Special Kaye: Marking Danny Kaye’s Centenary

Danny KeyeA few months ago, Turner Classic Movies aired a block of movies starring Danny Kaye in celebration of his 100th birthday. Also part of the programming was an installment of The Dick Cavett Show in which Kaye was interviewed by the show’s host. After the program, one could only wonder: Was there anything in show business that Danny Kaye could not do?

Singing. Check. Dancing. Check. Acting dramatically. Check. Acting comically. Check. Check. Telling stories. Check. Providing voiceovers for animation and narration. Check. Host a TV show. Check. Master chef. Check.  Pilot an airplane. Check. Orchestra leader. Check. Baseball team owner. Check.  Writer. Check. Mimic. Check.  Goodwill ambassador. Check. And I’m sure there was even more.

The “Everyman of Entertainment” was born David Daniel Kaminski on January 18, 1913 in Brooklyn to Ukranian Jewish immigrants. He never graduated from high school, deciding instead to hightail it to Florida with a friend to try to make it as a musical act, with Danny singing. The act was a bust and after a return home, he landed in the Catskill’s Borscht Belt resorts as a tummler.

At the age of 20, Danny adopted the last name “Kaye” and became one of The Three Terpsichoreans, a dancing act that performed in vaudeville and eventually won fans overseas.       

After some tough times that saw Danny working in burlesque with legendary fan dancer Sally Rand, he got a part in the 1935 film Moon Over Manhattan. The exposure led to a two-year contract to make two-reelers for a company that also employed June Allyson and Imogene Coca; the company soon folded, however, and he returned to the Catskills. There he met composer, musician and lyricist Sylvia Fine, and they soon married. The two conceived an act for La Martinique, a chic Manhattan nightclub.

Writer Moss Hart was so impressed that he penned Lady in the Dark, and recommended Kaye to join Gertrude Lawrence in the satire on psychiatry. In the show, which featured music by Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin, Kaye performs “Tchaikovsky,” in which he rattles off the names of scores of Russian composers. Kaye also performed the song memorably on that 1971 installment of The Dick Cavett Show.  

The fine reviews led Kaye to get top billing in Cole Porter’s Let’s Face It!, which featured two songs by Fine that Kaye sang. Also in the cast of this musical—about three wives who try to dupe their presumably philandering husbands by inviting three GIs to a Long Island house—were Vivian Vance, Eve Arden and Nanette Fabray. The show was a hit on Broadway and in London, and Kaye was on his way–to Hollywood.

Producer Samuel Goldwyn cast the 31-year-old in 1944’s Up in Arms, a remake of Eddie Cantor’s earlier Whoopee. In fact, Goldwyn’s original intention was to make Danny “the next Eddie Cantor.”  

In Up in Arms, Danny plays a hypochondriac elevator operator drafted into the Army with buddy Dana Andrews, prompting his girlfriend Constance Dowling and her pal Dinah Shore to sign up with the WACs. Complications from mistaken identity ensue for a wild, music-filled ride with Kaye standing out, particularly in songs co-written by his wife:  “The Lobby Number,” in which he satirizes the moviegoing experience from the lobby of a theater, and the military-based scat-a-thon “Melody in 4-F.” 

Kaye’s screen antics—his energy, likability, talent at dialects, crowd-pleasing persona and rubber-faced appearance—impressed audiences as well as the tough-to-satisfy Goldwyn, leading to a series of elaborate Technicolor musical-comedy excursions for the independent producer. It was also Goldwyn who suggested that Kaye have a nose job for his prominent proboscis; the actor refused, but did dye his red hair blonde instead.

As his star in Hollywood was ascending, Kaye signed on for The Danny Kaye Show for CBS Radio in 1945, in which he shared the microphone with Lionel Stander, Harry James and Eve Arden. An extended tour with the USO eventually put the kibosh on the popular show, although he came back occasionally as a special guest.

At first, Kaye’s film career was something of a question mark because he was so multi-talented.

“Kaye’s greatest obstacle to mass popularity was that he could do too much, too well,” wrote David Koenig in his 2012 biography Danny Kaye: King of the Jesters. “He was impossible to classify. Without a brand, he found it difficult initially to make a name for himself and ultimately to keep that name remembered.”

Later in life, Kaye would say: “Life is a great big canvas; throw all the paint you can at it.”

But Danny’s film career did soar, with Goldwyn leading the charge.  In Wonder Man (1945), Kaye took a dual role as a meek librarian and the ghost of his outgoing nightclub entertainer twin brother, who encourages his surviving sibling to hunt down the mobster (a debuting Steve Cochran) that did him in. Virginia Mayo (who would appear in other Kaye vehicles) and Vera-Ellen co-starred in a film noted for Kaye’s classic routine as a Russian singer performing the song “Otchi Chornya” with weird allergic tics.

The Kid from Brooklyn (1946) centers on Kaye’s shy milkman who  gets accidentally indoctrinated into the crooked fight game after he knocks out the drunken boxer hitting on his sister. Danny’s “Pavlova,” a nifty poke at the world of ballet—Martha Graham and Gypsy Rose Lee!—puts Sylvia’s wit and   Danny expertise at dialect into the spotlight, while Vera Ellen’s song-and-tap dance number with The Goldwyn Girls on “So in Love” was a crowd-pleaser as well. Also in ’46, Warner Brothers cartoons had their own way of saying  “Oh, Kaye!” in animator Bob Clampett’s “Book Revue,” with Daffy Duck channeling the entertainer as he sings “Carolina in the Morning” with a Russian accent.

Kaye’s hot streak with Goldwyn continued with 1947’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the screen adaptation of James Thurber’s story about a meek man whose dreams of being a hero become a reality when he gets involved with a mysterious woman (Mayo). Howard Hawks cast Kaye as the main professor in A Song is Born, his musicalized 1948 remake of his own classic Ball of Fire, with Mayo and band leaders/musicians Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Louis Armstrong and Charlie Barnet in support.    

Kaye would thereafter leave Goldwyn for Fox; he subsequently formed his own company, Dena Productions (named after his daughter) with his wife Sylvia (who also supplied songs and acted as his manager) in a deal with Paramount. He remained a box-office draw into the next decade and beyond, with such films as The Inspector General (1949), On the Riviera (1951), Knock on Wood (1954), filling in for Fred Astaire (then Donald O’Connor) opposite Bing Crosby in White Christmas (1954), Merry Andrew (1958) (with the contagiously upbeat “Everything is Tickety-Boo” number)  and On the Double (1961).  

Kaye’s cinematic sojourn into drama, playing real-life trumpeter Red Nichols in The Five Pennies (1959), was well-received; the film received four Oscar nominations and won the Golden Globe for Best Musical.  He would again later take the serious route in the 1981 TV movie Skokie, garnering a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor for his role as a concentration camp survivor protesting a planned march by Neo-Nazis in an Illinois town.   

At time his film career was flourishing, the indefatigable Kaye did lots of live concerts, and was particularly popular in England. “Danny has been practically adopted by the British,” quipped Bob Hope. “I used his dressing room when I was over there. It was a modest affair—just two mirrors and a throne.”

Then there were the children’s records;  a TV variety show in the 1960s;  a one-time shot emceeing the Academy Awards; appearances as a guest panelist on “What’s My Line?,” introducing the  annual broadcast of The Wizard of Oz on CBS;  appearing in several TV specials, like a TV movie version of Pinocchio as Gepetto, opposite Sandy Duncan as the wooden boy; and a musical Hallmark Hall of Fame production of Peter Pan, in which he played Captain Hook to Mia Farrow’s Pan;  touring the world and entertaining children as a spokesperson for UNICEF; and playing Noah on crutches and in a wheelchair (after breaking his foot) on Broadway in the hit Two by Two with music by Richard Rogers. All this and being a partner in the Seattle Mariners baseball club.

The Court Jester, released in 1955 by Paramount, remains, arguably, Kaye’s most popular and best-loved film, even though the expensive production—billed as the costliest comedy of all-time upon its release—disappointed at the box-office. Set in medieval England, The Court Jester stars Kaye as Hubert Hawkins, a minstrel for a Robin Hood-like hero attempting to restore the throne to its rightful heir, a baby with a hidden birthmark.

The colorful, high-spirited spoof of swashbucklers is filled with plot complications galore, songs by Sammy Cahn and Fine, and frenetic silly dialogue fashioned by Kaye with writers-director Melvin Frank and Norman Panama, including the classic line “The pellet with the poison… the pellet with the poison is in the vessel with the pestle, the chalice from the palace has the true that is brew…”

Wrote Variety in their mostly favorable review: “Costumed swashbucklers undergo a happy spoofing in The Court Jester with Danny Kaye heading the fun-poking. Norman Panama and Melvin Frank drag in virtually every time-honored, and timeworn, medieval drama cliche for Kaye and cast to re-play for laughs via not-so-subtle treatment.”

Just how popular was Danny Kaye in films? The statistics are pretty impressive. According to box office analyst David Bleiler, Kaye sold over 320 million tickets over his career, which translates to nearly $2.5 billion in today’s dollars. His most popular film was White Christmas, which took in the 2013 equivalent of $470 million. Based on statistics for 17 films he was in, Kaye’s movies averaged a nothing-to-sneeze-at $145 million in adjusted dollars per movie.  

Depending on which account you believe, the private Danny Kaye was either a mensch, or a self-absorbed creep with a possible case of clinical manic-depression. There have been some behind-the-scene stories about his personal life that certainly remain perplexing. Shirley MacLaine claims that she had an affair with him, and there are rumors he had trysts with such co-stars as Martha Hyer, Barbara Bates and Eve Arden, Princess Margaret and journalist Glenys Roberts. A widespread rumor that he and Laurence Oliver shared a bed for years has been floating around since Donald Spoto’s biography of Laurence Olivier was published in 1992.  

In his book “American Prince,” Tony Curtis wrote American Prince: A Memoir, Tony Curtis wrote: “To my way of thinking, Danny was a very mean and bitter man, and almost everybody seemed to agree with me…he would belittle me all the time. He once asked me, ‘Where did you learn how to fence –the Bronx?’ I don’t know why Danny had it in for me. Maybe it was because we both came from New York. Maybe it was because we were both Jewish, and he struggled with that in himself. Or it might have been some complicated sexual feeling.”

Of course, Kaye also had his critics. Pauline Kael, writing about Hans Christian Andersen, opined: “Lavish, cloying, pseudo-whimsical monstrosity, contrived by Moss Hart and directed by Charles Vidor, under the aegis of Samuel Goldwyn. It’s the conceit of the movie to make Andersen (Danny Kaye) a simpleton bordering on active idiocy… The drippy songs are by Frank Loesser.”

And film critic David Thomson’s assessment of Kaye in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film is that he “is one of those people who was a wonder once but who looks frantic and alien now.” He also adds that “now one can pick up the feeling he has inhuman energy on screen, somewhere between child, machine and rogue cuckoo clock.” 

Along with many of my generation, my experiences watching Danny Kaye movies when I was a kid were warm and fuzzy. I recall catching a short segment of The Man from the Diners’ Club, his last starring effort, on Super 8mm. The condensed section of the 1963 film directed by Frank Tashlin (and never, oddly enough, available on VHS or DVD) featured an early version of a primitive computer, “a gigantic electric brain,” and hundreds of little papers flying around an office. Kaye plays a clerk who gets involved with a gangster (Telly Savalas) and his moll (Cara Williams) after he approves a credit card for the hood. In the segment’s brief running time, Kaye performed some impressive slapstick routines, and my first impression was “This guy is funny.”     

But making even a bigger impact on me was seeing Danny on TV in Hans Christian Andersen. Sure, I knew the stories from when I was a kid. But they came to life enchantingly, with Danny as the Danish fairy tale writer and storyteller. In Samuel Goldwyn’s production, Frank Loesser’s wonderful score helped bring the fairy tales to life. I am pretty certain I saw the film in its first television airing in 1966 when I nine years old. Oddly enough, Danish musician and entertainer Victor Borge was recruited to introduce the film to pad out its running time, so ABC could present it in its complete 120 min. form.  

danny-kaye-hans-albumMy parents bought me the soundtrack and I played it over and over and over and over, singing and whistling along to the signature tune (“I’m Hans Christian Andersen, I’ve many a tale to tell..”), reiterating the story of “The Ugly Duckling” (“There once was an ugly duckling…with feathers all stubby and brown…”), chirping the praises of Copenhagen (“Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen, friendly old girl of a town…”) and reenacting the saga of Thumbelina (“Thumbelina, Thumbelina, tiny little thing…Thumbelina dance, Thumbelina sing…”) with my index finger inked with a little girl’s face on it.

I think that last one may have had my parents concerned, because my much-used Hans Christian Andersen soundtrack album mysteriously disappeared at some point. It was no longer sandwiched between my copies of Beatles and Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass albums in the dining room etagere.

More About Danny Kaye: Danny Kaye, Virginia Mayo & Sam Goldwyn

Thanks, David Daniel Kaminski. And happy 100th, too, anywhere you wander, anywhere you roam.