Easily the best of Eddie Cantor's gargantuan musical comedies for producer Sam Goldwyn, Roman Scandals begins in the middle-America community of West Rome, where our hero Eddie (Cantor) is employed as a delivery boy. A self-styled authority of Ancient Roman history, Cantor bemoans the fact that the local shanty community is about to be wiped out by scheming politicians, certain that such an outrage could never have happened during Rome's Golden Days. After a blow on the head, Cantor wakes up in Imperial Rome, where he is sold on the slave auction block to good-natured tribune Josephus (David Manners). Cantor soon discovers that the evil emperor Valerius (Edward Arnold) is every bit a crook and grafter as the politicians in West Rome, and he intends to do something about it. He gets a job as food taster for Valerius -- a none-too-secure position, inasmuch as the emperor's wife Agrippa (Veree Teasdale) is constantly trying to poison her husband -- and does his best to smooth the path of romance for Josephus and recently captured princess Sylvia (Gloria Stuart). Cantor's well-intentioned interference earns him a session in the torture chamber, but he escapes and commandeers a chariot, setting the stage for a spectacular slapstick climax. On the verge of recapture, Cantor wakes to find himself in West Rome U.S.A. again, where he quickly foils the modern-day despots and brings about a happy ending for all his friends.
Co-written by George S. Kaufman, Robert E. Sherwood, George Oppenheimer and Arthur Sheekman (the soon-to-be husband of leading lady Gloria Stuart), Roman Scandals manages to get off a few clever satirical licks, but essentially it's a "lappy" lowbrow vehicle for Eddie Cantor, and in this it succeeds immensely. The Busby Berkeley-staged musical numbers, written by Harry Warren, Al Dubin and L. Wolfe Gilbert, must be seen to be believed: In "No More Love," Ruth Etting, playing the Emperor's cast-off mistress Olga, sings a plaintive torch song as dozens of enslaved Goldwyn Girls (including Lucille Ball and Barbara Pepper), wearing nothing but long, blonde wigs, are chained to a rotating pedestal; and in "Keep Young and Beautiful," these same maidens gleefully cavort around a Roman bathhouse in the near-altogether while Cantor, in blackface, hops about, rolls his eyes and claps his hands -- just before a jet of steam "shrinks" him, at which point he metamorphoses into midget Billy Barty! The quintessence of Depression-era escapism, Roman Scandals is must-see entertainment.