy!” Henry comments, “A Jewish traffic cop!” Chief Eaglerock decides to adopt Henry into the tribe. Henry becomes Chief Izzy Horowitz by smoking a peace pipe and dressing in Indian clothes. His disguise is apparently convincing-Underwood does not recognize him even when Henry begins bargaining in Yiddish. The only one who does recognize him is Nurse Custer, who asks him why he is wearing red underwear and feathers. Henry replies that he is a fireman and then, indicating that his Jewishness has been exposed, explains, “Here is my hook (pointing to his nose) and ladder.”
In Girl Crazy, the movement between Jews and Indians is also self-consciously fluid. While Gieber is upstairs changing into his costume another Indian named Eaglerock appears. The playwrights make a concerted effort to distinguish between Eaglerock and the soon-to-appear Gieber by remarking in the stage directions: “Producers, please note, Eaglerock must be a real Indian.” Eaglerock is simply dressed, speaks perfect English, and has just returned from college. When Gieber enters he assumes the pose not of a “real” Indian but of a stage Indian who wears a full headdress, whoops loudly, and speaks a strange “ugga-bugga” language which confuses Eaglerock thoroughly. The two “Indians” try a number of languages before Gieber finally introduces himself in Yiddish. This works, Eaglerock responds, and the two exit speaking animatedly.
Both the real and the disguised Indian, then, turn out to be Jews, or at least to be intimately knowledgeable about Jews. This joke reveals the close connection between Jewish and Indian characters on the American stage in the early twentieth century. It also points satirically to the use of Jews in Hollywood Westerns: more often than not one would find Jewish actors underneath the feathers and warpaint (this joke has reappeared on a regular basis–perhaps most memorably in Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles). Connections between the two groups extend even further: Jews not only dressed up as Indians in stage and film Westerns, but they also served similar functions within the plot.
In the early and mid-nineteenth century, Indian plays were popular entertainment on America’s stages. A central character was an older Indian chief who generally died by the end of the play. Before doing so he often gave his blessing to a young, white couple who wanted to be married in opposition to their parents’ wishes. In this way the Indian was responsible for insuring that the romantic match succeeded and that the play reached its necessary resolution.(38) Later in the century the Indian character became humorous rather than melancholy, and, as Werner Sollors notes, the stereotype was urbanized to appeal to multiethnic immigrant audiences.(39) But the basic function of the Indian remained-to act as a protector of the romantic young couple and insure their marriage before the end of the play. In Whoopee and Girl Crazy this function is picked up by the Jewish comic dressed as an Indian
Henry Williams is at first duped into helping Sally. But as the play proceeds, Henry increasingly takes responsibility for her happiness. Sally’s father, Morgan, has forbidden her to marry her true love, Wanenis, because he is part Indian. He has instead promised her to Sheriff Bob, a decidedly stiff and unpleasant alternative. Sally decides to run away and engages Henry’s services as driver. Henry does not know at first what he is getting into and is actually quite angry with Sally when he realizes the situation in which she has placed him. But by the end of the first act Henry willingly accepts full responsibility for Sally’s happiness. Escaping from Underwood’s ranch (with the entire posse chasing him), Henry is sure to take Sally with him. They drive to the Indian reservation, where both will be safe and where Sally will be able to marry Wanenis. While it is the revelation that Wanenis is actually white which finally clinches the match, Henry’s assistance has created the conditions in which the revelation could occur.
In Girl Crazy the obstacle between Molly and Danny is not specifically parental disapproval but: rather regional differences-she cannot believe he will ever be a cowboy, and he wants ultimately to return to New York City. To spite Danny, Molly takes off for Mexico with his old rival Sam Mason. Gieber intervenes, and while he is no longer dressed as an Indian at this point, he fulfills the “Indian” function, serving as the theatrical linchpin who ensures that the main characters end up in each other’s arms. While running for his own life, Gieber still takes the time to attend to the troubles of Molly and Danny’s love affair:
Molly: I’m so depressed.
Gieber: Ah, you’re crazy. Hoover said the depression was over.
Molly: I can’t help it. I’ve found out I’m in love and it’s too late.
Gieber: It’s never too late-look at that Turk 156 years old.
Molly: I mean it’s too late because Danny-oh, what’s the use.
Gieber: So now you’re cryin’ because you think he might like you better
with a red nose.
Molly: I s’pose I look awful.
Gieber: Terrible … can’t you smile a little? Come on-try. (2-1-9)
Gieber tries to cheer her up with humor but she responds by singing tearfully:
They’re writing songs of love,
But not for me;
A lucky star’s above,
But not for me.
With love to lead the way
I’ve found more skies of gray
Than any Russian play
Could guarantee. (2-1-10)
Unwilling to give in to Molly’s melancholy, Gieber appropriates her words, launching into one of the most extraordinary theatrical moments in the play. At first he simply repeats one verse of Molly’s song back to her, but she only cries harder. So he marshals all of his resources:
Gieber: Come on, Molly, cheer up. Pretend I’m Maurice Chevalier that
soldier moving picture actor, and he was singing the same song to you, like
(He sings one chorus to her as Chevalier would sing it.) (Molly smiles,
brightens up-at finish they both exit stage L. Gieber and Molly return
Well, Molly, if you don’t like Maurice Chevalier singing, it may be if I
sing it the way Jolson would sing it, you’d like it better.
(Sings a chorus as Jolson would sing it) They exit at finish. They
return again. Gieber repeats same business-singing as Eddie Cantor would
sing it. They exit at finish. Enter Kate and Slick. If necessary, Gieber
and Molly return-Gieber sings one chorus as Georgie Jessel would sing
The levels of role-playing in this scene are dizzying. At one point, Jewish vaudevillian Willie Howard is playing Jewish cab driver Gieber Goldfarb playing Jewish performer Al Jolson playing a black jazz singer. But Gieber does not stop there–he utterly destroys the integrity of the Girl Crazy world, performing encore after encore. One reviewer noted that Howard actually took requests from the audience and would become anybody they wanted him to be.(40) Needless to say, his ploy is successful-and Molly finally “brightens up.”(41) Only moments later, Danny is suspected of assaulting Sam Mason, and Gieber and Molly together plot to get him safely out of Mexico. Gieber then insures that Molly and Danny share a freight train back to Custerville together. As the last act draws to a close, Danny finally asks Molly to marry him and Gieber seconds the motion.
For the Jews writing and performing in Broadway musicals in the 1920s and 1930s, the choice to align themselves with Indian stereotypes seems a curious one. These Jewish artists (or their parents) had left Europe in order to escape the sort of ghettoization and subjugation to which native Americans in this country fell victim. In these decades, Jews were eager to acculturate to the ways of white Americans. Why associate themselves with such a marginalized group? Counterintuitively, association with Indians, it turns out, had its hidden advantages in early-twentieth-century America. Just as male Jewish performers twisted the feminization stereotype to meet their needs, so they manipulated racial otherness as a way of gaining not marginality but centrality.(42)
In the 1920s and 30s Jews were increasingly perceived as unAmerican–nonwhite, communist, alien-and confronted quotas aimed at keeping the “foreign” Jew out of “native” American institutions. With the passing of restrictive, ethnically based immigration laws in 1924, many Jews were kept out of America altogether Jews who did “fit in” by adopting new “American” identities were likewise considered suspect. Antisemites and nativists accused assimilated Jews of hiding their true selves and pretending to be something they were not. As French “sociologist” Andre Siegfried wrote in his 1927 study of race relations in America:
The Jew passes through the first phase of his Americanization with
disconcerting rapidity-there is something suspicious about his excessive
zeal … Caught suddenly into the rhythm of the New World, he is soon more
American than the Americans themselves … He `passes’ … that is, he
moves among the Christians without being remarked. (35)
Racial theories about Jews made such expert performance of identity not only threatening but impossible by definition. As Walter Benn Michaels has shown, nativists were deeply opposed to the idea that foreigners could become Americans. In reinventing the notion of American as a racial rather than a political or social category nativists insisted that the only real Americans were those who were born Americans. Those who performed Americanness were imposters.
At the same time, in the 1920s and 30s, Indians were increasingly perceived not as aliens but as the first Americans and claimed as the “forefathers” of true Americans.(43) Zane Grey, author of countless Western novels, writes that the Indian “by every right and law and heritage” is “the first and best blood of America.”(44) Why could Indians become Americans, but Eastern and Southern Europeans could not? Michaels claims that Indians did not need to assimilate-they simply were Americans already.(45) Both the Johnson Act of 1924, which limited immigration, and the Citizenship Act of 1924, which declared all Indians citizens, were, according to Michaels, designed “to keep people from becoming citizens”:
The Johnson Act guaranteed that aliens would not become citizens by putting
a halt to mass immigration; the Citizenship Act guaranteed that Indians
would not become citizens by declaring that they already were citizens.
Both acts, that is, participated in a recasting of American citizenship,
changing it from a status that could be achieved through one’s own actions
(immigrating, becoming “civilized,” getting “naturalized”) to a status that
could better be understood as inherited.(46)
Jews were (for obvious reasons) unwilling to part with the possibility of “becoming” American by assimilation-indeed they continued to celebrate the freedoms associated with performing identity on the musical stage throughout this period. Yet they also had to confront an increasingly racialist culture which defined them as biologically (and hence immutably) alien. As one method of countering this prejudice, Jews strove to associate themselves with the founding myths of America and hence to prove that they, like the Indians, were already American and that America was already Jewish.(47) They supported historians and societies that argued that Columbus was a Jew, that the Puritans were actually a Hebraic sect, and that the Indians were the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.(48) Oscar Straus, American diplomat and founder of the American Jewish Historical Society, undertook research in the 1890s to show that Jews accompanied Columbus on his voyage to America. He hoped that if he could prove the presence of Jews on Columbus’s ships, “this fact would be an answer for all time to come to antisemitic tendencies in this country.”(49) By the 1930s, as Jonathan Sarna has pointed out, belief in the theory that Columbus himself was a closeted Jew was widespread, clearly intended as an antidote to rising nativism in America.(50)
The idea that the Indians were the Ten Lost Tribes also has a long history.(51) In 1651 Menasseh ben Israel put forth the theory in “The Hope of Israel.” In 1837 the American Jewish public figure Mordecai Manuel Noah delivered an important lecture on the topic, alluding to common customs and common aspects of language. As Sarna points out, “He [Noah] understood that if the Jews and Indians were one people, the Jews were then both `the first people in the old world’-the ancestors of Christianity-and `the rightful inheritors of the new.’ Jews could claim proudly, `we were here first.'”(52) Regarding links between the ancient Hebrews and Puritans, Sarna notes that “later generations of Jews, following the Puritans themselves, placed heavier emphasis on this alleged Hebraic character. One motivation for the extraordinary number of these uncritical comparisons, I think, was the unconscious premise that whoever rejected the Jews, rejected the Puritan Fathers who made this country great.”(53) By becoming Indians (or having Columbus, Puritans and Indians become Jews) Jews could claim to be original “native” Americans with all of the privileges that identity receives.
In adopting the identity of the Indian on the musical stage the Jewish comic not only takes on the Indian’s “first American” status, but, as mentioned above, he also fulfills the same dramatic function in the plot-he insures that romantic (New World) love triumphs. This role serves to further enmesh the Jewish character in a profoundly American system, indeed to make the Jew the keeper and protector of that system. As Werner Sollors argues, representation of romantic matches on the American stage is deeply intertwined with the belief in a freely elected democratic government. Just as government by descent (aristocracy, royalty) is abandoned in the New World in favor of a government of consent (of the people, by the people, for the people), so Old World family-arranged marriages are abandoned in the New World in favor of romantic matches freely chosen: “American allegiance, the very concept of citizenship developed in the revolutionary period, was-like love-based on consent, not on descent, which further blended the rhetoric of America with the language of love and the concept of romantic love with American identity.”(54) In the nineteenth century, Indian characters in the drama legitimated the idea of democracy by standing in as parental figures for the young couple in love and offering their blessings (or curses). If the Indian blessed a romantic union between two young white people, these white people became his chosen successor,;, and he became their adoptive ancestor. The Indian plays serve, in Sollors’s reading, as a national allegory:
The oceanic daughters of England received a “legitimate” blessing for their
decision to break out of the arranged marriage with old-world aristocracy
and rank in order to wed the “natural” republican system of America they so
dearly loved. The romance conflict thus supported the argument for
independence, autonomy, and a fresh start in the name of supposedly ancient
By taking on the role of the Indian, then, the Jewish characters in these musicals also became the agents of democracy, insuring that American democratic values were accepted and perpetuated in the mythical Wild West.
While these musicals are structurally related to the nineteenth-century Indian plays, however, they are also the products of a different era with different concerns. Both types of plays confront the problem of what it means to be American, but in the Indian plays, the concern is to differentiate the American from the British political systems. The early twentieth-century musicals, on the other hand, explore the problems of defining an American cultural’ and racial identity. While the Jewish characters, like the Indians before them, support romantic love as a symbol for American democracy, they emphasize different elements of the democratic system. In the early and mid-nineteenth century the Indian plays sought to justify the American consent-based system of government as opposed to a descent-based (aristocratic) European system. By the twentieth century the musicals are more concerned with justifying a consent-based community as opposed to a descent-based one. A character’s entry into the musical community is based solely on the desire and ability to become part of the world of the stage. In insuring the success of romance in the musical, then, the Jewish comic supports a distinctly American set of ideals: democracy, meritocracy and equality. Playing the Indian he ensures his own American identity by both acceding to nativist ideology (associating himself with “native” Americans) and by resisting it (insisting on a community of consent).
While Jewish and Indian characters intermingle in these musicals, it is important to note that Jews dc, not become actual Indians, but simply perform the role of the Indian stereotype in order to reap the benefits of the mythic associations without suffering the stigma faced by real Indians on reservations. Henry becomes a show-biz Indian by donning a headdress and smoking a peace pipe. Wanenis, in stark contrast to Henry, seems to be a real Indian. Interestingly, Wanenis’s experience follows the nativist model described by Michaels quite closely. He cannot become white despite that fact that he wears modern clothing, speaks perfect English, and has studied to be a mining engineer. Wanenis cannot marry Sally as long as he is an Indian (the Indian role is to bring a white couple together, not to marry a white woman). Likewise, he cannot choose to stop being an Indian and play another role. Only when Black Eagle reveals that Wanenis was born to white parents does Wanenis “become” white. Years of living as an Indian instantly drop away. Wanenis becomes white only because he is already white.
In Girl Crazy the fact that both Gieber (the “performed” Indian) and Eaglerock (the “real” Indian) speak Yiddish slyly satirizes the being/ becoming dichotomy. The joke sheds light on the tension in the 1930s between the two notions of self-definition: racial identity, which is biological and hence immutable, and assimilative identity, in which one can adopt the dress, language and customs of a culture and become a part of that culture. The Indian/Yiddish joke sets up a tension between a “real” character, whose identity is determined not by language or dress but by racial background, and a “fake” or “theatrical” one whose identity is determined wholly by performed behavior. Gieber fears that when compared with Eaglerock, a real Indian, his disguise will not hold up and he will be exposed. He therefore makes a concerted effort to establish a connection with the Indian through language. But the very connection which they finally establish undercuts the racial/assimilable (or being/performing) dichotomy by revealing both characters to be performers. Neither the racially “real” Indian nor the pretend Indian is actually what he seems to be. The validity of fixed, racial notions of identity, therefore, is called into question. In the world of Girl Crazy, at least, reality is performance, and an effective (i.e., self-conscious) performance is the only reality that matters.
Gieber’s and Henry’s brand of theatricality triumphs on the musical stage. Not only do Gieber and Henry bring Molly and Danny and Sally and Wanenis together, but they also outwit the bad guys and capture their audiences’ unequivocal affection. When, in Whoopee, Underwood’s son Chester offers to conduct a “psychological investigation” in order to determine who robbed them on the highway, Henry (still in blackface) cleverly sidesteps the plan and shows up both Chester and Sheriff Bob. Gieber, likewise, not only outwits the bad guys who were trying to kill him but also administers what he calls “Goldfarb justice.” Now the county sheriff, Gieber is the hero of the tale. As he enters the last scene the cowboys and ensemble shout, “Three cheers for Gieber Goldfarb!” and strains of Goldfarb’s campaign song, aptly titled “Goldfarb, That’s I’m,” can be heard in the background. Because of Gieber’s and Henry’s various machinations, the comic plot lines are neatly sewn up, the bad guys are behind bars, and the various couples are back together again. In the final exchange of Girl Crazy, Danny asks Molly to marry him. Before Molly can respond, Gieber breaks in with the last line of the play: “Go on–marry him, Molly. It’s 11:15 already.” Reminding the audience at the very last moment that they are witnessing not reality but a show that must end by 11:15 so folks can go home, Gieber remains an unrelentingly self-conscious performer. From his first entrance, when he thinks he is on a movie set, to his final line, when he reminds us all that we are in a theater, he controls and manipulates theatrical illusion with ease.
Gieber’s and Henry’s characters reveal the reciprocal nature of the Jewish-created musical-theater experience. Not only do they find refuge within the American community on stage by adopting various roles and disguises, but they also turn the entire (non-Jewish) Wild West into a theatrical world in which performance determines identity. In Whoopee and Girl Crazy, then, Jewish writers, composers, and performers shed new light on the Western landscape, exposing differences of race, gender, and sexuality that had been there all along but were previously invisible. And they use theatricality to redefine the power relationships inherent in this mythic landscape. In the world of Whoopee and Girl Crazy, the notion of racial passing is turned on its head. Rather than adopt the ways of the cowboys (who hold little, currency in the musical theater) Henry and Gieber prefer to pass as racially or sexually other. By moving easily in and out of invisibility they blur and hence subvert the supposedly immutable racial and gender categories used to determine political power in early twentieth-century America.
(1.) I would like to acknowledge those who contributed to the evolution of this essay: Joyce Antler, Michael T. Gilmore, Eugene Goodheart, Felicia Herman, Jonathan D. Sarna, Rona Sheramy and Rose Subotnik. Thanks also to Richard Rabinowitz for countless enlightening discussions on Eddie Cantor. And I particularly wish to acknowledge Alan Ackerman whose inspiring ideas, careful reading, and insistence on precision and rigor sustain me in my work. This essay is dedicated to Max, who decided to sleep through the night the day I finished it.
(2.) See, for example, the following, all of whom invoke Jews in discussing American ethnicity: Horace Kallen, “Democracy and the Melting Pot” (1915); Georg Simmel, “The Stranger” (1908); Randolph S. Bourne, “Trans-National America” (1916); Robert E. Park, “Human Migration and the Marginal Man” (1928); and Jean Toomer, “Race Problems and Modern Society” (1929). All can be found in Theories of Ethnicity, ed. Werner Sollors (New York, 1986). See also Mary Antin, The Promised Land (1912; Princeton, 1985) and Andre Siegfried, America Comes of Age (London, 1927) as well as numerous American novels of the 1920s which feature the Jew as outsider, such as Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) and Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House (1925).
(3.) Kallen, for example, describes a “psychophysical inheritance” which is essentially a racial definition of ethnicity: “Men may change their clothes, their politics, their wives, their religions, their philosophies, to a greater or lesser extent: they cannot change their grandfathers. Jews or Poles or Anglo-Saxons, in order to cease being Jews or Poles or Anglo-Saxons, would have to cease to be.” Horace Kallen, “Democracy versus the Melting Pot,” in Theories of Ethnicity, 91. While Kallen assumes that “ceasing to be” is impossible, Mary Antin believes that complete assimilation offers just that opportunity: “I was born, I have lived, and I have been made over … I am just as much out of the way as if I were dead, for I am absolutely other than the person whose story I have to tell.” Antin, Promised Land, xix.
(4.) Much scholarly work has appeared in recent years on the subject of Jews and race in America. For a particular focus on the intersections of Jews, race and popular culture see Michael Rogin, Blackface, White Noise (Berkeley, 1996); Jeffrey Melnick, A Right to Sing the Blues (Cambridge, MA, 1999); Ann Pellegrini, “Whiteface Performances,” in Jews and Other Differences, Jonathan Boyarin and Daniel Boyarin, eds. (Minneapolis, MN, 1997), 108-149; and Sander Gilman, The Jew’s Body (New York, 1991). See also my own article, “We Know We Belong to the Land: The Theatricality of Assimilation in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!” PMLA 113:1 (January 1998), 77-89.
(5.) Daniel Boorstin makes a similar comparison in The Americans: The Democratic Experience (New York, 1974).
(6.) My use of the male pronoun is intentional here-the Jewish immigrant characters and newcomers I will be describing are almost always male.
(7.) Boorstin, The Americans, 9.
(8.) The music for Whoopee was written by Walter Donaldson, lyrics by Gus Kahn and book by William Anthony McGuire. The play was produced by Florenz Ziegfeld and starred Eddie Cantor. It opened on Broadway in December 1928. Girl Crazy had music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin, and a book by Guy Bolton and John McGowan. It opened on Broadway in October 1930. Neither play is published, but both are available from the theatrical licenser Tams-Witmark.
(9.) A reviewer for the Philadelphia Ledger noted of Willie Howard, the star comic actor of Girl Crazy: “The show stopper … was Mr. Howard … Last night he had the stage to himself” (30 September 1930).
(10.) These comics were also aware that the themes and characters of musical comedies specifically appealed to urban audiences while westerns were largely geared towards small town and hinterland audiences. As Henry Jenkins has shown, when Hollywood studios began to convert to sound and to produce movie musicals by the hundreds, exhibitors in small towns protested that their audiences weren’t interested in the “Broadway stagey stuff” of the talkies. They wanted more westerns. These plays clearly lampoon the heroes of Westerns-and by extension the audiences who venerated them-for the “in” Broadway crowd. Henry Jenkins, What Made Pistachio Nuts? (New York, 1992), 163.
(11.) In this chapter I will be referring to both the play script and the movie for my examples. Unlike later movie musicals, the film Whoopee reproduces the stage show almost exactly. Except for the addition of a few sweeping shots of Western landscapes and the substitution of a few songs, the film and show are nearly identical. The casts were the same, and the movie performers behave as if they are performing on stage. As Herbert Goldman, Cantor’s biographer, notes, “Whoopee’ is not so much a movie as a filmed stage show. Unlike similar such efforts, there is not even the pretense of an `adaptation’ to the screen, only a judicious pruning of some dialogue and most of the Kahn-Donaldson stage score.” Because the comedy in the show depends on numerous “bits” improvised by Cantor, the movie is particularly helpful in preserving the many performance moments never mentioned in the script. Where a page number is indicated, the description is taken from the printed script. When there is no page number, I am referring to the film. Herbert Goldman, Banjo Eyes (New York, 1997), 137.
(12.) In Blazing Saddles Mel Brooks picks up on this image. As the final Wild West fight scene careens out of control, walls collapse, revealing that the entire story has been played on a movie set.
(13.) The film is instructive in indicating where Cantor expected to get laughs. After jokes he pauses expectantly-which creates a strange pace for the film but makes perfect sense for a stage play.
(14.) Isidore Kanter was Cantor’s original name-Itchik to his family and Izzy on the street. Goldman, Banjo Eyes, 8.
(15.) As no statistics on the ethnicity of theater audiences exist we cannot determine the proportion of the Broadway audience that was of Jewish background. However, we do know that the tastes of the New York audiences were clearly different from those in other regions of the country. As Henry Jenkins has shown, when Whoopee was made into a film it was a smash in New York and in other major industrial cities, particularly those with sizable ethnic populations. These audiences were familiar with and appreciated the vaudeville-style humor and broad ethnic characterizations of Whoopee and Girl Crazy. But throughout the South and the Midwest, the film was a failure. A Michigan exhibitor wrote (in clearly xenophobic language) of “Broadway-style” talking pictures in 1930: “Round up the English and other accents and quietly exterminate them by some humane but effective method. Hunt out all the Broadwayites … and send them back to Broadway.” Motion Picture Herald, 6 September 1930, 66; Quoted in Jenkins, Pistachio, 163. By 1932, when Girl Crazy was filmed, movie producers had learned their lesson and altered the script to appeal to a broad national audience. Gieber’s name became Jimmy and all ethnic references were deleted. A 1943 remake starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland eliminated the Gieber character altogether.
(16.) Gieber’s and Henry’s ingenious escape strategies have a history in the world of Jewish performance. Harry Houdini, a Jewish performer of the vaudeville era, was literally an escape artist. Bugs Bunny, a favorite cartoon character of the war years, also possessed the Jewish facility for “escape” (from a pig, no less!)–as well as the Brooklyn accent of his Jewish creator, Mel Blanc.
(17.) Busby Berkeley, who choreographed the dance sequences for the film version of Whoopee (and numerous other films of Broadway musicals) extended this metaphor of repetition exponentially. He created kaleidoscopic pictures of flowers and stars using lavishly dressed women as props.
(18.) Daniel Boyarin, “Masada or Yavneh? Gender and the Arts of Jewish Resistance,” in Jews and Other Differences, 306.
(19.) It is interesting to note that one of the supposed links between women and Jews-dissimulation-is also relevant in the theater. Acting has also often been perceived as dissimulation or lying. For elaboration see Jonas Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice (Berkeley, 1981).
(20). I use Sander Gilman’s definition of the term “feminized” in this chapter: “a form of `external pseudo-hermaphrodism.’ It is not true hermaphrodism, but rather the sharing of external, secondary sexual characteristics, such as the shape of the body or the tone of the voice. The concept began in the middle of the nineteenth century with the introduction of the term `infemminsce,’ to feminize, to describe the supposed results of the castration of the male. By the 1870s, the term was used to describe the `feminisme’ of the male through the effects of other diseases, such as tuberculosis.” Gilman, Freud, Race and Gender, (Princeton, 1993), 163.
(21.) See Gilman, Freud, Race and Gender, particularly chapters one and two for an extended discussion of Weininger.
(22.) Gilman, Freud, 32
(23.) Gilman, Jew’s Body, 63.
(25.) Ibid, 155.
(26.) Quoted in Gilman, Freud, 162.
(27.) This scene is reminiscent of the ending of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, in which Viola and Orsino declare their love for one another while Viola is still dressed as a man. Both scenes give rise to sexual and gender ambiguities which are never fully resolved.
(28.) D. A. Miller, Place For Us (Cambridge, MA, 1998), 117.
(29.) Ibid, 71.
(31.) Ibid, 74.
(32.) Ibid, 73
(33.) Ethan Mordden does notice this gendered division of labor in the musical: “The women got all the fun stuff, the dressing up, the leading of the troops in travesty, the dancing of a jig, the giggling, the pining, and the scheming. The men got the athletic stuff-but there isn’t that much in the way of sports in the average musical. So the men who were not comedians got less to do than the women who were not comedians. So the women were the romantic stars and the men stars were comics.” Broadway Babies (New York, 1983), 49.
(34.) Miller, Place, 79.
(35.) The spelling of this word has shifted over the past few years. I have chosen to adopt the newer spelling, without a capital S. Lowercasing Semitic is an effort to deemphasize a racial concept that has commonly been used to support antisemitism.
(36.) The blackface makeup is empowering for two reasons. First, because blackface is a mask that can be removed, the disguise reinforces the fact that the wearer is white. Second, blackface allows the wearer to perform the ragtime or jazz songs that are the central idiom of the musical stage of the period, hence giving the comedian the opportunity to dominate center stage. I deal more fully with black/white issues and the complexities of Jews in blackface in my dissertation “`We Know We Belong to the Land:’ Jews and the American Musical Theater” (Ph.D. diss., Brandeis University, 2000).
(37.) Here Gieber parodies the stereotype of the “pushy Jew” by turning it into an Indian name.
(38.) For an extended description of these Indian plays see chapter 4 of Werner Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity (New York, 1986).
(39.) Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity, 141. An Indian character might be played like an ethnic immigrant, for example. Sollors describes at length a burlesque version of the Pocahontas tale created by John Brougham, who played Powhatan as a pipe-smoking Irishman.
(40.) Unidentified review in Whoopee scrapbooks in the Billy Rose Collection of the New York Public Library.
(41.) Not only does he successfully cheer up Molly in this scene, Gieber also accomplishes an extraordinary theatrical victory of his own. After the third exit, when Gieber has impersonated Eddie Cantor (!), the stage directions indicate that even after Kate (Ethel Merman) entered, Gieber might return for another encore. Merman’s stage presence was legendary. Gieber/Howard’s ability to cover Kate/Merman’s entrance with yet another encore was a feat few actors could pull off.
(42.) Michael Rogin makes the interesting point that in Hollywood Jews adopted the two original genres of American popular culture–blackface minstrelsy and captivity narratives (the Western)was a means of gaining access to American culture. He implies that Jews essentially used the already operative racism against blacks and Indians to assimilate to American society. The example of the early musical stage is quite different. I argue instead that Jewish comics of this era adopted these oppressed personae not to prove their similarity to the majority culture but rather to subvert it. Rogin, Blackface, chap. 1.
(43.) The currently politically acceptable term “Native American” seems ironic when viewed in the light of this history of American nativism.
(44.) Quoted in Walter Benn Michaels, Our America (Durham, 1995), 39. As Michaels points out, his claim to Indian ancestry was only possible by the 1920s because the Indians no longer posed any real threat to American sovereignty: “It is because the Indian’s sun was perceived as setting that he could become … a kind of paradigm for increasingly powerful American notions of ethnic identity.” Michaels, Our America, 3 8. Indeed, Whoopee ends with an “Indian spectacle” in which the chief Black Eagle sings an ode to the setting sun and to the disappearance of his people.
(45.) Interestingly, both musicals subtly evoke Indian triumph (even while overtly representing Indian disappearance) by making reference to “Custer.” Nurse Custer is Henry William’s love interest while Girl Crazy is set in Custerville.
(46.) Michaels, Our America, 31-32. I should note that Michaels exaggerates his claim a bit. The Johnson Act reduced the number of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, but did not eliminate them altogether. It did not, therefore, guarantee that immigrants would not become citizens, but rather limited the number who would have the opportunity.
(47.) Mel Brooks has carried forward this impulse to the present. The humor in Brooks’s movies originates in the idea that everything and everyone is actually Jewish-and it is his job to reveal it as such. So the oldest man in the world is Jewish (The Two Thousand Year Old Man), the Indians are Jewish (Blazing Saddles), Sherwood Forest’s Merrie Band is Jewish (Robin Hood: Men in Tights), the past is Jewish (History of the World), and the future is Jewish (Spaceballs). My thanks to Len Majzlin for this observation.
(48.) Jonathan Sarna writes: “Other ethnic groups in America claimed founder status based on their putative roles as discoverers of the new world. Jews, I believe, are the only group which has claimed status based on ties to the Indians, the Puritans, and Columbus, as well.” Jonathan Sarna, Jacksonian Jew (New York, 1981), 205 n.46.
(49.) Quoted in Jonathan Sarna, “The Mythical Jewish Columbus and the History of America’s Jews,” in Religion in the Age of Exploration, eds. Bryan F. Le Beau and Menachem Mor (Omaha, NB, 1996), 84. 50. Sarna, “Columbus,” 86.
(51.) See Ronald Sanders, Lost Tribes and Promised Lands (Boston, 1978) for a full account of the early origins of the Israel/Indian connection.
(52.) Sarna, Jacksonian Jew, 136.
(53.) Ibid, 206, n. 49.
(54.) Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity, 112.
(55.) Ibid, 123.
Andrea Most is completing her Ph.D. in the Departments of English and Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and will be an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Toronto beginning in the Fall of 2000.
COPYRIGHT 1999 American Jewish Historical Society
COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning