Saturday, January 19, 2013

Danny Kaye at 100

There was a time when comedians were often expected not only to be funny, but to be able to sing and dance as well. Oh, even then there were plenty of comedians who couldn't carry a tune in a bucket and would trip over their own two feet if they tried to dance, but there was a remarkable number of comics who could sing and dance, and do both well. Among them were a number of legends, including Eddie Cantor,  Oliver Hardy, Bob Hope, Al Jolson, and Dean Martin. Among the greatest of these song and dance men was Danny Kaye. He was as funny as the best comics. He could sing as well as the best crooners. And he could dance as well as the best hoofers. What is more, Danny Kaye's talents did not end there. He was skilled in acting, improvisation, complex verse, and impersonation. He was as comfortable with classic music as he was popular songs. If ever there was a performer who could nearly do it all, it was Danny Kaye.  It was 100 years ago yesterday that Danny Kaye was born.

Danny Kaye was born David Daniel Kaminsky on 18 January 1913 in Brooklyn, New York. He displayed a gift for performing from a young age. While in grade school he was the class clown. His parents were also very supportive of his choice of career. Sadly, his mother would die just as Danny Kaye was entering his teens. As a result he left school when he was 13. He worked for a time for a radio station. He and his friend Lou Eisen formed a double act, performing at clubs and parties. Eventually they would find work in the Catskills. It was while working in the Catskills that he would assume his stage name. Initially he shortened his name to David Kamin before adopting the name "Danny Kaye." In the end his experiences in the Catskills convinced Danny Kaye that he wanted to make a living as a performer.

It was in 1935 that Danny Kaye made his film debut in the short "Moon Over Manhattan," produced by Educational Films. He went onto appear in other Educational Films shorts, such as "Dime a Dance" (1937), "Getting an Eyeful" (1938), "Cupid Takes a Holiday" (1938), and "Money or Your Life" (1938). In most of the shorts Danny Kaye played a madcap Russian immigrant named Nikolai Nikolaevich. In 1938 Danny Kaye went to England and performed there. While he did not go over very well with the English, he did make his television debut, in 30 minute BBC production entitled  Autumn Laughter.

Having returned to the United States, Mr. Kaye found work with Max Liebman, who at the time was directing the revue The Sunday Night Varieties. The Sunday Night Varieties did not prove successful, closing not long after it opened. Danny Kaye then returned to the Catskills. Despite the failure of The Sunday Night Varieties, Max Liebman decided to produce a revue on Broadway. It was then in 1939 that Danny Kaye made his debut on Broadway in The Straw Hat Revue, produced by Max Liebman. After working in the Catskills for a little over a decade, Danny Kaye's career was finally on the rise. It was tin 1941 that he appeared on Broadway again, this time in the musical comedy Lady in the Dark, which had a book by Moss Hart, music by Kurt Weil, and lyrics by Ira Gershwin. The show proved to be a resounding success. The success of Lady in the Dark would result in Danny Kaye being cast as the lead in the musical comedy Let's Face It!, which featured music by Cole Porter. It too proved to be a success.

With success on Broadway it would not be long before Hollywood would come calling. Comedian, singer, and dancer Eddie Cantor's star had waned in the Forties, to the point that Samuel Goldwyn wanted a young performer who could take his place. Mr. Goldwyn wanted someone like Mr. Cantor who could do nearly everything--tell jokes, sing, and dance. He found a more than suitable replacement in the form of Danny Kaye. For Danny Kaye's feature film debut, Eddie Cantor's stage production and film Whoopee! was adapted as the film Up in Arms (1944). In the film Danny Kaye played elevator operator and hypochondriac Danny Weems, who worked in a medical building so he can get free advice from the doctors and nurses there. Unfortunately, poor Danny finds himself drafted into the United States Army.

  Up in Arms would establish the sort of character that Danny Kaye would play in most of his films. It was a character similar to those played by Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd as far back as the Silent Era and, as might be expected, similar to those played by Eddie Cantor. The character was an everyman and milquestoast who would be forced into situations that required feats of courage. That is not to say that Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Eddie Cantor, and Danny Kaye essentially played the same characters, as there were noticeable differences. While Buster Keaton's characters faced  danger stone faced, Harold Lloyd's characters overcame adversity with old fashioned, American ingenuity, and Eddie Cantor's characters came out on top despite a host of fears and neuroses, Danny Kaye's characters possessed a manic quality rarely seen before or since. Rubber raced and capable of speaking very rapidly, Danny Kaye could take his characters from 0 to 70 in a matter of seconds. In some respects it can be argued Danny Kaye was the ultimate comic actor. He played timid souls like Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, could sing and dance like Eddie Cantor and Bob Hope, and was capable of fast paced, sophisticated humour like Groucho Marx.

Arguably Danny Kaye was at the height of his popularity from the late Forties into the Fifties. It was during this period that he made the bulk of his feature films, in addition to appearing in other media. From 1945 to 1946 Danny Kaye had a weekly radio show on CBS, The Danny Kaye Show. The show proved extremely popular, but in the end Danny Kaye asked to be released from his contract. CBS granted his request on the conditions he did not do another regularly scheduled radio show for one year and limit his guest appearances on other radio shows. Mr. Kaye would also have a string of hit records starting in 1947, including "Civilization (Bongo, Bongo, Bongo)" and "The Woody Woodpecker Song."  He had a successful appearance at the London Palladium in 1948 and played a Royal Variety Performance in London later that same year. He hosted the 24th Academy Awards in 1952. In 1952 and 1953 he toured the country with is own show. From January to April in 1953 he appeared in a one man show simply titled Danny Kaye.

While Danny Kaye did a good deal, it would be for his movies that he would be best remembered. Following the success of Up in Arms, Danny Kaye would appear in a string of hit films. In Wonder Man (1945) played identical, but estranged twins, quiet bookworm Edwin Dingle and his late brother, nightclub performer Buster Dingle (who after being murdered comes back as a ghost). The Kid From Brooklyn (1946) was a remake of the 1936 Harold Lloyd film The Milky Way.  In the film Danny Kaye played a meek milkman who becomes a boxer. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947) was based on the James Thurber short story of the same name. A Song is Born (1948) was a musical remake of Ball of Fire (1941).    Nineteen forty nine would see the release of one of Danny Kaye's most enduring films, The Inspector General. Loosely based on the play The Inspector General by Nikolai Gogol, Danny Kaye plays an illiterate refugee from a medicine show who turns a corrupt town on its head. In Danny Kaye's next film, On the Riviera (1951) Danny Kaye played another dual role, that of Jack Martin (an American cabaret entertainer working on the French Riviera) and Henri Duran (an industrialist).

The 1952 Hans Christian Anderson would mark a slight shift in Danny Kaye's career. Although a musical, it was of a more serious nature than the comedies that Mr. Kaye had made for most of his career. Hans Christian Anderson is perhaps best described as a film which tells the story (largely fictional) of Danish storyteller and poet Hans Christian Anderson (played by Danny Kaye) through his fairy tales (segments based on "The Emperor's New Clothes," "The Little Mermaid," "Thumbelina," and "The Ugly Duckling" appear in the film). Hans Christian Anderson proved to be a hit worldwide. Danny Kaye's next film would be much more in line with the rest of his career. In Knock on Wood (1954) he played a none too sane ventriloquist who becomes involved with spies. The same year Danny Kaye appeared in White Christmas. Although the film remains one of Mr. Kaye's better known films, it is probably better considered a vehicle for Bing Crosby. In fact, White Christmas  was originally meant to reunited Holiday Inn co-stars Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. Fred Astaire turned the project down after reading the screenplay. Donald O'Connor was then signed to the project, but had to back out of it due to illness. It was then that Danny Kaye was brought onto the film.

Nineteen fifty five would see the release of what many consider Danny Kaye's greatest film and what today is mostly likely his most popular film, The Court Jester. In some respects The Court Jester resembles the sort of parodies of various genres that Bob Hope often did. In the case of The Court Jester, it parodied the big budget, medieval epics of the era. Its budget reflected this fact. It cost $4 million to make, making the most expensive comedy made up to that time. While The Court Jester resembled the sort of expensive parodies that Bob Hope might make, it is arguably the purest Danny Kaye film of them all. Danny Kaye once more plays a manic milquetoast, Hubert Hawkins, a former carnival entertainer who serves as minstrel to a band of rebels led by The Black Fox. The Court Jester was filled with wordplay (the most memorable of which is probably the "Pellet with the poison's..." mnemonic) and the manic comedy for which Danny Kaye is known (particularly evident in the scenes in which Hawkins is hypnotised). Despite possibly being the quintessential Danny Kaye film and highly regarded today, The Court Jester bombed at the box office upon its initial release. Sadly, this marked the decline of his career. Merry Andrew (1958)--about a schoolteacher who discovers the joys of circus life), Me and the Colonel (1958--based on the play Jacobowsky und der Oberst by Franz Werfel), The Five Pennies (1959--a biography of clarinettist Red Nichols), On the Double (1961--in which an American G.I. is the exact double of a British general), and The Man From the Diner's Club (1963--in which a Diner's Club clerk mistakenly approves a mobster for a card) all did poorly at the box office.  Danny Kaye would appear in one more feature film in his career, as The Ragpicker in he Madwoman of Chaillot (1969).

Despite the fact that he no longer made movies, Danny Kaye's career was hardly over. In the early Sixties Mr. Kaye starred in various TV specials over the years.  From 1963 to 1967 Danny Kaye appeared in his own weekly variety show, The Danny Kaye Show, on CBS. He appeared on such shows as The Andy Williams Show, The Merv Griffith Show, The Jack Benny Programme, The Lucy Show, What's My Line, Rowan and Martin's Laugh In, and The Muppet Show. He appeared played a dramatic role in the 1981 television movie Skokie, and guest starred on the Eighties revival of The Twilight Zone and The Cosby Show. From 1949 to the end of his life, Danny Kaye was active as a spokesman for UNICEF.

It was on 3 March 1987 at the age of 74 that Danny Kaye died of a heart attack. It was only a little over a year after his guest appearance on The Cosby Show had aired. He left behind a career that consisted of some of the best comedy films ever made and an awarding variety show.

If Danny Kaye is remembered today it is because he was a singular performer. As stated earlier, he was a man of many talents, one who could not only be funny, but sing, dance, recite verse, and perform impersonations. What is more, he was not only a great comic actor, but also skilled as a dramatic actor, as his turns in The Five Pennies and Skokie readily demonstrate. The characters he played throughout his film career were also unique, unlike those played by any other comic actors--timid everymen with more than their fair share of neuroses, who could turn manic at any moment. While Danny Kaye did not make nearly as many films as such comic actors as Bob Hope or Abbott and Costello, then, he remains as memorable as they are because he was utterly unique. There was never a comic actor like Danny Kaye before him, and there probably never will be again.

1 comment:

Lisa said...

Wonderful appreciation of this talented entertainer, my favorite!