Kaye, Danny (1913-1987)

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Kaye, Danny (1913-1987)

Specializing in tongue-twisting patter songs, Danny Kaye was a consummate entertainer and comic. He is well remembered for a string of comedies for Samuel Goldwyn in the 1940s, as well as his persistent and honorable efforts for charities, especially UNICEF (United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund).

Born David Daniel Kaminsky in Brooklyn, New York, in 1913, he had a very mixed career in entertainment prior to his motion picture debut. He was a genuine vaudevillian; a dancer, a singer, and a comedian, though without much success at first in any of these careers. He first appeared in pictures in some two-reel comedies, such as Getting an Eyeful, Cupid Takes a Holiday and Dime a Dance, that were moderately amusing but failed financially—these shorts were later compiled into the inaccurately titled film The Danny Kaye Story.

He managed, however, to make his Broadway debut in 1940, and his fortunes turned as he met and married his talented lyricist Sylvia Fine, who provided him with most of his best material. His number, "Tchaikowsky," from the musical Lady in the Dark, in which he named 54 Russian composers in 39 seconds, proved to be a memorable show-stopper.

Samuel Goldwyn caught the comic at a nightclub and resolved to make a star out of him. He tried to get Kaye to get his nose fixed (Kaye refused) and did persuade him to lighten his hair to brighten his features. Goldwyn placed Kaye under contract and featured him in a mediocre wartime musical, Up in Arms (1944). "The Lobby Number," a song about waiting in line at the movies and then waiting through an endless parade of meaningless credits, was one of the only bright spots of the production that featured Kaye.

Much better was Wonder Man (1945), with Kaye in a dual role as twin brothers, one of whom is murdered for fingering a mob boss. The ghost of the murdered brother inhabits the body of his milquetoast twin, who is forced to impersonate the brash entertainer. The film's highlight comes when, in trying to evade some killers and alert the police, Kaye assumes the identity of an opera singer and improvises his part.

But Kaye soon came to feel that he was being treated as a specialty act rather than as an actor. Goldwyn placed him in lackluster remakes such as The Kid from Brooklyn (a 1946 remake of Harold Lloyd's The Milky Way) and A Song Is Born (1948), a misfired adaptation of James Thurber's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty with Kaye as the day-dreaming Mitty impersonating various occupations, and a well-intentioned but failed musical bio Hans Christian Anderson (1952). Kaye restricted himself to one film a year, devoting the rest of his time to performing on radio, on records ("Civilization" with the Andrews Sisters was a particular delight), and on the stage.

On the Riviera (1951) for Twentieth Century-Fox was yet another dual role film as well as a remake of both Folies-Bergére and That Night in Rio. For Warner Brothers, Kaye appeared in The Inspector General (1949), based on the Gogol story. He was determined to take over control and direction of his film career, forming with his wife Sylvia their own production company, Dena, named after their daughter. They hired the writing-directing-producing team of Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, who conjured up Kaye's two finest films and for the first time fashioned characters for him that audiences could really care about. The first was Knock on Wood (1954), with Kaye as a ventriloquist who finds himself caught up in international espionage and at the climax eludes his pursuers at a ballet.

Even better, however, was The Court Jester (1956), at $4 million the most expensive screen comedy up to that time. Kaye plays a member of the underground protecting the rightful king of England, an infant who bears the birthmark of the purple pimpernel on his bottom. Kaye is forced to impersonate Giacomo, the King of Jesters and Jester of Kings, who it turns out is the upsurper's (Basil Rathbone) secret assassin. Unforgettable are Sylvia Fine's version of "The Jester's Lament," the witch's warning ("The pellet with the poison's in the vessel with the pestle; the chalice from the palace is the brew that is true!"), and the send-up of swashbuckling scenes at the end.

In between, Kaye appeared in Paramount's White Christmas (1954) as Bing Crosby's buddy; together they seek to boost the popularity of Dean Jagger's winter resort. Despite the film's mediocrity, it proved his biggest hit. Kaye received a special Oscar in 1954 "for his unique talents, his service to the Academy, the motion picture industry, and the American people."

Kaye tried another musical biography in Mel Shavelson's The Five Pennies (1959), where he played bandleader Red Nichols, but once Danny Kaye routines were written into the storyline, the film made it seem as if Nichols was impersonating Danny Kaye. The film's one true highlight was Kaye's dynamic duet with Louis Armstrong. Kaye returned to form in On the Double (1961), where he was once more in a dual role as an American GI asked to impersonate a British military martinet. At the climax, Kaye also impersonates Adolf Hitler and a Dietrich-like chanteuse named Fräulein Lily. But a try at slapstick comedy in Frank Tashlin's The Man From the Diner's Club (1963) failed to serve Kaye's talents well.

Television beckoned and Kaye dropped his film career to embark on his own television variety program, The Danny Kaye Show, which ran from 1963-1967. He returned to film once more to play the philosophical Ragpicker in The Madwoman of Chaillot (1969), but while his "trial" scene performance in which he "defends" the knaves of the world was outstanding, the rest of this adaptation of Jean Giradoux's play was decidedly lackluster. Despite his lack of formal training, Kaye had an interest in trying his hand at conducting and was given various gigs as a comic guest conductor at various city orchestras. He returned to Broadway to play Moses for the Richard Rodgers' musical Two by Two in 1970.

The last of Kaye's great work was done for television. He appeared in two television specials in 1976, as Geppetto in Pinocchio and as Captain Hook in Peter Pan, as a concentration camp survivor who protests street demonstrations by Neo-Nazis in Skokie (1981), and as a mysterious old man who possesses a watch holding Earth's last hour in Harlan Ellison's "Paladin of the Lost Hour" for the revived Twilight Zone series (1985).

Kaye leaves behind a legacy of entertaining performances on Decca Records, several show-stopping comedy routines and songs in various films (where he usually played shy but lovable schnooks who won the girl at the end), an increased awareness of the aims of UNICEF, and a pair of powerful dramatic performances on television.

—Dennis Fischer

Further Reading:

Freeland, Michael. The Secret Life of Danny Kaye. New York, St.Martin's Press, 1985.

Gottfried, Martin. Nobody's Fool: The Lives of Danny Kaye. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1994.

Maltin, Leonard. The Great Movie Comedians. New York, Harmony Books, 1982.

Parish, James Robert, and William T. Leonard. The Funsters. New Rochelle, New York, Arlington House, 1979.

Siegel, Scott, and Barbara Siegel. American Film Comedy. New York, Prentice Hall, 1994.