Danny Kaye, Virginia Mayo & Sam Goldwyn

Danny KayeWhen I was growing up, some of my absolute favorite movies were Samuel Goldwyn’s Danny Kaye/Virginia Mayo musicals made during the ‘40s. For a twelve year old, the films were bright, breezy, funny and chock-a-block with snappy tunes and zippy one-liners.I thought it would be fun to revisit them to see if they’re still just as much fun today as they were then. ( They are).

Up in Arms (1944)

Although this film stars Dinah Shore with Kaye, it firmly sets up what was to be the Kaye/Mayo mold. It was Kaye’s first feature film and Goldwyn didn’t want to risk starring two unknowns, so Shore was brought in at the last minute to amp up the star wattage. Co-starring Dana Andrews and Constance Dowling, Up in Arms is Wartime Propaganda at its finest packaged in the form of a fluffy, sweetly silly romp in which hypochondriac Daniel Weems (Kaye) and best friend Joe (Andrews) are drafted into the army where Kaye’s obsessive compulsive behavior lands them both into a bottomless pit of hot water. Dinah Shore’s Tess’ Torch Song is a definite highlight, but more than that, Up In Arms first introduces us to what would be Kaye’s signature: his tongue-twisting, rapid-fire monologues.

Decades before the likes of Jim Carrey, and well before Jerry Lewis, Danny Kaye wrote the book on rubber-faced comic madness.

Written in partnership with his wife Sylvia Fine, Kaye’s singular mix of pantomime, song and dance is truly unique and are here unleashed for the first time. Kaye’s Melody in 4-F, a smashing stage success for him, is captured on film in Up In Arms … although tamed considerably for the censors.

Wonder Man (1945)

Wonder Man is a tired premise executed with delightful freshness and creativity.  Kaye plays identical twins: bookworm Edwin Dingle and nightclub singer Buzzy Bellew. When Buzzy is knocked off by notorious gangster ‘Ten Grand Jackson’ for being the Man Who Knew Too Much, the only person who can bring the thugs to justice is Edwin—with a little help from the ghost of Buzzy, that is. (The special effects in the film, by the way, were cutting edge and won a special Oscar.) Buzzy’s ghost possesses his brother in order to lead the cops to Jackson, resulting in the proverbial tangled web we weave:  Mild-mannered Dingle, with a squeaky-clean sweetheart of his own (Virginia Mayo) is forced to pretend to be the outrageous Buzzy who happens to be engaged to nightclub hottie Midge Mallone (Vera-Ellen). A cliché of a plot, perhaps, with predictable set pieces, definitely, but Kaye’s wild versatility and show-stopping shenanigans keeps the film fresh and funny. Vera-Ellen makes her feature film debut here, and her sensational talents are well showcased, particularly in a dazzling number entitled So In Love, and I am happy to report that it is just as delightful to me now as it was at the ripe old age of 12. The colors and the costumes are eye popping, but Ellen’s talent is what’s truly jaw-dropping:


The Kid From Brooklyn (1946)

By the time Kaye and Mayo were cast in Goldwyn’s 1946 remake of Harold Lloyd’s The Milky Way, the team was box office gold. And even though The Kid From Brooklyn lacks Wonder Man’s ingenuity and spunk, it is still breezy, easy entertainment. Delightful, if not a bit dizzy, the film follows the exploits of milkman Burleigh Sullivan who apparently knocks out the middleweight champion of the world. Not exactly good PR for the champ’s agent who concocts a scam to profit over the mishap. He takes the gullible Burleigh and touts him as a boxing sensation, fixing fights across the country to turn him into a star. The fact that Burleigh boxes like he’s waving hello leads to quite a few memorable moments, particularly Eve Arden (the manager’s gal pal) who teaches him the ropes of boxing to the tune of Johann Strauss’ Blue Danube:  “Trah-la-la-la-la-boom-boom-boom-boom!” The manager then bets against Burleigh in a Vegas-esque fight and, well, you can guess the outcome. Vera-Ellen is Burleigh’s dancing sister and Mayo is the singer that falls for him. Even though Mayo lip sync’s her numbers, it’s still a lot of fun to watch the Sammy Kahn numbers.

And oh those Goldwyn Girls.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947)

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty remains the most famous of the Goldwyn/Kaye/Mayo films, and understandably so. Norman McLeod, who had brought to the screen classics such as Topper, Lady Be Good as well as Wonder Man and Kid From Brooklyn, finely helms this memorably sweet, smart and sassy story of the loveable daydreamer Walter Mitty. Walter Mitty is a beleaguered wage slave at a pulp-fiction publishing company who is utterly (pardon the expression) pussy-whipped by his mother and fiancé, and retreats into his daydreams to find solace and assert himself as a man.  When the woman of his dreams (Mayo) turns up on his train into town one unexpected morning, Mitty is pulled into a game of cat and mouse that turns his life upside down. Mayo, whose roles are painfully cookie-cutter in the Goldwyn films, is here able to actually flex some acting chops (more to follow in A Song is Born) and backed up by the likes of Boris Karloff, Faye Bainter and Ann Rutherford results in pure cinematic gold. It is also perhaps the most ‘mainstream’ Kaye/Mayo film—not the fluffy extravaganzas of the earlier films, but a film that pivots around a plot the viewer actually invests in.  Mitty’s daydreams are terrific fun, as are the character actors and the suspense ramps up to a nail-bitingly fun finale.

A Song is Born (1948)

Long-time readers of the Pictorial will know exactly how dear this film is to our heart. Howard Hawks’ remake of his beloved 1941 screwball Stanwyck-Cooper starrer Ball of Fire is not the finely crafted sophisticated romp the original was … but it’s the music that makes this film positively priceless. In my opinion, the film contains s segment of celluloid that is living history in its most impressively organic form. Here we have the unprecedented (and arguably unmatched) interracial jazz ensemble of Tommy Dorsey, Lionel Hampton, Mel Powell, Benny Goodman, Charlie Barnett (WOW!) and Pops himself, Louis Armstrong, jamming together in the film’s titular A Song is Born.  Kaye is his usual, stuttering, bumbling self, but it is Mayo who really gets to dig into the role. Taking her cue from Barbara Stanwyck’s femme fatale of the 1941 original, it is easy to see how Mayo would go on to play such tough jawed dames as White Heat’s Verna Jarret. (She’d already proven her range as Dana Andrew’s philandering wife in The Best Years Of Our Lives.) It is the last Kaye/Mayo pairing, and was a disappointment at the box office, but it certaily deserves rediscovery.

More about Dany Kaye and his Musicals and Career: Special Kaye: Marking Danny Kaye’s Centenary 

Kitty Johnson is a freelance writer who also works as an editorial assistant for a Los Angeles-based film magazine … which is a fancy way of saying she’s one hell of a nerd.  For proof, visit her blog The Kitty Packard Pictorial.