Sunday, August 25, 2013

Oh Kaye

I wasn't expecting much of David Koenig's biography of Danny Kaye, King Of Jesters but I was pleasantly surprised. Koenig says in the introduction he wants to avoid a "mean-spirited collection of tawdry tales" that was Martin Gottfried's bio in 1994, but the book's format--the chapters are subdivided by one Kaye project after another--threatens to be by-the-numbers. Instead, Koenig has done his research, and goes into some detail--generally interesting detail--about how Kaye's film and other work was created and how it was received.

I don't consider Kaye a classic, but find him a talented and genial presence in his movies.  He was born David Daniel Kaminski in Brooklyn in 1911 (not 1913 as he'd later claim).  By his late teens he was performing in summer camps in the Catskills, where many big names got their start.  For years he developed his talents--singing, dancing, acting, accents and doing fast-talk and double-talk numbers.  He slowly worked his way up the ladder and people started to take notice.  He even got to make a few low-budget film shorts in the late 30s, but still hadn't made it big.

Then he met Sylvia Fine, a songwriter and pianist a few years younger who'd actually grown up across the street from him.  She helped devise some of the shows at the high-class Camp Tamiment, and her style was perfect for creating specialty numbers for Danny. She helped him develop routines for a nightclub act and by 1939 he was performing her material on Broadway in The Straw Hat Revue. (Oh yeah, they also got married.)

He snagged a small part in Lady In The Dark in 1941, a big-budget Broadway musical created by Moss Hart, Ira Gershwin and Kurt Weill, starring Gertrude Lawrence.  The show was a hit, and Danny almost stole the show with "Tschaikowsky," a comic solo where he sang the names of 47 Russian composers in well under a minute.  Now he was in demand, and got the lead in Cole Porter's Let's Fact It.  It's one of Porter's weaker scores, but Kaye's cavorting helped turn it into a hit--especially with his wife's specialty material, including the classic doubletalk number "Melody In 4F."

Hollywood came calling, but Kaye and his wife were worried he'd be lost in the crowd as a featured comic in a small role.  They waited and got an offer they liked--from independent producer Sam Goldwyn, who made one film at a time, always an A picture.  Goldwyn wanted to build Kaye into a movie star, as he'd done with another big Broadway comic Eddie Cantor.  Danny had his own style, but Goldwyn generally had him play meek characters that could have been envisioned for Cantor.  Though, on top of that, Kaye got to do his specialty numbers.

Goldwyn would hire numerous writers to work on scripts, and constantly made changes.  It turned out, though, that Kaye's talents were special and almost every film he did, with or without Goldwyn, went through numerous rewrites. (Partly because wife Fine also insisted on having her say.) Kaye's first film, Up In Arms, came out in 1944 and was a hit. The audience liked this multi-talented but fairly unassuming redhead.  He followed it up with other hits Wonder Man, The Kid From Brooklyn and The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty. Kaye and his team took their time--at a time when comedians like Bob Hope or Abbot and Costello were turning out two or more films a year, Danny would do only one. However, Kaye's last film for Goldwyn--a dispiriting musical remake of the Howard Hawks' hit Ball Of Fire called A Song Is Born--flopped. (It was directed by Howard Hawks as well, though he was clearly doing it for the money.)

Meanwhile, Kaye was performing one-man shows to great acclaim, both in America and overseas.  He began to relax in-between routines and learned to establish a rapport with the audience, talking to them and even bringing them up on stage.  Many said Kaye's films never captured the magic of the live performer.  He also managed to do some radio work that didn't go over well, which made sense, as much of his appeal was visual.

He decided to leave Goldwyn so he and his wife would have more control.  His first new film was at Warner Brothers, a shaky version of The Inspector General which didn't do particularly well.  Things improved a bit with On The Riviera and then he had a huge hit in 1952 when he worked again with Goldwyn (teamed with RKO) on Hans Christian Andersen. The script, by old acquaintance Moss Hart (the writer of record--all told, fifteen other writers took a whack), is a bit too sentimental and bears little resemblance to the real Andersen, but what did that matter when Danny got to sing classic Frank Loesser songs such as "Wonderful Copenhagen," "Inch Worm," "Thumbelina," "No Two People"" and "Anywhere I Wander"?  Not only was the movie a hit, an album of Kaye singing its songs was also huge.

Danny was on a roll, making another hit, Knock On Wood, at Paramount, followed by his biggest hit by far, White Christmas.  Next he did the film he's best remembered for, The Court Jester. It was a colossal flop. In fact, he'd never star in a major hit again.  Court Jester, like many Kaye films, had trouble getting put together in pre-production, and the budget ballooned, but in the past it hadn't matter if the grosses were big enough. Not this time.

It's hard to understand why the film didn't do better.  Perhaps the audience didn't want to see him in a costume piece.  And it's true that in 1955 movies were having a tough time against TV, and musicals generally weren't doing that well.  But still, the film seems to me--and to many Kaye fans--his best, so the failure remains a mystery.  In any case, it was eventually rediscovered on television, and has attained classic status.

He starred in five more films--Merry Andrew, Me And The Colonel, The Five Pennies, On The Double and The Man From The Diner's Club.  There's some good work here, but it really doesn't compare to his earlier stuff.

He was plenty busy elsewhere.  There were always his personal appearances. And he did a lot of work for UNICEF.  In the early 60s he started doing TV specials.  After a few of those (and a diminishing film career), he was ready to jump in with both feet, and did four seasons of The Danny Kaye Show, from 1963 to 1967. It was a high-class effort, with top writers and guest stars  I've seen a few and they're pretty good--I'm sorry they've never been regularly repeated.  Maybe it's a money thing, but, in general, old variety shows are just not shown.

He did a few more movies in smaller roles, but maybe the most notable project in his later years was a return to Broadway in the 1970 Richard Rodger's musical about Noah, Two By Two. It wasn't much of a show, but Kaye, returning to the Great White Way after a few decades' absence, was big news.  Ticket sales were brisk. Early in the run he tore some ligaments and from then on did the show in a wheelchair.  He notoriously started adlibbing and fooling around onstage, much to the audience's delight, but to the consternation of the show's creators.  (Koenig's book is generally positive, but he doesn't deny that Kaye could be a handful--sometimes prickly or moody.) After ten months Kaye left the show, and so did the audience.  It made money, but it didn't make anyone proud.

In his final years Kaye would continue to appear on television, often on children's specials. He also did some dramatic work in the 1981 TV movie Skokie, and made his last appearance a year before his death playing a dentist on The Cosby Show.

Kaye's films still pop up on TV, and he's fondly remembered.  I don't know if anyone has ever really replaced him.

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