Tag Archives: Biopic

The Five Pennies (1959)

the-five-pennies-movie-poster-1959-1020197132Who knew Danny Kaye could act? I shouldn’t have been surprised (as if doing comedy isn’t really acting), but I am so used to him in full-out zany mode that I was surprised. But he’s more than plausible in a dramatic role, so much so that periodic reversions to his previous comedic shtick is actually mildly irritating.

The Five Pennies is a biopic of cornet player and band leader Loring Red Nichols (Danny Kaye). He arrives in New York from Ogden, Utah, during the 1920s, full of confidence that one day all the best musicians (white musicians, anyway) will be working for him. He’s confident, a bit of a loose cannon, a bit moody and totally in love with his cornet. But chanteuse Willa Stutsman (Babara Bel Geddes) can’t resist him and they marry. But just as Red is beginning to finally make a name for himself as a bandleader (which includes future bandleaders Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Glenn Miller), Willia realizes she is pregnant.

Red toys with the idea of settling down so they can raise their daughter, but in his heart he wants to keep up with his band, so they opt instead to bring their baby, Dorothy, with them on tour, until Willa finally puts her foot down. At six years old, Dorothy has only lived in hotels, knows how to play poker and goes to bed at two in the morning. But Red doesn’t want to settle down quite so soon and sends Dorothy to a boarding school while he finishes his contract touring.

But when Dorothy contracts polio at school, Red is guilt-stricken. He is sure it is his fault, his neglect that caused it and when the doctors tell him that Dorothy will probably never walk again, he tosses his cornet away (literally, into the San Francisco Bay), takes a job at a shipyard and devotes his time to helping his daughter walk again.

I have to admit, I was impressed by Kaye’s performance, especially during the most dramatic scenes involving his daughter dealing with polio. He is naturalistic and never histrionic, playing a man who is far from perfect. It’s an interesting contrast to his very over-the-top comedic style. But unlike some people, when they depart from their usual persona, I did not feel he was a pale shadow of himself. I could have actually used less of the comedic-patter moments or bits of Danny Kaye style comedy (though I enjoy many of his out-right comedies, like The Court Jester).

tumblr_n58kf9xxrl1qg1naao1_500Barbara Bel Geddes as Red’s wife, Willa, is also very good, a fine, naturalistic actor also not prone to histrionics. I’ve only seen her in two films (this and Vertigo), but she’s an actress I would like to see more of. Whereas a Bette Davis would avail herself of the opportunity to demonstrate how much her character is suffering, Bel Geddes and Kaye keep the focus of their grief squarely on its cause, which is their daughter.

Bel Geddes also makes for one of the most adult and knowing romantic interests for Danny Kaye that I’ve seen. Usually, he’s a bit of a man-child, hopelessly in love with a bombshell (usually Virginia Mayo), but in The Five Pennie, he’s more of a real character and she meets him on his own level and they are a very plausible couple…a word I don’t usually find myself using in reference to films.

Perhaps it is partly how they spend years together working to help Dorothy walk again, spend time as a family, which doesn’t feel excessively mawkish –  and I enjoyed that aspect of the film very much. It’s not a perfect film, but it was surprisingly moving.

And of course there is a lot of music! Sylvia Fine (Danny Kaye’s wife) wrote several songs for Danny Kaye to sing. There is a fair amount of band music…and two exciting appearances by Louis Armstrong. Red Nichols was not a band leader I was previously aware of, but he really did found a band that at one point or another included Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, and Gene Krupa. He formed his band in the 1920s in the Dixieland style (hot jazz), which originated in New Orleans. His band, Red Nichols and the Five Pennies, was meant to reference the fact that there were five pennies in a nickel, though he often had more than five men in his band.

One thing that made Nichols unique was that he could actually read and arrange music and sight read, which not all jazz musicians could do – many of them were self-taught. His father was a college music professor and Nichols learned early. Though as a result of his formal training, he was a bit more formal in his playing, though he could still improvise quite well.

But his bands were fairly small and during the 1930s, when swing became popular, he fell out of favor (he was apparently over-valued during the ’20s and undervalued during the ’30s). Swing bands were much larger, more formalized and a bit less focused on improvisation (though Duke Ellington always balanced individual improvisation with ensemble playing) and it was not the style of music Nichols preferred to play. However, Dixieland was revived after WWII and Red Nichols formed his own band, which enjoyed great popularity. That is even him we hear in The Five Pennies whenever Danny Kaye “plays” the cornet, though Kaye worked hard to make it look good.

This was my contribution to the Darlin’ Dallasers Blogathon, hosted by Realweegiemidget Reviews, in honor of the many actors who appeared in the long successful TV series Dallas. Barbara Bel Geddes was Miss Ellie Ewing, the matriarch of the family, and appeared in 300 episodes. She had a remarkably diverse and successful career: movies (which include Hitchcock, noir, musicals, dramas), stage (she appeared in the original Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) and television. Which is an impressive resume. She brings a lot of dignity, warmth and a firm anchor to The Five Pennies that could otherwise have felt a bit un-moored.

Be sure to read all the rest of the posts on celebration of Dallas and it’s many actors!


And here’s a few bonus video. The very great Louis Armstrong makes three appearances in the film. In the last half of the video, he and Red perform “When the Saints Go Marching In” together. In the beginning, Barbara Bel Geddes keeps giving Kaye more alcohol (in a teacup, to fool any police who might raid?) after he boasted that he’s very used to drinking up in Ogden, Utah. He gets drunk, but makes a comeback to play with Armstrong.

Barbara Bel Geddes does not do her own singing in the film, though she does a fair amount of lip syncing, since her character sings for Red’s band.

Here is the real Red Nichols and his Five Pennies in 1929. Notice the size of the band, much smaller than the bands of the swing era, and which emphasized more improvisation as a group.


Posted by on September 23, 2016 in Movies


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Madame Curie (1943)

MV5BMjI4NzAwNDUwNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTA1MjkyMTE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_After the phenomenal success of Mrs. Miniver (Greer Garson earned an Academy Award for Best Actress), MGM re-teamed much of the cast for Madame Curie, a biopic of Marie Curie and her romance with husband/scientist Pierre Curie. The movie was inspired by the book Madame Curie: A Biography, written her daughter, Eve Curie. The role was originally intended for Irene Dunne in the late 1930s, then Greta Garbo. Finally, Greer Garson was given the role in 1943.

What I was surprised at was how much (reasonably) accurate science is incorporated into the movie. It is a blend of romance and scientific endeavor and apart from an excessively reverential tone, the film is surprisingly interesting and very sweet.

Marie Sklodowska (Greer Garson) is a Polish student studying in Paris in the 1890s. She’s an extraordinary dedicated and earnest student, brilliant in her work, and she is noticed by Professor Perot (Albert Basserman), who sets her up in a lab with Dr. Curie (Walter Pidgeon), a shy physicist who is at first concerned that having a woman in the lab will prove disruptive.

It is only disruptive in that Dr. Curie begins to fall in love with her and is dismayed that she intends to return to Poland and teach. He believes that she has so much to contribute to science that she ought to stay in Paris and continue her work. He also wants her to stay because he loves her, but it takes him a while to realize it.

He finally does propose, however, after having her down to his country home to meet his parents (Dame May Whitty and Henry Travers). Once married, she embarks on her doctoral work, investigating why pitchblende (ore filled with uranium and therefore radioactive) emits energy strong enough to act like light on a photographic plate. She soon discovers that once the uranium is removed from the ore – which she believes is the sole source of the radiation in the pitchblende – the ore is still radioactive. This brings her to the conclusion that there must be another, unknown and radioactive element and she and her husband set out to isolate and prove its existence.

90736-004-05FEA8C2The process of isolating the unknown element was unbelievably laborious and the film does a good job of demonstrating this. They dissolved the ore and selectively precipitated out the different elements, one element at a time, until only the radium remained. Now, you could just put your specimen of ore under a powerful x-ray machine and determine what elements are in it.

Eventually, they are able to prove the existence of radium, though the film skips their discovery of polonium (polonium is best known for being used to poison Alexander Litvineko, who had fled Russia and accused the Russian Federal Security Service of organizing a kind of coup so Putin could take power – ironic since Marie Curie named the element Polonium after her homeland, Poland, to underline the fact that Poland was not an independent country and was partly controlled by Russia).

It is a testament that the film never gets bogged down in excessive science and keeps things understandable, though it does occasionally get bogged down in too-reverential discourses on the importance of science. But what keeps the film relatable is the romance between Marie and Pierre.

Walter Pidgeon in particular brings a lot of warmth to the role and to the film. Greer Garson does well, but she is extremely earnest. She’s like George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooks and Dr. Lydgate combined. She has the saintliness and earnestness of Dorothea (she is even frequently lighted as though she were saint, with a warm glow of light on her face) and the scientific brilliance and dedication of Dr. Lydgate. But Pierre Curie, though equally brilliant, seems a bit more vulnerable, shy, devotedly in love with his wife and dedicated to working side-by-side with her. There is something so sweet in how he discovers that he no longer can imagine working or living without her. They manage the unique feat of being fully committed to their work and fully committed to each other (though as far as I can tell in the film, Pierre’s father is raising their children).

602508_origAnd although it is clear that Marie also loves Pierre, it is like she doesn’t fully appreciate it until after their discovery of radium. After the intense few years of work, now her pressing work has lifted she fully sees how much she loves him…only for tragedy to strike.

I had always heard that Marie Curie died as a result of her work, which gave me the impression that she died particularly young. In my ignorance, I was expecting the last bit of the film to be about her wasting away a martyr to her science, but actually she lived until she was 66, though the cause of her death is believed to be related to her lifelong exposure to radiation. But it was actually Pierre who died tragically young in a traffic accident (run over by a horse and cart) when he was only 47 and she 39.

The film is much more upbeat about science than films would be after the end of WWII. It is about overcoming obstacles, dreaming great things (“to catch a star on your fingertips”), wonderment, collaboration. In Madame Curie, she speaks about cures for cancer, that “science has great beauty and, with its great spiritual strength, will in time cleanse this world of its evils, its ignorance, its poverty, diseases, wars, and heartaches.” After the end of WWII, it was “what man has wrought” and fear of the atomic bomb and an ambivalent attitude about the double-edged sword of science.

Madame Curie doesn’t seem to be watched as often as some of Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon’s other films, but the chemistry is there and for a 1940s biopic, it’s quite detailed. They even reproduced scenes from pictures of the real Pierre and Marie Curie (their wedding day with their bikes, the clothes Marie Curie wore in the lab) and over all it has a more authentic feel than I am used to from MGM films.


Posted by on July 22, 2016 in Movies


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Love Me or Leave Me (1955)

1-love-me-or-leave-me-poster-art-doris-everettWhat do you get when you combine the sunny Doris Day with gangster James Cagney? Love Me or Leave Me, a sensational grangster/drama/musical and one of my favorite films of all time.

Love Me or Leave Me is a loose biopic of singer Ruth Etting, who was famous in the 1920s, but whose career in Hollywood was ended when her gangster husband, Moe Snyder, shot her lover in the mid-1930s (the lover survived and they were later wed). The film explores not only her career, but her relationship with her husband.

Ruth Etting (Doris Day) is a would-be singer working at a dance hall, until she gets fired for kicking an over-familiar customer. This catches the eye of Marty “The Gimp” Snyder, a Chicago gangster (James Cagney) with a limp. He tries a pick-up line, but she rebuffs him, until he offers to help get her another job. This starts a whole cat-and mouse process, with Marty trying to get her obligated to him and Ruth trying to hold out, but still take advantage of his help at the same time. She’s ambitious, but Marty initially thinks if he can just humor her, eventually she’ll be satisfied and go away with him.

But pianist Johnny Alderman (Cameron Mitchell) is also interested in Ruth, but wants to help her career honestly, without using any of the questionable methods of Marty. But Ruth is ambitious. Because she’s played by Doris Day, it is easy to overlook just how ambitious she is, but she is leaving nothing to chance and wants to use Marty to help her career and she’s not ignorant of his strong-arm methods for doing so. But as Johnny warns Ruth, she’s playing with fire and she can’t just use Marty and then leave him. She doesn’t listen and winds up in an abusive marriage with Marty.

Doris Day and James Cagney are magnificent in this film. They are two dynamic, incredible actors and the screen lights up whenever they share it. Doris Day is never overwhelmed by him, but actually is his match in both presence and personality as the two of them battle back and forth. Both actors admired each other; Cagney thought Day was an instinctive actor like himself and even lobbied to have her cast in the film and be given top billing (remarkable generosity). Nothing, I believe, demonstrates her abilities better than this film and how she manages to hold her own with James Cagney. I’m not sure I can think of an actress who does it better.


Cagney and Day

Doris Day is still seemingly herself, but with an edge. By the second half of the film, after she has achieved stardom, she is bitter and deeply unhappy, but still with that Doris Day resilience and willingness to bounce back, though perhaps not quite with the same enthusiasm that Ruth had when her career was first beginning.

Love Me or Leave Me also has one of my favorite James Cagney performances (along with White Heat and Yankee Doodle Dandy). He’s baffled and angry, full of lust and lovelorn at the same time, but he never lets you forget that he’s capable of dangerous violence.

And initially he doesn’t have a clue what he has in her, singing-wise. When he packs the club with people to hear her sing, he’s looking around nervously while the audience sits rapt during her song. There is another wonderful moment when Ruth makes her Ziegfeld debut. You can see it on his face: wonderment, anxiety, as he realizes how far she’s come and that she technically no longer needs his help, but also like he’s finally comprehending the full extent of her talent.

The more I see the film, the more sorry I feel for him (up to a point) in the first half, until he wipes away all sympathy by his actions. By the second half, Ruth becomes primarily a victim, but initially she is just as complicit as Marty and even strings him along, trying to have all the benefits of being a mistress without having to pay the price. I’m no longer sure  how much she is genuinely standing up for herself and how much is manipulation. When she is angry that he expects sex in return for getting her a job, does she really intend to walk out or is she hoping that he’ll give in? Maybe both.

I used to wonder how on earth she could have married Marty after he (it’s implied) finally gets fed up and rapes her. I finally concluded that the problem is that she both has too many scruples and not enough. She doesn’t have enough to prevent her from trying to use Marty, but too much in that she feels so guilty about it that she stays in an abusive situation because she feels like she owes him. And because she knows how crazy he is about her.

love_me_or_leave_meThat is what makes the film so powerful, in my opinion, the nuance the actors bring. Marty is primarily an abusive hood (and largely unsympathetic), but he has human emotions and is nuts about Ruth, so much so that he hardly understands it. Ruth, on the other hand, is not merely a victim, but consciously working her way to the top and is willing to roll over (or have Marty roll over) quite a few people to get where she wants (including discarding the man she loves and who loves her).

The music is also sensational (one of my favorite soundtracks). Most of the songs were popularized and associated with Ruth Etting, such as “Love Me or Leave Me” (Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn) and “Ten Cents a Dance” (Rodgers and Hart). A few songs, like “I’ll Never Stop Loving You” were written for the movie.

Doris Day doesn’t sound a thing like Ruth Etting and she’s still more fifties than twenties – in fact the entire more looks more like a twenties flavored fifties film, but that’s not a complaint. I’m not sure the twenties look would have flattered Day nearly as well as the fifties, anyway. Ruth Etting actually wanted Jane Powell to portray her in the film, but Cagney lobbied for Day, for which I am extremely grateful. Doris Day’s incandescent talent (nothing against Powell) makes her success and Marty’s surprise at her success all the more potent, because she really is stunning. How could she not become a star?

Here is Doris Day’s rendition of “Love Me or Leave Me.”

And Ruth Ettings rendition, recorded in 1929. Ruth Etting always claimed that her voice was deeper than it sounded on recordings.

“Ten Cents a Dance,” sung by Doris Day.

And Ruth Etting’s version of “Ten Cents a Dance.”


Posted by on May 12, 2016 in Movies


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