Tag Archives: Musical

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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Maytime (1937)

maytimeMaytime made me think of Beau Brummel (1924) and Love Me or Leave Me combined into an operetta. The movie was based – loosely – on an operetta by Sigmund Romberg and Rida Johnson Young from 1917 and is constructed like an extended flashback.

When a rather flighty young lady contemplates trying to become an opera singer, she quarrels with her boyfriend, who wants to marry and settle down. Her neighbor, the elderly and mysterious Miss Morrison (Jeanette MacDonald) counsels thinking twice about leaving the man she loves and tells the young lady her own story, of how she was once the great Marcia Mornay, opera singer during the time of Louis Napoleon in Paris.

Marcia was a young singer from Virginia who was found by the great voice teacher/manager Nicolai Nazaroff (John Barrymore) and through his coaching and guidance, propelled into stardom. When the flashback begins, she is just beginning to make a name for herself in Paris.

In the meantime, Nazaroff proposes marriage. His usual mode of operating is to ask sexual favors from the women he mentors, but in the case of Marcia, he has fallen too deeply in love. Mostly, it seems, out of gratitude and a little bit of awe that he would propose, Marcia accepts him. But soon after, she also meets a carefree young American, Paul Allison (Nelson Eddy) who is also training to be an opera singer, except that he does not apply himself or wish strongly to succeed. They fall in love, but Marcia is unwilling to hurt Nicolai, who she feels has given so much to her and her career, and she and Paul part ways and she marries Nicolai. An inevitable, tragic love triangle ensues.

Maytime 4In certain ways, this film did remind me of Love Me or Leave Me. Barrymore’s Nazaroff is not physically abusive or bombastic like James Cagney’s character, but the dynamics are the same and John Barrymore is excellent at suggesting the passion hidden beneath the elegant exterior. He’s like a languid vampire, always behind her like a brooding shadow, sucking the lifeblood out of her. No wonder she seems so tired after seven years of marriage to him. It’s not the lifestyle of an opera singer, as she assumes; it’s him. He seems to control her entire life and career.

You know from the beginning that he’s going to be the possessive, jealous type, though he seems to be trying not to be. He knows he has no right to be jealous, because he asked her to marry him knowing she did not love him. But though he tries, one can just tell that something is wrong and that at some point he’s going to explode and Hyde is going to emerge from Jekyll.

And Jeanette MacDonald also does an excellent job of showing that, subconsciously, Marcia is afraid of Nicolai. She never articulates it, but you can tell in the tentative and careful way she treats him. One can’t help but wonder if there was fear, as well as gratitude, that prompted her to marry him and not tell him about Paul.

Nelson Eddy as Paul gets the least interesting role of the film. Love Me or Leave Me had the right idea in making the story about Ruth Etting’s relationship with her husband rather than her lover. And might have been nice to have more between MacDonald and Barrymore in Maytime. Nelson Eddy’s role is necessary, but he doesn’t have any character dynamics to offer. He does, however, share an excellent chemistry with Jeanette MacDonald when they sing. I am constantly surprised at how sexy and emotionally intense opera can be on film. The climactic scene where they sing together while Nicolai watches from the wings and begins to boil over is believable largely because of the chemistry they generate. Nicolai is not just seeing things.

Maytime 3I also found it ironic that the only intimate moment Paul and Marcia can share during the production of the opera at the end of the film is on stage – very publicly in front of a whole audience – where they can whisper a few words to each other.

The songs are lovely, though I don’t know if I found them quite as memorable as Rose-Marie, New Moon, or Naughty Marietta. Many songs from many operas are featured, but the opera at the end is a fictional opera, called Czaritza, and was written using music from Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony. There’s really only one song from Romberg’s operetta left, the love song “Will You Remember.”

It’s a tearjerker, but in a good way, with an ending like Beau Brummel or The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. I call those kinds of movies cosmic romances, a romance that transcends time or space. It’s one of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy best films, aided tremendously by John Barrymore.

His history as an actor plays well into the role of Nazaroff. Perhaps we read more into it knowing he’s played Jekyll and Hyde or Svengali (which he did in 1931). Though he’s not exactly a Svengali in Maytime. This is, after all, Jeanette MacDonald, who already has tremendous talent and drive, but it’s a related idea.

As an aside, I think Barrymore would have made an excellent vampire or Count Dracula.

This post was written as part of the Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon, hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Be sure to read the rest of the contributions to this blogathon in honor of John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, and Ethel Barrymore!



Posted by on August 17, 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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