The Screen Work of Danny Kaye

It’s been 10 years since my original, rather cursory post on Danny Kaye. This year I thought I would mark the occasion of his birthday with a look at his major film and TV work in a little more depth. Like Bob Hope and Red Skelton, Kaye was one of the top Hollywood comedy stars of the ’40s and ’50s, though his footprint was smaller — 16 starring features, by my count? All three comedians had distinctive screen personalities, though Kaye’s was somewhat quirkier and more eccentric. He was known for his facility with foreign accents and funny voices (useful when his character needed to assume a disguise). Given the careers of performers like Baron Munchausen and The Mad Russian, there was (I imagine) a real danger that he’d get pigeon-holed into a character comedian of that sort, with a very short screen career to match. It’s a testament to Kaye and his management that he pursued a much broader persona, with a much wider appeal. He could DO those accents and funny costumes, but he wasn’t trapped by them. His screen career was very carefully managed. It must have been exciting for his fans to watch it unfold in real time. (Though, I will say that, neither Kaye’s comedies, nor those of his contemporaries, off anything like the laughs you will find in the comedies of the teens, twenties, or thirties, for a long laundry list of reasons, I’ve written about on previous occasions. Less the fault of the comedians than of the studios, and the tastes of the times). Kaye was also prized for his ability to deliver tongue-twisting patter songs and monologues penned by his wife Sylvia Fine. But again, he could also carry a legit, earnest song, even a sentimental one, with real appeal and conviction. We tend to think of him as a musical comedy star, much more than Hope or Skelton, though both of those guys were in plenty of musicals and could carry them. Also, many or most of Kaye’s comedies have a fairy tale, fantasy or pseudo-historical element, giving a very distinctive imprint to our idea of a “Danny Kaye movie”. Herewith his oogly-boogly oeuvre.

Just like Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Red Skelton, Kaye started out in comedy shorts when that form on its last legs. In those early days, Kaye made four comedies for Educational Pictures, two of them directed by Al Christie. Dime a Dance (1937) with Imogene Coca and June Allyson; and three in 1938, all penned by Billy K. Wells and starring Charles Kemper, in which Kaye played his Russian character Nikolai Nikolaevich: Getting an Eyeful, with Sally Starr, Cupid Takes a Holiday, and Your Money On Your Life. The first and the last of these are currently available to watch on Youtube.

Up in Arms (1944)

Following Broadway success in The Straw Hat Revue (1939), Lady in the Dark (1941) and Let’s Face It (1941), Kaye was now judged viable as movie star material. Having already turned down MGM, Kaye signed with Sam Goldwyn, who employed him as a sort of successor to his previous comedy star, Eddie Cantor. Up in Arms was essentially a remake of Cantor’s hit Whoopee! which was itself based on a play called The Nervous Wreck, now retooled with a topical military setting. The cast also includes Dinah Shore (in one of her few film roles), Dana Andrews, Louis Calhern, and the immortal Margaret Dumont.

Wonder Man (1945)

The inevitable twin comedy, although the title sure doesn’t telegraph the fact (reminds me more of the old Jolson vehicle The Wonder Bar). Natch, Kaye plays both brothers, a confident night club performer who’s in trouble with gangsters, and a retiring historian who has to help bail him out by impersonating him. His leading lady is Virginia Mayo, not for the last time, and the cast also includes Vera-Ellen, Steve Cochran, Allen Jenkins, Cuddles Sakall, Edward Brophy, Dick Lane, Huntz Hall, and Gilligan’s Island’s Natalie Schafer.

The Kid from Brooklyn (1946)

This one is a boxing comedy (based on Harold Lloyd’s The Milky Way) though you wouldn’t know it from the poster. Directed by Norman McLeod, it reunites Kaye with Virginia Mayo, Vera-Ellen, and Steve Cochran, and also features Eve Arden (whom Kaye briefly left his wife for), Lionel Stander, Fay Bainter, Clarence Kolb, and Walter Abel.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947)

Based on the James Thurber story about a meek little man who fantasizes himself in all manner of dangerous adventures, this one vies with a couple of others for being Kaye’s best known and loved film. It reunites him with director Norman McLeod and co-stars Virginia Mayo and Fay Bainter, and also features Boris Karloff, Reginald Denny, Ann Rutherford et al. Younger folks may be more familiar with the 2013 Ben Stiller remake.

A Song is Born (1948)

This was Howard Hawks’ remake of his earlier screwball classic Ball of Fire, penned by Billy Wilder. This one is transplanted to the world of music. Mayo is in the Stanwyck part, with Kaye in the Gary Cooper role as a meek professor. Cochran also returns and there are great character actors in like Felix Bressart, Hugh Herbert, and Sidney Blackmer, as well as many prominent musicians, including Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Lionel Hampton, and the terrific team of Buck and Bubbles! For a variety of reasons, neither Hawks, Kaye or Mayo were at their best in the film, and there are no Sylvia Fine songs, since Kaye was separated from her at the time. The movie seems to be more for lovers of jazz than comedy.

The Inspector General (1949)

Another entrant on the short-list of most beloved Kaye vehicles, this one is based on, of all things, a play by Nikolai Gogol. (With the exception of Jacques Tati, whose real name was Tatischeff, Russians aren’t exactly famous for being hysterically funny). Here, Kaye’s character flees the law after being accused of selling quack medicine, and winds up in a village where he is mistaken for a visited government inspector, and consequently treated like a king. Handily my favorite Danny Kaye comedy I think ! Funny slapstick and behavior throughout, terrific songs, clever, intelligent, doesn’t have the usual lags and filler and dead spots one find in most of the comedies of the period. Great cast features such stalwarts as Walter Slezak, Barbara Bates, Elsa Lanchester, Gene Lockhart, Alan Hale, and Walter Catlett.

On the Riviera (1951)

Like many of Kaye’s films, a remake of earlier comedies, and this one seems a distinctly minor effort. Again, a mistaken identity plot, with Kaye playing an American nightclub entertainer who impersonates a French Captain. The film also has Gene Tierney, Corinne Calvet, Sig Ruman, and Ann Codee.

Hans Christian Anderson (1952)

A family classic I first watched on TV as a child, it’s ostensibly a bio-pic of the famous Danish fairy tale author, with fantasy segments enacting stories like Thumbelina, The Ugly Duckling, The Emperor’s New Clothes, and The Little Mermaid. Apparently Danes were dissatisfied with the portrait, expecting more facts and less fantasy. Kaye’s signature tune “The Inch Worm” comes from this movie — I fondly recall him performing it on many a TV variety program, such as The Muppet Show. The film also features Farley Granger (who must have been seeking something more wholesome after doing Hitchcock’s Rope and Strangers on a Train), Zizi Jeanmaire, with John Qualen and George Chandler in minor roles.

Knock on Wood (1954)

To my delight, this one has the sort of premise we wrote about in our post on scary ventriloquist films. Kaye plays a vent whose love life keeps being ruined by his dummy’s big mouth — definitely a job for a psychiatrist! The film co-stars Swedish actress Mai Zetterling, Kaye’s third European leading lady in a row, following the French Corinne Calvet and Zizi Jeanmaire. No idea what that’s about! The film was both written and directed by the team of Norman Panama and Melvin Frank.

White Christmas (1954)

I’ll be blunt, I’m not a huge fan of this film. It’s trotted out every year as a classic, but I’m not buyin’ it. Bing originally sang the title song in Holiday Inn (1942), and for that matter, on a hundred other occasions. And it has one of those plots I couldn’t care less about, although like all Michael Curtiz movies, it’s beautiful to look at. I find that its chief points of interest lie in its relation to other stuff. The sight of Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye as a vaudeville act reminds us that Der Bingle normally did this sort of thing with Bob Hope. That said, the vehicle was originally intended to be his third team-up with Fred Astaire, following Holiday Inn (1942) and Blue Skies (1946), but Astaire balked (this despite the fact that he DID do the similarly wretched and misguided Irving Berlin vehicle Easter Parade which we wrote about here). Donald O’Connor was supposed to replace Astaire, but then he became ill. So Kaye was sloppy thirds, although he gave it his all as he always did. The film reunites Kate with Vera-Ellen who, together with Rosemary Clooney sings that mortifying “Sisters” duet. Also in the cast: Dean Jagger, Mary Wickes, Sig Ruman, Percy Helton, Grady Sutton, and those high kicking youngsters Barrie Chase and George Chakiris.

The Court Jester (1956)

Oddly, given that it has a clown character at its heart, I don’t find this movie too funny. The tone doesn’t feel like a comedy, but more like big budget medieval period adventure a la The Adventures of Robin Hood, which it much resembles (by virtue of its sets, costumes, Technicolor, and the presence of Basil Rathbone). The Court Jester had the largest budget for a comedy to date. Secondly, it feels like the musical it is, and the song are wonderful, no complaints there, but it feels more like a musical than a comedy. Third, it feels like a family film, and kind of deadly (dull). Danny Kaye is a good actor of course and he plays it quite straight in between the isolated comedy bits. It’s the comedy bits everyone remembers of course but one has to wait for them while we sit through the boring fairy tale plot. This is the quirk of the times I mentioned in my introduction. Most post-1930s comedies (down to the present day, frankly) are throwaway filler propped up by occasional tentpole moments. The Court Jester flopped at the time of its release – I wonder if this is why? Kaye gives an impressive performance but the overall impression the film leaves is that it’s a bore. The prestige cast also includes Glynis Johns, Mildred Natwick, Angela Lansbury, John Carradine, and Alan Napier.

Merry Andrew (1958)

Based on a Paul Gallico story, directed and choreographed by Michael Kidd (his first film), in this one Kaye plays a young English archaeologist who becomes involved with a traveling circus. Sort of a lackluster, modest affair, not calculated to dig him out of his waning box office prestige. Unlike nearly all of his previous vehicles, this one is not bolstered with a well-known supporting cast, eother.

Me and the Colonel (1958)

Searching for a new kind of vehicle, Kaye plays a Jewish refugee fleeing his native Poland as the Nazis approach, becoming involved in a love triangle the Colonel (Curd Jurgens) and his girlfriend (Nicole Maurey) during the car ride. This interesting film thus has themes in common with both To Be Or Not To Be and Casablanca! Akim Tamiroff and Alexander Scourby are among the recognizable names in the cast. Critics approved, but audiences were not interested.

The Five Pennies (1959)

Kaye stepped WAY out of his usual turf to portray jazz musician Red Nichols in this bio-pic. Apart of teaming up again with Louis Armstrong, whom he’d worked with on A Song is Born, and the fact that Kaye was indeed musical, there is not much for this kind of thing in his body work — a completely serious role, and one with no funny European accents to play with. It was directed and co-written by Mel Shavelson (with Jack Rose) and also featured Bob Crosby (Bing’s brother), Barbara Bel Geddes, Bobby Troupe, and a young Tuesday Weld.

On the Double (1961)

Comfortable with the team of Mel Shavelson and Jack Rose after the good experience on working on The Five Pennies, Kaye got them to craft a vehicle more in line with his past successes (a little too much if you ask me). This one has World War Two, doubling, and accents — Kaye plays an American G.I. who masquerades as a British general. It has Dana Wynter, Diana Dors, Margaret Rutherford, Jesse White, and the inevitable Bobby Watson as Adolf Hitler.

The Man from the Diner’s Club (1963)

This amusing mob farce, co-written by William Peter Blatty and directed by the great Frank Tashlin, was Kaye’s last starring movie vehicle. It’s mostly interesting for the direction in which it points. What would future Kaye vehicles have been like? Would he be able to adapt to a more modern style? George Burns is an example of an old school comedian who managed to do that. Or would he, as one fears, slide off into something more like the tired films Bob Hope made during his last decade as a screen comedian? At any rate, the film pulls together a nice ensemble of familiar past and future faces: Telly Savalas, Cara Williams, Martha Hyer, Everett Sloane, George Kennedy, Ann Morgan Guilbert, and Harry Dean Stanton. He could have gone out on a far worse note. As it happens he didn’t really “go out” at all, in the sense of retiring. Instead, he opted to switch to a different medium.

The Danny Kaye Show (1963-67)

Kaye was signed to host his own weekly TV comedy variety show, thus joining his old cinematic rivals Red Skelton (who also had a weekly variety show) and Bob Hope (who had several specials a year) in the electronic rat race. He excelled at performing songs and sketch comedy, and if anything audiences got more Danny Kaye in their live than ever. His supporting cast in comedy sketches included Joyce Van Patten, and a pre-Carol Burnett Show Harvey Korman. The show went strong for four years, but his late start in the medium translated into a short tenure for the comedian. Just about all of them, not just Kaye, would be canceled in the coming years, displaced by newer voices like The Smothers Brothers, Rowan and Martin, and Flip Wilson (who were all then displaced themselves by even newer voices within a few years).

The Madwoman of Chaillot (1969)

Kaye returned to the big screen one more time, this time not as a star but as a key member of a prestigious ensemble that also included Katharine Hepburn, Charles Boyer, Margaret Leighton, Edith Evans, John Gavin, Paul Henreid, Oskar Homolka, Yul Brynner, Richard Chamberlain, and Donald Pleasance. Based on a Giraudoux play, it concerns a bunch of scoundrels who want to drill for oil in the middle of Paris. It’s directed by Bryan Forbes, who had earlier done the farce The Wrong Box (1966) and the later classic The Stepford Wives (1975).

Here Comes Peter Cottontail (1971)

Surely one of the first places I would have seen Danny Kaye, even if I only heard him and saw a puppet. This Rankin-Bass holiday special reverses the formula: Fred Astaire, who’d been in Easter Parade, narrated Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Kaye, who’d been in White Christmas, narrates Here Comes Peter Cottontail. The characters in this special were co-created by my relative Harrison Cady, who died that same year. In addition to Kaye, voices are supplied by Casey Kasem, Vincent Price, and Rankin-Bass regular Paul Frees.

The Emperor’s New Clothes (1972)

This one is another Rankin-Bass production, and mixes live action with their patented stop motion puppetry, and is of course drawn from the Hans Christian Anderson tale, closely identified with Kaye thanks to his earlier film. He narrates the tale and voices the lead character. It also has Imogene Coca, whom Kaye had first worked with 34 years earlier, as well as Bob McFadden. The full title is The Enchanted World of Danny Kaye: The Emperor’s New Clothes.

Pinocchio (1976)

Kaye played Geppetto to Sandy Duncan’s Pinocchio in this CBS musical special. Very good casting in both cases!

Peter Pan (1976)

Okay, one of the drawbacks of the tradition of casting young ladies as Peter Pan is that occasionally 65 year old men can forget themselves and get a little too handsy with a character who’s supposed to be a teenaged boy (see photo above). Mia Farrow played the title character in this CBS musical special, which is funny because Kaye’s co-star from Pinocchio, Sandy Duncan, went on to become much more closely associated with the part of Peter Pan just a couple of years later. This post talks about both versions and many others.

Skokie (1981)

This made-for-tv movie was a huge event at the time, and oddly perfect for Kaye. It was based on one of the big controversies of the day, the decision of American Nazis to march in the town on Skokie, Illinois, which had a large Jewish population, including many Holocaust survivors. It was a case everyone talked about (and frankly still do although talking about just one town nowadays sounds downright quaint). The conflict at issue, and one I believe went all the way to the Supreme Court, with the ACLU arguing on behalf of the Nazis, was the First Amendment vs. the right of Americans not to have to see Nazis proudly walking down the street. It’s one those Hobson’s Choice, lose-lose scenarios. We believe in Freedom of Speech in this country, even for people with whom we disagree. But Nazis are a special case. Frankly, given what’s happened in America over the last 40 years, I am no longer a free speech absolutist when it comes to cases such as this. Threats are not protected speech, or oughtn’t be, and it seems to me pretty clear utterances and actions by people who have voluntarily adopted the name and platform of a genocidal political party ought to, within the limits of common sense, be treated as threatening and intimidating. The potential harm in a liberal and enlightened country like America was harder to see in 1981. Now it’s pretty clear that it “can happen here”.

Anyway, in this TV movie Kaye played a Holocaust survivor, a local opponent of the Nazis’ right to march, a perfect part for him given his facility with accents and his own Jewish identity. The part also harkens back a little to his role in The Madwoman of Chaillot. He certainly was more appropriate than Laurence Olivier in The Boys from Brazil (1978)! This major television production also had Eli Wallach, Carl Reiner, Brian Dennehy, and Ed Flanders. And there is poignancy in the fact that this is one of Kaye’s last roles.

Kaye had heart surgery in early 1983, from which he contracted Hep C, which eventually killed him in 1987. He did manage to squeak in a couple of last performances, though, a 1985 episode of the rebooted Twilight Zone, and his final appearance, a 1986 episode of Cosby. He was honored with a Kennedy Center award in 1984.

For more on the variety arts, including TV variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.