Tag Archives: Danny Kaye

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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White Christmas (1954)

download (1)This Christmas I did not watch as many Christmas movies as I usually do, though I had a huge list of films I intended to see (someday, I really am going to watch It Happened on 5th Avenue and the 1951 A Christmas Carol). Partly, this was because I went out of town for the holidays. But the day before I departed, I was able to watch one last Christmas film with my friend, Andrea Lundgren. We watched White Christmas.

In general, I tell people that I prefer Holiday Inn to White Christmas (partly because of Fred Astaire), but I do enjoy White Christmas and my cousin – who is just discovering classic movies – recently told me that he loved White Christmas, particularly the dialogue, and since I watched it with my friend who also loves this movie, I was in a highly receptive frame of mind.

I think what I appreciated most this time around is the interaction between Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. They play Bob Wallace (Crosby) and Phil Davis (Kaye), who meet in the army during WWII. When Davis saves Wallace’s life, he uses it as guilt leverage to wheedle his way into a musical partnership with the already popular and famous Wallace. Fortunately, it turns out well, because Wallace and Davis become an even bigger hit as a duo act, then go into musicals and become producers. In fact, their success is so far beyond what Davis had ever hoped for that he now wants Wallace to ease up a bit and stop working so hard and give Davis a little free time.

How Davis intends to accomplish this is to get Wallace married with tons of kids and he keeps pushing girls at him without success, until they hear the Haynes Sisters perform: Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy (Vera-Ellen). That finally does it, with Bob Wallace and Betty Haynes attracted to each other…which is fortunate, since Phil Davis and Judy like each other. As Andrea wondered, what would have happened if they both liked the same girl? Awkward.

Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye, Vera-Ellen

Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye, Vera-Ellen – singing about snow while on a train…which I love, because any time spent on trains automatically makes me like the movie better

Bob Wallace and Betty Haynes are pretty slow movers when it comes to relationships, but between the mutual machinations of Phil and Judy, they manage it so all four of them spend Christmas in Vermont at a lodge that turns out to be owned by their former general, General Waverly (Dean Jaggers). General Waverly’s having a tough time, though. There’s no snow in Vermont and his ski lodge is empty of custumers. He’s also feeling a bit cast off and useless, put out to pasture while the world moves on. But Bob, Phil, Betty and Judy set out to help by putting on a Christmas show (“let’s put on a show” is another venerable classic movie tradition).

White Christmas is kind of a conglomeration of bits and pieces of story ideas, songs, and performers, cobbled together to make one story, but that is part of its charm. Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney provide the vocals; Vera-Ellen and Danny Kaye dance. Crosby and Kaye bounce off each other in bromance fashion and Clooney and Vera-Ellen play close-knit sisters. We start out in war-torn Italy in 1944, move to the Florida of nightclubs and musicals and end up in cozy Vermont. There is the war, the ambition of entertainers, the desire for family and a home, and the pain of being passed over in retirement.

Even the music is cobbled together by composer Irving Berlin from his vast oeuvre. The title song, “White Christmas,” was originally introduced in Holiday Inn by Bing Crosby in 1942 (a song that resonated across the country and among the servicemen abroad) and most of the other songs were introduced in previous films and musicals. “Count Your Blessings,” however, was specifically written for this film.

white_christmas_01One of the things I particularly noticed this time was Bing Crosby’s delivery of dialogue. It’s not that he isn’t believable as a romantic lead, but it seems like he is at his absolute best in a buddy picture scenario. His best partners are guys: Bob Hope, Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, Danny Kaye. He brings an apparently spontaneous, easy-going, free-flowing and entirely natural sounding dialogue and dynamic to his interaction with these men that is unique to him. As my cousin told me, what he liked most about the film was the dialogue. He felt it was still relevant today; how people actually talk to each other.

While Andrea and I were watching, she wondered how old Rosemary Clooney was. Neither of us knew, but it turns out that she was the youngest of the four lead actors. She was only twenty-six and playing the older sister to Vera-Ellen, who was around 33. At the same time, Bing Crosby was around 51 and Danny Kaye 43. I recently watched Susan Slept Here, starring Dick Powell at 51 and Debbie Reynolds at 23 (they were supposed to be 35 and 17 respectively) and one of the first things anyone mentions about that film is the age gap, but I’ve never heard one comment about White Christmas. But as Andrea observed, Rosemary Clooney has a natural “gravity,” which makes her seem more mature. It also goes to show that in movies, age is often relative. It’s how it appears more than it how it actually is.

Side note: I did not realize that Michael Curtiz directed this film. What an incredibly versatile and seriously underestimated man. He’s probably directed more classic favorites than any other director: CasablancaThe Adventures of Robin HoodMildred Pierce, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Captain BloodAngels With Dirty Faces…he directed the kind of classic films even non-classic film lovers know.

No review of White Christmas is complete without a few musical clips. This scene always cracks me up; watch how Bing Crosby can hardly keep a straight face while Danny Kaye hams it up with zest. Rosemary Clooney recorded both parts in this song, singing for both herself and Vera-Ellen.

Trudy Stevens dubbed all the singing for Vera-Ellen, except the “Sisters,” number, which was done by Rosemary Clooney. “Snow” was originally written for “Call Me Madam” and was titled “Free.” It wasn’t used, however, and Berlin later scrapped the lyrics and added different ones for White Christmas.

I think this performance pretty accurately captures why the song struck such a chord during the war, particularly among servicemen away from home.


Posted by on December 23, 2015 in Movies


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